Kigali (AFP) – Rwandan President Paul Kagame looked set for a landslide victory Friday as election results trickling in showed the incumbent with an average 98 percent of the vote in districts counted.
The 59-year-old is expected to easily win a third seven-year term at the helm of the east African nation which he has ruled with an iron fist since the end of the 1994 genocide.
The electoral commission released 40 percent of results late Friday, in which Kagame led his two little-known opponents with a whopping 99.38 percent.
Provisional turnout is 97 percent of the 6.9 million registered voters.
Around the country Rwandans gathered to hear the results, with some already celebrating a win for Kagame. At a gymnasium in the capital loud music blared and dancers took to the floor to entertain several hundred people.
“We are celebrating the presidential election,” said one young man as he danced. “We are celebrating Paul Kagame!” another yelled out next to him.
Kagame has been the de-facto leader of Rwanda since, as a 36-year-old, his rebel army routed extremist Hutu forces who slaughtered an estimated 800,000 people — mainly minority Tutsis — and seized Kigali in 1994.
He was appointed president by lawmakers in 2000 before being elected in 2003 and again in 2010 with more than 90 percent of votes.
The lanky former guerilla fighter is one of Africa’s most divisive leaders, with some hailing him as a visionary while critics see a despot aiming to become one of the continent’s presidents-for-life.
Rwandan socio-economic indicators since 1990
Kagame is credited with a remarkable turnaround in the shattered nation, which boasts annual economic growth of about seven percent, is safe, clean and does not tolerate corruption. Rwanda also has the highest number of female lawmakers in the world.
However rights groups accuse Kagame of ruling through fear, relying on systematic repression of the opposition, free speech and the media.
Kagame’s critics have ended up jailed, forced into exile or assassinated. While few Rwandans would dare to openly speak against him.
‘A winning team’
Those who praise him, do so with adulation.
“He freed the country, he stabilised the country. Now we can walk anywhere day or night without problems,” Jean Baptiste Rutayisire, a 54-year-old entrepreneur, said at a polling station in Kigali.
“He is an exceptional man. You don’t change a winning team.”
Like many other voters AFP spoke to, Rutayisire didn’t know the names of the other candidates, Frank Habineza of the Democratic Green Party — the only permitted critical opposition party — and independent candidate Philippe Mpayimana.
In early results Mpayimana scored a dismal 0.22 percent and Habineza 0.34 percent.
Rwanda is safe, clean and does not tolerate corruption. It also has the highest number of female lawmakers in the world
Despite facing an unwinnable battle against Kagame in which opponents had only three weeks to campaign, Habineza was upbeat after voting.
“For the first time since 23 years an opposition party has been in the ballot,” he told AFP. Previously only independents and parties allied with Kagame fielded candidates.
President until 2034?
Even Kagame has said the result is a foregone conclusion.
“The election is over,” he declared on the first day of the campaign.
His confidence comes after 98 percent of Rwandans approved a constitutional amendment in a 2015 referendum that granted him the right to run for a third term in office.
Observers condemned the reform, which could potentially see Kagame retain office twice more if re-elected this time and allow him to stay president until 2034.
Kagame defends his third term run as a duty to his people, who asked him to do so in the referendum.