By Clement Uwiringiyimana
KIGALI (Reuters) – Incumbent leader Paul Kagame swept to a landslide victory in Rwanda’s presidential election, securing a third term in office and extending his 17 years in power, final results showed on Saturday.
Kagame has won international praise for presiding over a peaceful and rapid economic recovery in Rwanda since the 1994 genocide, when an estimated 800,000 people Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.
But he has also faced mounting criticism for what human rights groups say are widespread abuses, a muzzling of independent media, and suppression of political opposition.
The 59-year-old former guerrilla leader had secured 98.63 percent of Friday’s vote, according to a final tally released by the National Electoral Commission on Saturday .
The board said turnout topped 96.42 percent in the country of 12 million people, in an election that fielded only a single opposition candidate, Frank Habineza, and an independent.
Addressing supporters early on Saturday, Kagame said he would work to sustain economic growth.
“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.
“What I saw during campaigns is that the decision to continue to lead you drew criticism mainly by foreigners but this proves that the referendum was for real purpose.”
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 won 0.47 percent, had promised to set up a tribunal to retry dissidents whose convictions by Rwandan courts have been criticized as politically motivated.
After the vote, he said some of his party’s observers were obstructed in carrying out their work. Habineza’s accusations, however, did not amount to foul play.
“We had sent over 500 observers and some were denied to enter. When vote counting started, some of our observers were left behind closed doors,” he told a news conference, before congratulating Kagame for his win.
Charles Munyaneza, the electoral board’s executive secretary, told reporters the body did not receive any complaints.
Another would-be opponent, Diane Rwigara, was disqualified by the election board despite her insistence that she met all the requirements to run.
Some voters celebrated the election result into the early hours of Saturday, said John Habimana, owner of the Roasty Bar in the capital Kigali.
“Last night was fantastic. People kept coming in until my bar had more than 200 people. I usually get 100 on normal days. They were all celebrating and I left at 2 am but they were still dancing and more were coming,” he said.
Other residents were less happy.
“To me I see this as a one-man race. I simply did not go to vote,” said one man in Kigali who asked not to be named.
(Writing by Aaron Maasho; Editing by Angus MacSwan)