On the impeccably clean streets of Rwanda’s capital, where a skyline of gleaming new buildings pokes through undulating hills, few have heard of opposition presidential aspirants Frank Habineza and Philippe Mpayimana.
Kigali, Rwanda | FRAN BLANDY | They were only confirmed as candidates and allowed to begin fundraising a week before the July 14 campaign start for August 4 elections in the east African nation.
With little money, and only three weeks to drum up support, the two men face a seemingly insurmountable task in challenging the all-powerful President Paul Kagame, who himself says the result is a foregone conclusion.
“The election is over,” Kagame told thousands of supporters at a rally as the campaign kicked off, explaining the decision had been made when around 98 percent of voters chose to let him seek a third term in office in a 2015 referendum.
Posters and decorations in the colours of the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) went up overnight in time for the start of the campaign, while many Rwandans said they did not even know who the other candidates were.
“We as the population have lived a long time with our president (Kagame). We only know what he has done, we don’t care about the other candidates,” says One Love Nkundimana, 28, who works as a street porter.
Kagame and his RPF have held an iron grip on power since overthrowing the extremist Hutu regime, which perpetrated the 1994 genocide of 800,000 mainly Tutsis.
While credited with bringing order, infrastructure and stability to the shattered nation, rights groups say Kagame’s regime rules through fear with systematic repression of the opposition, free speech and the media.
“We know many people are tired of the same government for 23 years but they don’t say it because there has been a climate of fear,” Habineza, 40, told AFP.
A dangerous journey
In his starkly decorated office in the capital, Habineza is still absorbing the fact that he is finally on the ballot paper eight years since he began the struggle to register his Democratic Green Party.
“It has been a very difficult journey and also a very dangerous journey,” he said.
He describes political meetings violently broken up, supporters imprisoned or forced to flee into exile, and his own departure to Sweden after his deputy was found almost decapitated shortly before the last election in 2010.
Habineza finally managed to register his party in 2013 after returning to the country, and was a lone voice against the constitutional reform allowing Kagame a third term.
His dissent is not without consequence: in the run-up to this election he was evicted from his former office, and both he and his deputy were thrown out of their homes without warning.
Opposition a facade
In a Kigali garden, the other opposition candidate, Mpayimana, appears somewhat dazed to be in the race at all as he sits at a table strategising and sipping beer with a small team of advisors.
He was the only one of four independent hopefuls to be allowed to run.
“I have only one week to raise awareness among people to support me financially,” said the 47-year-old former journalist who spent 18 years in exile before returning to Rwanda in February to run as an independent.
He is careful not to criticise Kagame but says he would like to “change the mentality of my country to go with the notion of democracy”.
Kagame won elections in 2003 and 2010 with more than 90 percent of the vote.
“There is no election in Rwanda, there is a coronation declaring Kagame the king,” said outspoken local journalist Robert Mugabe.
Like many observers he sees the opposition candidates as a front to appease Western donors and give the impression that democracy is alive and well in Rwanda.
“The real opposition, the people with the real voices cannot be around,” he said, referring to those who have been jailed or forced into exile.
Awe of Kagame
Political analyst Christopher Kayumba said Kagame remains popular with Rwandans, who see him as a guarantor of stability after his military victory brought an end to the genocide.
The RPF also holds overwhelming economic power with its investment arm Crystal Ventures, the biggest private employer in the country, omnipresent in daily life.
“Security remains critically important because today we still have people who lived their entire life in war. We only recently had a sustained period of peace,” said Kayumba.
“There is no way you can compare the stature of President Kagame, the resources of the RPF, with the Green Party. The opposition will be beaten hands down. There is no question about that.”