Paul Kagame was elected for a third term as president of Rwanda, scoring 98 percent of the vote amid what critics and rights groups say are widespread human rights abuses, a muzzling of independent media and suppression of political opposition.
With 80 percent of votes counted from Friday’s election, the 59-year-old former guerrilla leader had secured 98.66 percent, the National Electoral Commission’s Executive secretary Charles Munyaneza told a news conference.
There had been little doubt that the 59-year-old would return to the helm of the east African nation which he has ruled with an iron fist since the end of the 1994 genocide, when an estimated 800,000 people Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.
Kagame has won international plaudits for presiding over a peaceful and rapid economic recovery in the Central African nation since the genocide.
“We expect that even if we get 100 percent of votes, there will not be any change,” he said.
The board expects turnout to have topped 90 percent in the East African country of 12 million people, in an election that fielded only a single opposition candidate, Frank Habineza, and an independent.
Kagame said he would work to sustain economic growth in the tiny nation.
“This is another seven years to take care of issues that affect Rwandans and ensure that we become real Rwandans who are (economically) developing,” he said in a speech broadcast live on television.
“I am very pleased. I had hoped for this victory,” said Yvette Uwineza, a 36-year-old computer scientist. “The continuity is reassuring,” she said, crediting Kagame with developing the country and creating “a better life for Rwandans.”
Under his rule, some dissidents were killed after fleeing abroad, in cases that remain unsolved. The government denies any involvement.
Kagame, a commander who led Tutsi rebel forces into Rwanda to end the 1994 genocide, banned the use of tribal terms after becoming president.
He won the last election in 2010 with 93 percent of the vote and had said during this campaign for a further seven-year term that he again expected an outright victory.
Habineza, who has so far won 0.45 percent of the early count, had promised to set up a tribunal to retry dissidents whose convictions by Rwandan courts have been criticized as politically motivated.
Another would-be opponent, Diane Rwigara, was disqualified by the election board despite her insistence that she met all the requirements to run.
Rwandans celebrated Kagame’s win in muted fashion, with no spontaneous large gatherings in the disciplined nation.
Inside a gymnasium in the capital music and dancers entertained hundreds of party loyalists who celebrated into the morning.
“We are celebrating the presidential election,” said one young man as he danced. “We are celebrating Paul Kagame!” another yelled out next to him.
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.
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. Few Rwandans would dare to openly speak against him.