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 through pervasive surveillance, intimidation, arbitrary detention, torture, and renditions or suspected assassinations of exiled dissidents.
- In June, as Rwanda hosted a Commonwealth summit, several foreign journalists were either denied accreditation or prevented from reporting freely on summit-related events.
- Kagame indicated in July that he intended to seek reelection in 2024, having already served as president since 2000.
- The 2021 conviction of political opposition figure Paul Rusesabagina, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison on terrorism charges after being forcibly repatriated in 2020 and subjected to a trial that lacked due process, was upheld by an appellate court in April.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
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 on the grounds that some of the required signatures she had collected were invalid. She claimed that her campaign’s canvassers were harassed and jailed. The government also orchestrated media smears and intimidation against Rwigara, who was subsequently arrested along with her mother and sister. All three had been released by 2018.
Local authorities impeded the electoral campaigns of opposition presidential candidates, and some citizens were coerced into joining RPF rallies and voting for Kagame. Rwandans were also made to attend 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?
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.
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 under the current regime that a genuine opposition party had 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?
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 itself 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?
The constitution guarantees the right to organize and freely operate political parties within the bounds of the law. The government-controlled Rwanda Governance Board (RGB) is responsible for registering political parties, and in practice it can deny registration at its discretion without proper justification.
The government has a long history of repressing its political opponents, and members of opposition parties face the threat of disappearance, arbitrary arrest and detention, and assassination. Several members of the Dalfa-Umurinzi party, led by 2010 presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire, were convicted in 2020 of involvement with an “irregular armed force” and “offenses against the state,” receiving prison terms ranging from 7 to 10 years. One defendant who was acquitted, Venant Abayisenga, was reported missing later that year and was believed to have been forcibly disappeared or killed.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
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, which the RPF dominates. While the DGPR won two parliamentary seats in 2018, current conditions generally prevent it from gaining further positions of authority or viably competing with the RPF.
|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?
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 retaliation for their public or suspected opposition to the regime.
The military was formally separated from the RPF after it won the civil war, but it retains close ties to the ruling party and is considered a key political stakeholder in practice.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?
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 Twa, an Indigenous group—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 more than a third of Senate seats and about 61 percent of the 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. Societal discrimination, as well as the regime’s general repression of dissent, prevents LGBT+ Rwandans from freely pursuing their communities’ political interests.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
Government policy is largely set and implemented by the executive branch, with the security and intelligence services playing a powerful role, and the president is not freely elected. Parliament, which generally lacks the independence to serve as a check on executive authority, tends to merely endorse presidential initiatives; it is able to play more of an oversight role on issues that are less politically sensitive, such as women’s rights, education, and public health.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?
The government takes measures to limit corruption, including regular dismissals and prosecutions of officials who are suspected of malfeasance. In 2018, Parliament passed penal code revisions that expanded the list of corruption-related crimes and increased penalties for those convicted. Among other high-profile cases in recent years, a state minister responsible for cultural affairs at the Ministry of Youth and Culture was sentenced to four years in prison on corruption charges in September 2022. A lack of transparency surrounding such prosecutions makes it difficult to assess whether they are politically motivated.
There are a number of institutions dedicated to detecting and punishing misuse of public funds, including the Rwanda Public Procurement Authority, the Office of the Auditor General, the Office of the Ombudsman, and specialized chambers for economic crimes. Nevertheless, 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?
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?
While the constitution nominally protects freedom of the press, the government imposes legal restrictions and informal controls on the media, and most outlets practice self-censorship. Progovernment coverage is also motivated by competition for state advertising revenue. 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 writings 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. In June 2022, several foreign correspondents were reportedly denied accreditation or otherwise obstructed from freely covering the Commonwealth summit hosted by Rwanda that month.
Authorities continued to target journalists and bloggers—particularly those broadcasting via the online video platform YouTube—for intimidation, arrest, or prosecution during 2022, using a broad interpretation of media laws that allow them to restrict content that is deemed offensive, false, or contrary to public safety and public morals. While three journalists with the YouTube-based outlet Iwacu TV were acquitted of several charges and released in October 2022, they had already spent four years in detention. Four other journalists remained behind bars in Rwanda as of December, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?
Religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed, but the government has taken steps to assert greater control over religious institutions. A 2018 law requires religious organizations to obtain legal status from the RGB, to which they must submit extensive documentation. Thousands of places of worship, including churches and mosques, have been closed for allegedly violating health, safety, or noise regulations. Religious leaders must hold a degree in religious studies from a recognized educational institution, religious organizations must report grants to the RGB, and donations to faith-based groups must be deposited in Rwandan banks. Jehovah’s Witnesses face arrest for refusing to participate in localized security duties like night patrols or oath-taking involving the national flag.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?
The government restricts academic freedom by enforcing official views on the genocide and other sensitive topics. Any critical discussion of the RPF’s actions during the war or its politicization of memorialization projects is heavily policed. Scholars and students are subject to suspension for “divisionism” and engage in self-censorship to avoid such penalties. Public and private universities generally lack any robust political debate.
Since 2008 the government has increasingly mandated the use of English as the language of instruction, including in primary schools as of 2019. The policy has raised concerns that it could disadvantage segments of society that speak only Kinyarwanda, the common national language, or French, previously the main language of higher education and administration.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?
The constitution affirms freedom of speech within vaguely defined legal constraints. The practical space for free private discussion is limited in part by indications that the government monitors personal communications. Social media are heavily monitored, and the law allows for government hacking of telecommunications networks. In addition to electronic surveillance, the authorities reportedly use informants to infiltrate civil society, further discouraging citizens from voicing dissent. Individuals have been forcibly disappeared, arrested, detained, and assassinated for expressing their views.
Innocent Bahati, a popular poet who had shared his critical social commentary on social media, remained missing during 2022 following his 2021 disappearance; he had been arbitrarily detained by police in the past. Among other prominent cases, the trial of Aimable Karasira, a former university lecturer and YouTube commentator who was arrested in 2021 for alleged genocide denial and divisionism, was ongoing at year’s end, and he reported being tortured and denied medical treatment in custody.
|Is there freedom of assembly?
Although the constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, this right is sharply limited and rarely exercised in practice. Fear of arrest or police violence serves as a deterrent to protests, and gatherings are sometimes disrupted even when organizers obtain official authorization. Police impose strict guidelines on approved events and can deny approval in the interest of public order and on other vaguely defined grounds.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?
Registration and reporting requirements for both domestic and foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are onerous, and activities that the government defines as divisive are prohibited. NGOs that focus on governance and human rights issues face particular scrutiny, with the risk of closure encouraging self-censorship. Many domestic organizations receive funds from the RGB, which challenges their independence, and those that operate freely tend to be led by RPF loyalists, as more critical activists have faced repression or fled the country.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?
The constitution provides for the rights to form trade unions, engage in collective bargaining, and strike. However, free collective bargaining and strikes are limited by binding arbitration rules and are 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?
Despite constitutional provisions that declare its independence, the Rwandan judiciary lacks autonomy from the executive in practice. Top judicial officials are appointed by the president and confirmed by the RPF-dominated Senate. Judges rarely rule against the government, especially in politically sensitive cases.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?
The constitution affirms the right to due process, but the security services regularly engage in arbitrary arrests and detentions, targeting opposition figures and dissidents as well as homeless people, street vendors, and suspected petty criminals. Detainees are often held beyond the 72 hours allowed for those arrested without a warrant, denied access to legal counsel, and charged based on coerced confessions. Arbitrary detentions have intensified in Kigali ahead of international events such as the June 2022 Commonwealth summit, as authorities attempt to clear the streets of unhoused children, informal vendors, and sex workers, among others.
The government is known to pursue arbitrary detentions of political opponents living in exile. In 2020, Rwandan authorities effectively abducted Paul Rusesabagina—a Belgian citizen, US resident, and regime critic known for sheltering hundreds of people during the genocide—while he was visiting the United Arab Emirates. Upon arrival in Rwanda, he was charged with supporting terrorism due to his leadership role in the opposition Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD) and alleged links to the group’s armed wing. Rusesabagina was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2021 after a trial that lacked due process, and the verdict was upheld on appeal in April 2022.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?
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 have been reported, as have disappearances, physical assaults, and assassinations targeting journalists, opposition members, and other regime critics. While such abuses remain a serious threat, the worst forms of violence against dissidents within the country appear to have grown less common than in some previous years.
The Rwandan government allegedly supports rebel forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwandan authorities have reported occasional clashes with Congolese soldiers or rebel fighters along the border. However, insurgent activity and violent crime on Rwandan territory are extremely rare, and the population seldom faces threats to physical security from nonstate actors.
Score Change: The score improved from 0 to 1 because security forces have generally prevented violence along the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo from spilling into Rwanda, and the incidence of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings of regime critics within the country appears to have decreased in recent years, although such abuses remain a problem.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?
Equal treatment for all citizens under the law is guaranteed, and there are legal protections against discrimination. However, the Tutsi minority group allegedly receives preferential treatment in employment and education under the pretext of an affirmative action program for “genocide survivors.” There is a perception that English-speaking Tutsis are overrepresented in government. Members of the Hutu majority, who account for 85 percent of the population, reportedly face unofficial discrimination when seeking public employment or scholarships. The Twa, meanwhile, have long been marginalized and continue 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, especially in rural areas, and gender-equality measures have largely favored English-speaking Tutsis in urban areas.
Same-sex sexual 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?
The constitution affirms the right of Rwandans to move freely within the country, with exceptions for public order and national security. Changing one’s residence requires registration with local authorities using an easily obtainable national identity card. 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.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?
While the government is generally supportive of economic growth through private business activity, it has been criticized for seizing land for infrastructure and urban development projects without proper compensation, and for imposing agricultural and land-consolidation policies without adequate input from farmers. Business owners who are seen as critical of the government have sometimes faced politically motivated investigations and asset seizures.
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?
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, and same-sex marriages are illegal. The penalties for spousal rape are much lighter than that for other forms of rape. Domestic violence remains widespread and seldom reported despite numerous government programs intended to combat it.
Abortion is a criminal offense unless the pregnancy is the result of rape, incest, or forced marriage, or it poses a health risk. Abortion convictions can lead to significant prison terms. Penal code revisions in 2018 removed language requiring all abortions to be approved by a judge, leaving the final decision in the hands of the patient and doctor.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?
Regulations governing wage levels and conditions of work in the formal sector are poorly enforced, particularly among private employers. Children are trafficked internally for domestic service under abusive conditions, or for commercial sex work, and few internal traffickers are held 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. While Rwanda has increased prosecutions for transnational trafficking in recent years, the number of convictions remains low, and victim and witness support programs are lacking.
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Global Freedom Score23 100 not free
Internet Freedom Score37 100 not free