Supporters celebrate Kagame candidacy as critics cry fowl

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Campaigning in Gicumbi: To supporters, incumbent President Kagame is the only man that can do the job, but to bitter critics, he is running the country with a big stick that lashes out at anybody who dares challenge him (Photo: Margaret Cappa)

Kigali: Rwanda — For weeks, Rwandan President Paul Kagame has rallied his supporters with thumping pop music and promised to build on his economic and social development record that has won him accolades abroad.

As polls prepare to open Monday at 6 a.m. (0400GMT) in Rwanda's second presidential election since the 1994 genocide, few doubt Kagame will win.

The lean, professorial leader is expected to easily win the loyalties of the country's 5.2 million voters. But the run-up to the campaign has been marred by a series of recent attacks on outspoken critics of Kagame's government, and some of the more vocal opposition politicians say they've been barred from participating.

During the three-week campaign period, Kagame's image has been everywhere. At rallies he shed his business suit and tie for a shirt and jacket emblazoned with his Rwanda Patriotic Front insignia topped with a baseball cap bearing the party's red, white and blue flag. He has also tried to shed his image as a stiff leader, joining in dances and clapping along as crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands sang and danced at his daily rallies across the tiny, landlocked country.

Those rallies were part of a carefully choreographed campaign, which included a local pop group playing what has become the president's re-election theme song, "Tora Kagame," or Vote Kagame in Kinyarwanda, and live updates on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.

His supporters say the huge crowds represent genuine popular support for the leader who transformed this central African nation after the brutal 100-day genocide that left at least 500,000 people dead.

Taye Manzi said he trusts Kagame because he has united the nation of 10 million people.

"He supports the youth, he supports gender, he is the one who can bring us together," said Manzi, who took time off from his job in the capital, Kigali, to travel to his home region to attend one of Kagame's rallies.

Kagame, who was elected president by parliament in 2000 and who voters then elected to the post in 2003, will earn another seven-year term if elected. His three challengers are former partners in a coalition government formed soon after the genocide who have posed no real threat. Their electoral platforms are also similar to Kagame's.

Standing near a rally for a Liberal Party candidate, Kagame supporter Ernest Sugira, 19, said that when the president held a rally earlier in the week, the scene had been different.

"When Kagame was here there were so many people," Sugira said. "Today these people are wearing the colors of the other parties, but they'll all end up voting for Kagame in the end."

More vocal opposition leaders who may have run a more challenging campaign, however, say they've been barred from contesting or worse. And the government-appointed media council has clamped down on independent newspapers publishing dissenting views.

On July 14, Frank Habineza, the president of the unregistered opposition Democratic Green Party, received a phone call he had been dreading. A day after he had been reported missing, Andre Kagwa Rwisereka, the party's vice president, had been found dead.

When Habineza saw Rwisereka's corpse, he was shocked. Rwisereka appeared to have been brutally tortured, with his head nearly removed from his body. Habineza said he does not believe police claims that Rwisereka was killed over a business dispute. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has demanded a full investigation into the slaying.

"Before we were talking about democracy, but now we are talking about our lives," Habineza said. "It is a very scary moment."

Rwisereka's gruesome death was just the latest in a series of recent attacks on outspoken critics of Kagame's government. On June 19, former army chief Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa was shot and wounded outside his home in South Africa, several months after he fled Rwanda after being linked to a string of deadly grenade attacks in Kigali.

Five days after the shooting in South Africa, Jean-Leonard Rugambage, a journalist at a critical newspaper in the capital, was shot dead outside his home in Kigali hours after publishing an online article linking Rwandan intelligence to the attack.

The Rwandan government has denied any involvement in the killings, pointing to the arrest of two men who said they had gunned Rugambage down over a personal vendetta.

"We certainly might not be a model government for a lot of people, but we're not a stupid government, and we will not try to kill three people in a row right before election, an election in which we believe strongly that President Paul Kagame would win," said Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo.

Many have hailed Rwanda's positive transformation since the genocide, but analysts have warned that economic progress does not guarantee future stability.

"The material progress is visible — one cannot deny that," said Muzong Kodi, of the London-based Chatham House think tank. "But it has been acquired at a cost of civil liberties and the long-term stability in the country."

Kodi said that while a strongman may have been needed in the wake of the genocide, cementing the achievements made so far will require more openness in the future.

"Without opening up the political space in Rwanda all the material gains that have been made could be put in jeopardy," Kodi said.