AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
There is an election in Rwanda today but little ambiguity over who will win. Paul Kagame has ruled that country for the past 17 years, winning election after election. We're joined now by NPR's East Africa correspondent Eyder Peralta for more on Rwanda's leader. Welcome to the program.
EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: So Kagame came to power actually after the Rwandan genocide. Remind us how he was able to do that.
PERALTA: I think it's important to understand the context. At the time, the international community was simply watching as hundreds of thousands of people were being slaughtered. At the end of it, about 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis, were killed over the course of about a hundred days. And Kagame was an exile at the time in Uganda. And he took charge of a rebel army. He marched into Kigali, the capital. He overthrew the government and put a stop to the genocide. And that has made him a kind of national hero. He started off as vice president, and then he became president in 2000.
CORNISH: So what's the country been like under his rule?
PERALTA: There's a lot of good and a lot of bad. The good is that he took a broken country, and he made it whole again. The GDP has multiplied. Life expectancy has shot up. And this is a big deal because Rwanda is very poor, and it doesn't have natural resources. And you know, one of the most important parts is everyone I spoke to in Rwanda seemed genuinely grateful that they were living in a peaceful place.
But I mean there's also no doubt that Rwandans fear their government. Opposition figures have been known to be jailed, disappeared or even killed. And Human Rights Watch just released a report that found that dozens of people have been killed for really small things.
CORNISH: When you talk about fear in the country in this way, then I'm - I have questions now about these past elections where Kagame won in these overwhelming landslide votes. I mean are people afraid?
PERALTA: Yeah, I mean there is fear. I spoke to this one man who said he wanted change. And he wanted to vote for the opposition, but he was scared. He said he couldn't be sure that his vote was secret. I mean that said, this election is a little bit different from the previous ones. While I was in Rwanda, I spoke to Frank Habineza, who is Kagame's most serious opponent. And he said just the fact that he was on the ballot was a big deal. Let's listen to a bit of what he told me.
FRANK HABINEZA: It's a progress because I mean we have struggled for eight years to be on the ballot paper. So we tried in 2010, and we never succeeded. And my deputy was killed. My 12 other colleagues were put in prison. So basically, this is progress.
PERALTA: So what Habineza is saying is that he has faced intimidation this time around. But by and large, he says he's been allowed to campaign freely. So he thinks things are moving in the right direction in Rwanda.
CORNISH: Meanwhile, Kagame has been in power since 1994. He's only 59. Do you get a sense he's going anywhere anytime soon?
PERALTA: I mean if you look at the preliminary results which we have started getting, the answer is no. He's winning by a huge margin. I did speak to his allies, though. And you know, they're adamant that he is not like President Yoweri Museveni in Uganda or Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Both of those guys have been in power for decades. And even Kagame himself has said that this will be his last term.
But you know, the truth is that Kagame looms large on this continent. He's been tasked with reforming the African Union. And a lot of leaders view Rwanda as a model. So even if this is his last term, I think we'll continue to see Paul Kagame's influence here for a long time.
CORNISH: That's NPR's East Africa correspondent Eyder Peralta. Eyder, thank you.
PERALTA: Thank you, Audie.
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