The explosion, muffled by a heavy rain, was first taken for fireworks. Yet, as the rain softened clear shrieks could be heard from within Kigali’s Kichero Market. The grenade attack, which killed one and injured at least 4 people, was the second to strike Rwanda’s capital during the build up to last week’s parliamentary elections won by the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The party headed by long time Rwandan President Kagame won 76% of the vote. While opposition parties made marginal gains, many of those dissatisfied with the RPF avoided last week’s elections entirely. Kagame could interpret the win as a mandate and seek constitutional changes, allowing him to stay in office for an additional presidential term.
The effects of another grenade explosion are still being felt in Rwanda. On April 10th 1994 when ten Belgian peacekeepers serving in Kigali were killed by Hutu extremists following a grenade attack on their location in Kigali. The United Nations fled the country in the aftermath of their deaths, helping to spark the Rwandan Genocide in which 800,000 people, mostly Tutsi, were murdered, often hacked to death by a panga; a razor-sharp machete. The genocide ground to a halt when the RPF, then a guerrilla army loyal to Kagame seized control of the country. Western policy makers were hesitant to get involved in Rwanda after a previous failure of a UN Mission in Somalia. In particular the United States, having suffered 43 dead and over a hundred wounded during Operation Restore Hope in Somalia, far more than the other UN forces, was reluctant to involve itself in another conflict in Africa.
Kagame proved to be a shrewd leader while Western policymakers, eager to make amends for the Rwanda genocide, offered contradictory praise of the country. Rwanda has been described as a liberal oasis in Africa, an example of the benefits of planned economy and most often as an example of a state where foreign aid has worked.
International praise aside, Kagame’s stated model for Rwanda has long been akin to authoritarian Singapore. Kagame has maintained the reign of power while turning Rwanda into one of Africa’s fastest growing and most competitive economies.
Yet, recent developments have brought new critiques of Kagame. The violent deaths of a critical journalist and an opposition figure have also drawn attention to Kagame’s authoritarian streak in the months preceding the parliamentary poll. Meanwhile, the U.N. has accused the country of supporting Congolese militias while, for its part, Rwanda accuses the D.R. Congo of supporting the Free Democratic Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a terrorist group which contains perpetrators of the 1994 genocide and is bent on overthrowing Kigali.
Signs of Improvement?
Yet, the RPF has faced little domestic criticism, in part because the memories of the genocide remain fresh. The Kichero bombings occurred in proximity to memorials of the 1994 genocide and were perhaps meant to weaken Kagame’s claim that the RPF’s rule has ensured security for the country’s 11 million citizens.
Uncompetitive elections will do little to shore up his sagging international popularity. Though RPF party members continue to deny it, opposition leaders claim Kagame intends to alter the constitution so he can remain in power past 2016. In response to the tarnishing of his image Kagame has begun granting rare interviews to journalists and his government seems to be aware of its image problem. After Kichero Market reopened following the second blast, a Rwandan soldier approached a group of international journalists inspecting the scene, “Feel free to take pictures”, he said before returning to his post.