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Kagame's hold on Rwandans

Andrew Harding | 21:34 UK time, Saturday, 7 August 2010

The crowds head towards the hilltop - thousands of Rwandans streaming in from the surrounding fields and villages. They are ushered, efficiently, into smaller groups; searched, given flags, and then guided towards orderly clusters of roped-off areas. It is all done neatly, and without fuss.

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Then come the speeches. First a local man, then a woman, stand on the podium and tell the crowd how they have become rich - quickly. The woman started with one goat. Now she has two hundred cows and seven staff. The crowd roars.

I have been to my fair share of election rallies in Africa. They do not normally start like this. They are certainly never on time. The subtext is always power, not prosperity. In Kenya, the guest speakers are usually defectors from rival parties who grovel and confess.

The cheering from the back of the crowd signals the arrival of President Paul Kagame.

Tall, thin, slow to smile - he walks down the aisle like a university professor dutifully acknowledging his students' approval, but concerned that some of their essays are not up to scratch.

On the podium, Mr Kagame claps awkwardly and briefly to the music, then he launches into a peevish lecture about unnamed forces that are trying to destabilise Rwanda. His style may be donnish, but his language is that of a soldier.

"Those who give our country a bad image... can take a rope and hang themselves," he says, peering at the television cameras.

It seems an odd line of attack.

Paul Kagame has good reason to feel as pleased as that lady with her cows.

In 1994, his rebel army ended Rwanda's genocide. Since then his government has worked to transform a shattered nation into one of Africa's least corrupt, fastest-growing, most competent countries. It is an extraordinary achievement, and most Rwandans are quick to credit their president.

But there are complications.

Rwanda may be the poster child of international development. The UK certainly thinks so - pumping huge sums into the country's impressive struggle against poverty.

But the politics here are less straightforward - still warped by the legacies of the genocide.

Frank Habineza sits at his desk in the capital, Kigali, staring at a photo on a laptop. It shows his friend and former politically ally, Andre Rwisereka, lying on his front, with his severed head facing the wrong way.

Both men used to be members of President Kagame's ruling party. But they broke away and formed Rwanda's Democratic Green Party.

They tried to register for next week's presidential election but got nowhere. Then last month, Mr Rwisereka's body was found.

"Of course I'm scared," says Mr Habineza with a shrug.

There is no evidence to link the government with the murder or to two other recent attacks - against an exiled general and a journalist investigating his case.

But there is a pattern of intolerance here - of newspapers closed down, critics arrested, and democracy curtailed.

The three candidates running against President Kagame are all his political allies. It is a coronation more than an election.

To some extent, that is understandable.

The forces that led the genocide are still intact and in exile - waiting for the chance to exploit any instability.

Mr Kagame has good reason to tread carefully and to police the political landscape closely.

And while he is doing that, his plan is to unite Rwandans - partly by rescuing them from poverty and partly by trying to rid them of the old ethnic mindset - of a downtrodden Hutu majority and their Tutsi masters, turned victims.

In speech after speech, the president urges people not to use those labels - to think of themselves purely as Rwandans.

It is a bold plan. It may well be working. But it is hard to be sure in a country where reticence and repression are woven into everyday life.

The fact remains here that 85% of the population is Hutu. The government is dominated by Tutsis. It is an uncomfortable reality that speeches alone will not change.

Still, this is an extraordinary place. I lived for a while in Singapore - and the government here has that same sense of drive and vision - and yes, the same mania for control.

I am staying now at a Chinese-built hotel overlooking the centre of Kigali. There is an African fashion-show here at the weekend and the lobby is full of long-limbed models.

Deborah is 18, and studying economics. Sure, a few years back we were divided at school, she says. Tutsis sticking together. But now it is just not an issue. It is all about making money, working hard. Rwandans love to follow orders.

She pauses, and her friend Craig sits forward. Of course we do not forget what happened, he says. We all lost people in the genocide. But we are doing fine. My worry is what happens when Kagame goes. He is what is holding this country together. Without him, I would give this place two years, then there will be another war.

This entry first featured as a report on Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent.

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