It is 11am on a hot Monday in Kimironko, a suburb of Kigali City. Three French journalists walk down stairs from Presidential candidate Frank Habineza’s office located near a food and merchandise market. They just concluded interviewing Habineza ahead of the campaign rallies four days later. They cross the road towards the parking lot of a local bank. One of them reaches out for a cigarette and lights it up.
The others throw their tools in the car. They look demoralised. They don’t seem to have gotten anything exciting from Habineza.
Taarifa crew walks in too and finds Habineza seated in the doorway on a white old plastic chair. He is briefing one of his aids, a calm lady in her forties.
He warmly welcomes us and walks us through the corridor to his office; a simple but decent office with an executive desk and a semi leather chair. A huge silk colourful party flag is erected right behind him.
There is a laptop and a few working files on his desk. A copy of The East African Newspaper is placed across the table. He is on the cover. “Have you read the article,” he asks. We pick the paper and there is an article covering a spread of the newspaper.
He smiles and says, “It is not bad!” As our crew sets equipment ready for an interview, he swings in his chair to check his cell phone. He finds missed calls including ours and says, “I am sorry I had put it on silence mode during an interview with RFI (Radio France Internationale).”
Before we begin the interview, the Chairman of the National Electoral Commission Prof. Kalisa Mbanda calls him. Habineza tells us he has been invited to a meeting to discuss the logistics of his campaign rallies. We begin the interview shortly after.
“We are still working on our manifesto, people need to know the different message that we have,” he says. “Rwandans need to see new things, new ideas.”
Putting all this together, it sounded like he has an enormous team somewhere in a situation room ready to hit the rallies. “We have nine active members,” he says. “Sometimes I think it is too big…sometimes I think it is too small.”
It is five days before the campaigns kick off, but there is little in place. The manifesto is not ready. Branding materials are not ready. Even the itinerary has not yet been finalised.
Our interview begins, but more phone calls keep popping in. He silences the cell phone. The party Secretary General suddenly shows up and is requested to give us a minute. His office is next door, a tiny space but enough to accommodate three to four seats. “It is not an easy competition,” Habineza says, raising his eyebrows.
He turns away his face, looking through the window to imagine the magnitude of the challenge he faces. “You see, all mayors across the country are chairpersons of the RPF, and have everything at their disposal,” he laments adding that, “even governors of all provinces, and every village chief is the chairperson of the RPF.”
What he doesn’t add though is that now all other eight stronger opposition parties (PL, PSD, PDC, PDI, UDPR, PSR, PPC and PSP) have made a coalition with the RPF and have endorsed the incumbent President Paul Kagame as the flag bearer.
“This is a challenge,” he says. However, he is quick to mention that Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, which President Kagame ridiculed at his first rally in the Southern Province that Rwanda is greener than the party, has district structures as well.
Knowing what he was about to say is a little depressing and laughable, he scratches his forehead before he attempts to answer that his district party leaders are ordinary famers and cattle keepers who are merely volunteers, good Samaritans and some small business owners in the countryside.
A student of political science, but with no political experience, Habineza is fighting hard beyond his means, but he will maintain a language that starkly differs from the reality. “We will win this election,” he says. “People vote for ideology, for ideas based on democracy, not for actions.”
This is an interesting statement because he knows President Kagame has an infinite list of achievements under his belt and thus standing against him on the grounds of the ‘what have you done’, Habineza wouldn’t expect any space on the race line.
But he keeps saying, “We believe we will win…why would I be in all this wasting our resources if we did not hope to win.”
On the eve of the campaigns kick off, all parties began sending teasers of what they got in stock. RPF began sending bulk short messages to its supporters.
Billboards, branded materials and digitally packaged messages jammed the internet.
The Independent candidate Philippe Mpayimana was winding up his logistics and Habineza’s DGPR was also doing its final touches.
Early Friday morning, the road to Ruhango and Nyanza district, where President Kagame was expected to launch his camping from, was jammed.
Supporters lined up along painted streets with RPF colours while others climbed trees to have a glimpse of President Kagame’s camping entourage and express their support waiving RPF flags.
Social media platforms could tell the mood at the campaign sight had hit through the roof. Tweets of videos and selfies flew from Ruhango. Rwandans living abroad simply follow and have a clear picture of what is happening on ground.
RPF has invested heavily. Campaign sites are set up like concert grounds. Artistes are performing live. Supporters dance their gas out before the candidate shows up. While supporters waited for President Kagame to arrive, the grounds are lit with massive entertainment.
Supporters dance to pop, rock and country music. From far, one can see the stamped that has raised the dust in the air. Village folks look neatly dressed, chant “Kagame Wacu, Tuzamutora” (Our Kagame, we will vote him) while waving flags.
Thousands of supporters from Kigali City, the elite class drove to Ruhango and Nyanza in support. Fuel guzzles lined bumper to bumper all the way to the destination. Looking at the support displayed, other candidates can only keep moving on with the exercise, but their hopes for any tangible outcome have been brutally crashed.
Members of other parties woke up very early to attend Kagame’s rally. For example Party President of PSD, Dr. Vince Biruta, had secured his seat hours earlier, waiting for President Kagame to arraive PL supporters were dancing alongside RPF supporters, waving PL flags but singing Kagame.
“I see it more like parties that have admitted that they need the RPF…and it can do without them,” one of the journalist told Taarifa off the record late evening after the rallies. These parties are trying to remain relevant. “RPF is too perfect…and they see themselves and can’t imagine competing,” the journalist said.
Meanwhile, Habineza was on his way to Rusizi District in the Western province. Turn up was so disappointing. Less than 200 people attended his rally. Seats in his tent were literally empty. Habineza was photographed with his wife seated in the tent alone. Earlier, Habineza had tweeted a photo with his family. “Glad to be joined by my family #Rwanda #RwandaDecides,” he said in a tweet.
Phillipe Mpayimana in Nyamata, Bugesera district spoke to himself, says Emanuel Habimana, a resident who attended his rally. “Look, how many people are here, a handful. No one even knows him.”
Mpayiman has no team. He is like a missionary on a foreign land. He is not only unknown, but also has nothing to attract the attention of anyone except school children and onlookers who stop for a while and then off they go.
On the other side after arriving at the venue, President Kagame’s reception was thunderous. Heavy musical system installations sent vibrations through the ground. Due to excitement, supporters almost outmatched the sound system.
The victory was obtained in December 2015 when Rwandans voted in a referendum to allow President Kagame run again. “Of course I know that the next years will be led by RPF…
I don’t want to pretend that I don’t know this, right?” he said on Saturday in Nyaruguru.
Habineza has been elusive, a slightly arrogant and contradictory in most of his statements. He says one thing and when he is confronted, he retracts or changes the wording.
His party commands little support leave alone a proper and sound manifesto, but he is a great fighter with a stockpile of morale. Only he knows where it comes from.
One has to appreciate the resilience he has to join a race while well aware of the results, losing. He might get a few votes from one or two disgruntled farmers whom he has aroused emotions with a promise to revoke a policy that encourages mono-cropping on consolidated farmlands.
Asked if he has any endorsement from any media house, he responds: “I don’t need any endorsement,” he says, but then he recalls that he is being interviewed by journalists and retracts. “Well, it could be a good thing, but it is not a Rwandan culture…anyway…we haven’t tried to seek for any endorsement, but that is something we should look into.”
However, the RPF has invested massively in media coverage. Online, Print, TV and Radio coverage is guaranteed everywhere President Kagame will campaign from.
Habineza and Mpayimana agree they have no funds to spend, except for benevolent media coverage and the free airtime on state media.
Although the RPF has resources to finance its own campaigns, the party received 100% funding from its supporters.
On May 19th, the business community met at a gala dinner at the lavish Radisson Hotel and proudly pledged to finance President Kagame’s election campaigns to a tune of almost Rwf3 billion.
For Habineza, by Monday July 10th, he was still waiting for the biblical “manna”. He told us that he was about to secure a loan from a private investor to finance his candidacy. He did not mention the investor who is taking the risk to secure him the next presidency, but he said it is a private venture capitalist.
At least the two, Mpayimana and Habineza, have received full security detail and transportation. They drive in expensive and brand new open roof Land Cruiser and buses carrying their entourage.
These facilities may not deliver anything tangible, but they are enough to take them to every planned campaign site across the country.
As for the win, President Kagame secured the presidency one and half year ago. “The election results are already known,” Kagame said on Friday. “Those who have betted on against us winning the this election will lose their money.”
Back in Habineza’s office, unless one is bewitched, there are no signs of a presidential candidate. Even toilets don’t have detergents. It’s a sorry situation. His party is outright broke. Headlines in the media are just deceptive. Habineza can only hope for something else, but not anything closer to a presidency. Impossible. If he thinks so, then sorcery has gotten both his hands tied up.
As for Mpayimana, it is hard to recall that he is in the race.