Rwanda's Presidential Campaign Trail

Associate editor Graham Holliday reports from Rwanda. First stop: an RPF political rally in Byumba.


Image: Graham Holliday/KigaliwireI HIT RWANDA's political campaign trail in northern Rwanda today. The entire 67km route from Kigali towards Gicumbi district was lined with police. One or two officers were stationed every 500 metres or so. This was clearly a very well organised security operation as well as what turned out to be an efficiently run political rally for the RPF incumbent President Paul Kagame.

It’s difficult, perhaps impossible (for a mere human anyway) to gauge numbers of attendees at a rally of this kind.

When I arrived I asked a heavily armed soldier guarding the perimeter, of what is effectively a natural ampitheatre in Gicumbi district, how many people he thought were present. “300,000, he replied with a broad smile.

The next person I bumped into, a man involved in the planning of the RPF election campaign, suggested maybe 140,000 “more than previous rallies”.

Once I was ensconced in the “press pen”, situated directly in front of Paul Kagame’s podium, a Rwandan translator put the figure at “maybe 200,000. The Rwanda News Agency probably has it about right at circa 100,000.

There were five (mercifully short) speeches before Kagame took the podium. The rally started proper some time after mid-day and many of those present told me they had been there since 7AM “dancing and singing”. The RPF clearly know how to run a political rally.

The crowd appeared to be divided into sections. Those closest to the podium (and the cameras) were the t-shirt wearing, flag waving, chant leading variety. Further back, they were less vocal and there were less flags. Some attendees appeared to be divided into sections according to where they came from. In ‘the gods” there were fewer flags and almost no t-shirts, but plenty of people still swayed whenever a chant kicked off or “Kagame’s pop anthem” (which, I must say, is pretty catchy) began to play. Every Kagame soundbite was greeted by cheers, chanting, dancing and singing or all four simultaneously.

The press pen was mostly populated by Rwandan journalists. However, there were five foreign journalists present and at least seven video cameras. I also noticed a small number of camera-laden Embassy “observers” milling around elsewhere in the rally.

All in all, it was a very impressive, well run show. The Rwanda News Agency has a run down (subs only and in French) of what Kagame said – nothing that new, it’s more about the spectacle I suspect. I will be attending opposition rallies over the coming days and I’ll also blog them. Attendance numbers will not come remotely close to those of Kagame – whatever the actual numbers really were – however I think they may be of equal interest in their own way. More photos to come.


Graham Holliday is editor & publisher of Kigaliwire, and an associate editor at Current Intelligence. This article originally appeared in Kigaliwire (2 August 2010).