As President Paul Kagame of Rwanda entered a sports ground on the banks of Lake Kivu waving to supporters from the back of an open-topped vehicle, the packed crowd erupted.
“It’s you we want, it’s you we want,” people yelled.
The gathering of tens of thousands was one of Mr Kagame’s final campaign rallies before elections tomorrow at which the president is seeking another seven-year term. The energy Mr Kagame is devoting to the campaign, sometimes attending several rallies a day, suggests he fears defeat. But that will not happen.
The former rebel, who led the forces that ended the 1994 genocide, has governed Rwanda with a tight grip for more than two decades: as president since 2000, and vice-president – de facto leader – for six years before that. In 2010 elections he won 93 percent of the vote. In a referendum two years ago that amended the constitution, allowing him to stay in office until 2034, he secured 98 percent support.
But as he seeks to extend his autocratic hold on power, this poll has cast a spotlight on the harsh methods he employs to retain office and whether his state-driven development model is sustainable.
“He’s a control freak. There’s a dark side to the way he rules and maintains control and history shows that cannot last for ever,” said a western diplomat in Kigali. Mr Kagame, a darling of western donors, is credited with transforming the small, landlocked country since the genocide, in which 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered.
Poverty levels have plummeted, school enrolment has soared and annual per capita income has risen from $150 to about $700. But that has been delivered alongside an intolerance of criticism and dissent. Mr Kagame justifies his approach by citing the need to drive development, maintain stability and foster unity to ensure that the genocide, the memories of which are still raw, is never repeated.
Political opponents are regularly imprisoned. Some have been killed, including those who fled into exile. Mr Kagame’s government has always denied claims of links to political murders. Yet the few who dare to challenge the president usually suffer, from losing their jobs to having assets seized. Frank Habineza, chairman of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda and one of only two candidates cleared to run against Mr Kagame, speaks of the risks of opposing the president.
“We call it walking on eggs,” he said, before one of his campaign rallies, attended by about 400.
“There are a lot of eggs and we need to make sure they don’t break.”
Shortly before the last election, which Mr Habineza also contested, his party deputy was beheaded in unexplained circumstances, prompting the chairman to flee to Sweden for two years. He has set his sights low at this election.
“We will characterise it as free and fair if no one of our party is killed or imprisoned and if we see that no one is being forced to vote,” he said.
Mr Habineza and diplomats say this campaign is slightly more open than in 2010. The tightly controlled media are giving more coverage to Mr Habineza and the other candidate, Philippe Mpayimana, an independent.
Wellars Gasamagera, the campaign spokesman for the Rwandan Patriotic Front, Mr Kagame’s party, insisted the election would be free and fair. He rejected accusations that people are forced to attend Kagame rallies or that the media was muzzled.
“Believe me, they [the media] are no less critical than anywhere else. Anyone who wants to express their ideas has many mechanisms that allow freedom of expression,” he said.
“We have very important critics in this country. And they have never been murdered.”
In his speech at Kagano near Lake Kivu, Mr Kagame stressed Rwanda should not be compared to elsewhere.
“History shows us where we are coming from and heading to,” he said.
“Others should mind their own business.”
Diplomats, however, point to the case of Diane Rwigara to illustrate the problems blighting Rwanda’s development. Despite having no political experience, Ms Rwigara announced in May that she wanted to challenge Mr Kagame. Within days photos seemingly of the 35-year-old in the nude appeared online. She says they were doctored.
When Ms Rwigara submitted the 600 signatures required to run as an independent candidate, she was told there were problems with some of the names, but not which names. She then submitted 1,100 names. But the electoral commission said only 572 were valid, again refusing to give full details.
“Living in fear, terror and poverty has become a way of life. People have accepted it as the status quo,” she said. “We want to make people aware of the fact they should not live in bondage in their own country.”
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