The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), led by President Paul Kagame, has ruled the country since 1994, when it ousted forces responsible for that year’s genocide and ended a civil war. While the regime has maintained stability and economic growth, it has also suppressed political dissent though pervasive surveillance, intimidation, rendition, torture, and suspected assassinations.
- In February, singer Kizito Mihigo, who released a song challenging the official narrative of the genocide in 2014, was arrested near the border with Burundi and died while in detention several days later. While the authorities claimed Mihigo, who planned to flee Rwanda, died by suicide, human rights groups believe he was extrajudicially killed.
- In August, Paul Rusesabagina—who sheltered hundreds of people during the genocide and later resided in Belgium and the United States—was rendered to Rwanda while traveling in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Rusesabagina, who led an opposition coalition after the genocide, was accused of offenses including terrorism in September, and remained in custody at year’s end.
- Scores of Rwandans were arrested and detained by the authorities for violating COVID-19-related face-mask mandates and curfews. Detainees were held in local stadiums, were not offered protection from the elements, and were often forced to attend overnight lectures before they were released. The government instituted travel restrictions in March, though it loosened some of these in June; overnight curfews were introduced in May and remained in force throughout the year. The World Health Organization counted 8,250 COVID-19 cases and 86 deaths at year’s end.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||0.000 4.004|
Rwanda’s 2003 constitution grants broad powers to the president, who has the authority to appoint the prime minister and dissolve the bicameral Parliament. Amendments passed in 2015 retained a two-term limit for the presidency and shortened terms from seven to five years. The changes also explicitly stated, however, that incumbent Paul Kagame was eligible for an additional seven-year term, after which he could run for two of the new five-year terms. This would extend Kagame’s rule until 2034.
Kagame easily won the 2017 presidential election, taking 98.8 percent of the vote according to official results. Frank Habineza of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda (DGPR) and independent Philippe Mpayimana split the remainder. The electoral process was marred by numerous irregularities, including political intimidation, unfair registration practices, and alleged fraud during the balloting itself.
The National Electoral Commission (NEC) blocked the candidacies of other would-be challengers, including independent and Kagame critic Diane Rwigara, who was barred from running on the grounds that some of the required signatures she had collected were invalid. She claimed that her followers were harassed and jailed as they attempted to gather signatures. The government also orchestrated a campaign of media smears and intimidation against Rwigara, who was subsequently arrested along with her mother and sister.
Local authorities impeded the electoral campaigns of opposition presidential candidates, and some citizens were coerced into attending RPF rallies and voting for Kagame. Rwandans were also made to attend “solidarity” camps and listen to RPF propaganda, while local authorities tasked traditional leaders with persuading their communities to vote for Kagame. Access to the media and the content of electoral coverage were both skewed in favor of the RPF.
On election day, observers reported ballot stuffing, poll workers showing favoritism toward the RPF, and denial of access to the vote-counting process, among other violations. Ballot secrecy was not always respected.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||1.001 4.004|
The 26-seat Senate, the upper house of Parliament, consists of 12 members elected by regional councils, 8 appointed by the president, 4 chosen by the National Consultative Forum for Political Organizations (NCFPO), a public body meant to promote political consensus, and 2 elected by faculty at universities. Senators’ terms were shortened from eight to five years as part of the 2015 constitutional reform. The 80-seat Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, includes 53 directly elected members, 24 women chosen by local councils, 2 members from the National Youth Council, and 1 member from the Federation of Associations of the Disabled, all serving five-year terms.
Six incumbent senators, who had served eight-year terms, were replaced in October 2020. Four were appointed by Kagame. Two were selected by the NCFPO.
The RPF dominated the Chamber of Deputies elections held in 2018, capturing 40 of the 53 elected seats. The DGPR gained 2 seats, marking the first time a genuine opposition party has won representation in Parliament. Three other parties allied with the RPF—the Social Democratic Party, the Liberal Party, and the Social Party—won 5, 4, and 2 seats respectively. As with other elections in recent years, the government’s repression of legitimate opposition parties and strict control of the media helped to ensure an overwhelming victory for the RPF.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||1.001 4.004|
The electoral laws are not impartially implemented by the NEC, whose members are proposed by the government and appointed by the RPF-dominated Senate. Rwandan elections routinely feature unfair barriers to registration, campaigning, poll monitoring, and media access for opposition parties and candidates, among other problems.
The 2015 constitutional amendments were adopted through a flawed petition and referendum process. Rights groups and news organizations cited reports that some signatures on the petition were not given voluntarily. The details of the amendments were not widely distributed or discussed ahead of the referendum, in which 98 percent of voters signaled their approval, according to the NEC. The government limited the political activities of groups opposed to the amendments, and the referendum was not monitored by any independent international observer groups.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||1.001 4.004|
The government-controlled Rwanda Governance Board (RGB) is responsible for registering political parties. In practice it can deny registration at its discretion without proper justification. The government has a long history of repressing its political opponents. Diane Rwigara, who sought to contest the 2017 presidential election, was arrested and imprisoned that year, along with her mother and sister, on multiple charges. The charges against her sister were dropped; Rwigara and her mother were bailed in 2018 and acquitted later that year.
Members of the Dalfa-Umurinzi party, led by 2010 presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire, were targeted in 2020. In January, seven members were convicted of involvement with an “irregular armed force,” receiving prison terms varying from 7 to 10 years. Three defendants were acquitted, but one of them, Théophile Ntirutwa, was arrested on charges including murder, theft, and disseminating false information in May. Ntirutwa and three others who were arrested with him awaited trial at year’s end. Another acquitted defendant, Venant Abayisenga, was reported missing in June and is believed to have been forcibly disappeared.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||0.000 4.004|
The RPF has ruled Rwanda without interruption since 1994, banning and repressing any opposition group that could mount a serious challenge to its leadership. All registered parties currently belong to the NCFPO. While the DGPR won two parliamentary seats in 2018, the RPF maintains a firm hold on power. The DGPR remains vastly outnumbered, holds no other positions of authority, and is unlikely to increase its support to the point where it can viably compete with the RPF in the near future.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||0.000 4.004|
Both voters and candidates face significant intimidation aimed at controlling their political choices. Rwandans living outside the country have been threatened, attacked, forcibly disappeared, or killed, apparently in response to their public or suspected opposition to the regime.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||1.001 4.004|
The constitution calls on the president to ensure “representation of historically marginalized communities” in the Senate through his appointees. However, asserting one’s ethnic identity in politics is banned, meaning the level of representation is unclear. The prohibition on discussion of ethnicity makes it nearly impossible for disadvantaged groups, including the indigenous Twa to organize independently and advocate for their interests.
The constitution requires women to occupy at least 30 percent of the seats in each chamber of Parliament. While women currently hold 38.5 percent of Senate seats and 61.2 percent of lower-house seats, they have little practical ability to engage in politics outside the RPF structure. The promotion of gender equity disproportionately privileges English-speaking Tutsis over French-speaking Hutus and rural Tutsis in practice.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||1.001 4.004|
Government policy is largely set and implemented by the executive, with the security and intelligence services playing a powerful role. Parliament generally lacks independence, merely endorsing presidential initiatives.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||2.002 4.004|
The government takes measures to limit corruption, including regular firings and prosecutions of low-level officials suspected of malfeasance. In 2018, President Kagame sacked dozens of civil servants in an ostensible anticorruption effort, and Parliament passed penal-code revisions that expanded the list of corruption-related crimes and increased penalties for those convicted. In 2019, several mayors and other local officials resigned or were dismissed for corruption and other misconduct, though the lack of transparency surrounding the cases made it difficult to assess whether any of the firings were politically motivated.
Despite these actions, graft remains a problem, and few independent organizations or media outlets are able to investigate or report on corruption issues due to the risk of government reprisals.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||1.001 4.004|
While a 2013 law provides for public access to government information, implementation has been weak. Data published on Sobanukirwa, a website created by the government to ease the process of requesting access to documents, suggest that only a small fraction of requests result in positive and timely responses. Given the government’s active repression of any dissent in recent years, citizens do not have the ability in practice to obtain information about state operations, nor do they have a meaningful opportunity to comment on policy without the threat of punishment.
|Are there free and independent media?||0.000 4.004|
The government imposes legal restrictions and informal controls on freedom of the press, and most media outlets practice self-censorship. The few journalists in the country who engage in independent reporting are subject to criminal charges and intimidation. The penal code revisions passed in 2018 criminalized cartoons and writing that “humiliate” Rwandan leaders, but also decriminalized defamation, which the Rwanda Journalists Association considered an improvement to the highly restrictive legal framework.
Many Rwandan journalists have fled the country and work in exile. Due in part to this phenomenon, the government has increasingly blocked access to news services and websites based abroad. The British Broadcasting Corporation’s Kinyarwanda-language service has been suspended in the country since 2014.
Authorities continued to target journalists in 2020. In March, four bloggers who reported on alleged abuses perpetrated by security forces and on the effects of COVID-19-related restrictions were arrested, along with a driver. Two of the individuals received charges including the impersonation of a journalist, and their cases were pending at year’s end. Later in April, Umubavu TV owner Théoneste Nsengimana was arrested over fraud allegations. Nsengimana was released in May for lack of evidence.
In February 2020, Kizito Mihigo, who released a song challenging the Kagame regime’s narrative of the genocide in 2014 and planned to flee Rwanda for fear of detention, was arrested near the border with Burundi. Several days later, Mihigo was found dead in his prison cell. While the authorities claim Mihigo died by suicide, human rights groups believe he was extrajudicially killed.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||2.002 4.004|
Religious freedom has historically been respected, but the government has recently taken steps to assert greater control over religious institutions. In recent years, authorities have shut down Pentecostal churches and some mosques, banned mosques in Kigali from broadcasting the call to prayer, passed a law requiring religious leaders to obtain a theology degree before establishing churches, mandated that religious organizations report grants to the RGB, and required that donations to faith-based groups be deposited in Rwandan banks.
Jehovah’s Witnesses face arrest for refusing to participate in security duties or oath-taking involving the national flag.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||1.001 4.004|
The government restricts academic freedom by enforcing official views on the genocide and other sensitive topics. Scholars and students are subject to suspension for “divisionism” and engage in self-censorship to avoid such penalties.
In December 2019, the government announced that primary schools would conduct lessons in English, even though the majority of the population speaks Kinyarwanda. French-speaking students and educators could also be disadvantaged by the decision. Its implementation was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted the closure of schools between March and November 2020.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||0.000 4.004|
The space for free private discussion is limited in part by indications that the government monitors personal communications. Social media are widely believed to be monitored, and the law allows for government hacking of telecommunications networks. In October 2019, WhatsApp disclosed that its messaging service was exploited with Pegasus, a suite of surveillance software, and that Rwandan dissidents were targeted with its use. In addition, the authorities reportedly use informants to infiltrate civil society, further discouraging citizens from expressing dissent.
Rwandan authorities have also employed digital tools as part of its COVID-19 response. The government uses mobile data as part of its contact-tracing efforts, while employing geolocation to track individuals who have been placed in isolation centers.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||0.000 4.004|
Although the constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, this right is limited in practice. Fear of arrest serves as a deterrent to protests, and gatherings are sometimes disrupted even when organizers obtain official authorization. In 2018, police fired live ammunition into two crowds of Congolese refugees in the town of Karongi and Kiziba refugee camp who were protesting cuts in assistance, killing at least 11 people.
Public gatherings were restricted in March 2020 as part of the government’s efforts to contain COVID-19, though restrictions on some events, including weddings and funerals, were loosened in October. In April, refugees living in the Gashora camp held a protest after COVID-19 restrictions delayed their resettlement to other countries, though it was quickly dispersed.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||1.001 4.004|
Registration and reporting requirements for both domestic and foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are onerous, and activities that the government defines as divisive are prohibited. Many organizations receive funds from the RGB, which challenges their independence. Several NGOs have been banned in recent years, leading others to self-censor. The government has been accused of employing infiltration tactics against human rights organizations.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||1.001 4.004|
The constitution provides for the rights to form trade unions, engage in collective bargaining, and strike, but free collective bargaining and strikes are limited by binding arbitration rules and rare in practice. Public-sector workers and employees in broadly defined “essential services” are generally not allowed to strike. Enforcement of rules against antiunion discrimination is weak. The country’s largest union confederation has close ties to the RPF, and the government allegedly interferes in union elections.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||0.000 4.004|
The Rwandan judiciary lacks independence from the executive. Top judicial officials are appointed by the president and confirmed by the RPF-dominated Senate. Judges rarely rule against the government in politically sensitive cases.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||1.001 4.004|
The police and military regularly engage in arbitrary arrests and detentions, targeting opposition figures and dissidents as well as homeless people, street vendors, and suspected petty criminals. A 2017 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report detailed a system of secret unlawful detention at military facilities for suspected members of armed rebel groups or exiled opposition factions. Such detainees are allegedly denied basic due-process rights, and many who are later brought to trial are convicted based on coerced confessions.
Children facing homelessness also face arbitrary detention. In February 2020, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child called on the government to refrain from this practice, noting that many detainees were kept in poor conditions and faced physical mistreatment from police and detention staff.
The Rwandan government frequently uses arbitrary arrest and detention against critics and is known to pursue critics abroad. In August 2020, it rendered Paul Rusesabagina—who sheltered hundreds of people during the genocide and later resided in Belgium and the United States—while he was visiting the UAE. Rusesabagina, who later led the opposition Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), was accused of supporting terrorism via the MRCD’s armed wing along with other offenses in September. Rusesabagina requested bail in order to seek medical care, but his request was denied that month. He remained in custody at year’s end.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||0.000 4.004|
Both ordinary criminal suspects and political detainees are routinely subjected to torture and other ill-treatment in custody. Extrajudicial executions of suspected criminals by security personnel still occur with some frequency. Disappearances, physical assaults, arbitrary detention, and assassinations targeting journalists, opposition members, and other regime critics are commonly reported.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||1.001 4.004|
Equal treatment for all citizens under the law is guaranteed, and there are legal protections against discrimination. However, the Tutsi minority group is often accused of receiving preferential treatment for high-ranking jobs and university scholarships under the pretext of an affirmative action program for “genocide survivors.” English-speaking Tutsis are overrepresented in government. Members of the Hutu majority, who represents 85 percent of the population, face unofficial discrimination when seeking public employment or scholarships. The indigenous Twa minority, meanwhile, continues to suffer from de facto disadvantages in education, employment, and health care.
While women enjoy broad legal equality and have a significant presence in the economy as workers and business owners, gender-based discrimination persists, and gender-equality efforts have largely favored English-speaking Tutsis.
Same-sex activity is not criminalized in Rwanda, though LGBT+ people face strong social stigma. No laws specifically provide protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and police can arrest individuals using public morality laws.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||1.001 4.004|
An easily obtainable national identity card is required to move within the country. However, all government officials must receive approval from the president or prime minister’s office before traveling for personal or professional reasons; some current and former security officials have been arrested for unauthorized travel. Members of opposition groups have also reported restrictions on foreign travel or reentry to Rwanda.
Rwandan authorities introduced COVID-19-related lockdowns and travel restrictions in March 2020. Interregional travel partially resumed in June, though the government reintroduced lockdown measures and travel restrictions in some areas through August. Overnight curfews were introduced in May and were maintained through year’s end.
COVID-19-related restrictions were excessively enforced. Individuals accused of violating face-mask mandates and curfews, along with those performing essential errands, were routinely detained in stadiums and were sometimes forced to attend overnight lectures before being released. Some detainees were not offered protection from the elements, nor were they offered food or water. HRW reported that over 70,000 Rwandans were arrested for violating COVID-19 measures during the year.
Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 because Rwandan authorities were excessive and disproportionate in their enforcement of COVID-19-related restrictions on movement, leading to tens of thousands of arrests and allegations of ill-treatment in custody.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||2.002 4.004|
While the government is generally supportive of economic growth through private business activity, it has been criticized for seizing land for infrastructure and development projects without proper compensation, and for imposing agricultural and land-consolidation policies without adequate input from farmers.
The law grants the same property and inheritance rights to men and women, though women are not always able to assert their rights in practice.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||2.002 4.004|
The law generally grants equal rights to men and women regarding marriage and divorce, but informal marriages under customary law, including polygamous unions, lack such protections. The penalties for spousal rape are much lighter than for other forms of rape. Domestic violence remains widespread and seldom reported despite government programs to combat it.
Abortion is a criminal offense unless it is the result of rape, incest, or forced marriage, or the life of the mother or child is endangered. Abortion convictions can lead to significant prison terms. The 2018 penal code revisions removed language requiring all abortions to be approved by a judge, leaving the final decision in the hands of the patient and her doctor. In May 2020, 50 women who were jailed for having abortions—six of whom were serving life sentences—were released after receiving a presidential pardon. Human rights advocates welcomed the pardons but maintained calls for a liberalization of abortion laws.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||1.001 4.004|
Regulations governing wage levels and conditions of work in the formal sector are poorly enforced. While Rwanda has increased prosecutions for transnational trafficking in recent years, Rwandan children are trafficked internally for domestic service under abusive conditions, or for commercial sex work, and little effort is made to hold internal traffickers to account. Many children work informally in the agricultural sector. Young Congolese and Burundian refugees are vulnerable to sexual exploitation and coerced recruitment into armed groups linked to Rwandan security forces.
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Global Freedom Score22 100 not free
Internet Freedom Score37 100 not free