Kigali (AFP) – Rwandans voted Friday in a presidential election widely expected to hand strongman Paul Kagame a third term at the helm of the east African nation which he has ruled with an iron fist for 23 years.
Polls closed at 3pm local time (1300 GMT) after eight hours of voting, however those queuing would still be allowed to cast their ballots.
The electoral commission’s Charles Munyaneza said the process had been peaceful with “no major problems. The turnout is good so far” among the 6.9 million registered voters, he said.
Across the country dubbed “the Land of a Thousand Hills,” voters queued outside polling stations decorated in the blue, yellow and green colours of the national flag to cast their ballots in the third election since the end of the 1994 genocide.
Kagame, 59, is running against two little-known candidates seen as unlikely to pose any threat to his Rwandan Patriotic Front’s (RPF) control.
Kagame cast his ballot at a school in the capital under tight security just after midday, accompanied by his wife and four children as loudspeakers blared music urging citizens to come and vote.
Voters at the polling station praised Kagame for his leadership since his rebel army routed extremist Hutu forces who slaughtered an estimated 800,000 people — mainly minority Tutsis — and seized Kigali.
“He freed the country, he stabilised the country. Now we can walk anywhere day or night without problems,” said Jean Baptiste Rutayisire, a 54-year-old entrepreneur.
“He is an exceptional man. You don’t change a winning team.”
Rwandan socio-economic indicators since 1990
Like many other voters AFP spoke to, he 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.
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 by phone. Previously only independents and parties allied with Kagame fielded candidates.
Habineza complained that 100 of his 500 observers had not been allowed to enter polling stations for the first two hours of voting.
Munyaneza said there had been an issue with their accreditation “but we allowed them in anyway.”
Visionary or despot?
Kagame was just 36 when he became Rwanda’s de-facto leader after the genocide. He was appointed president by lawmakers in 2000.
The lanky former guerrilla fighter was first elected to the post in 2003 and again in 2010 with more than 90 percent of votes.
Rwanda is safe, clean and does not tolerate corruption. It also has the highest number of female lawmakers in the world
His close friend former British prime minister Tony Blair hails him as a “visionary leader” while others see him as a shining example of post-colonial leadership in Africa.
Kagame is credited with a remarkable turnaround in the shattered nation, which boasts an 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, critics increasingly bemoan what they see as despotic tendencies. Rights groups accuse Kagame of ruling through fear, relying on a systematic repression of the opposition, free speech and the media.
Kagame’s critics have ended up jailed, forced into exile or assassinated. Few Rwandans would dare to openly speak against him.
“There is no election in Rwanda, there is a coronation declaring Kagame the king,” outspoken local journalist Robert Mugabe told AFP.
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.