On August 10, 2010, shortly after his victory in the presidential election was announced, Rwandan President Paul Kagame ascended a stage in front of thousands of supporters in Kigali, smiling and dancing somewhat wryly in celebration. The unintentional awkwardness of this small gesture seemed to symbolize a larger uneasiness with Kagame’s victory, which is not without serious controversy. This was only the second presidential election to occur in Rwanda since the 1994 genocide during which over 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by government and Hutu rebel forces. In 2003, Paul Kagame won Rwanda’s presidential election with an overwhelming majority, and since then, he has been praised for his efforts in successfully rebuilding Rwanda after an appalling civil conflict. However, like so many other African leaders who ascend the ranks and achieve the highest level of office, Kagame seems infatuated with power. Although it was basically everyone’s contention that Kagame would be re-elected, it appears the Kagame camp nonetheless reverted to the use of violent and oppressive tactics to completely debilitate any opposition, depriving Rwandans the opportunity for multi-party politics and subsequently progressive democratic reform.
On July 14, 2010, Vice President of the opposition Democratic Green Party, Andre Kagwa Rwisereka, was found brutally murdered just outside the city of Butare, a day after he had been reported missing. Rwisereka had been nearly decapitated and there were bruise marks all over his chest, indicating he had been tortured. Kagame’s government was immediately suspected in Rwisereka’s disappearance and killing. Rwisereka was a longtime member of Kagame's Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), but left the party last year, along with other disaffected RPF members, amidst internal political wrangling. Specifically, Rwisereka decried the party’s archaic ideas and its inability to change, referring to its leadership as a dictatorship. And although some have argued that the departure of RPF members and their subsequent formation of opposition parties are part of a larger scheme by Kagame to give the appearance of political pluralism, Rwisereka’s jailing, torture and eventual disappearance would point to otherwise. Rwisereka was arbitrarily arrested in June, along with a host of other opposition party members, while, rather ironically, protesting the disappearance of other officials. He was held for over a week on charges of ‘unlawful assembly’, during which time, he and others were beaten and verbally abused. The charges were eventually dropped and he was released; however, only weeks later, he too disappeared.
It has been the assertion of many that Rwisereka’s murder was most likely politically motivated. In the weeks leading to his murder, Rwisereka had expressed increasing concern for his safety; he had even been warned by former RPF colleagues that his continued opposition would not be tolerated. Plus, his was the second murder of a Kagame critic; a journalist with independent newspaper Umuvugizi, Jean-Leonard Rugambage, was shot and killed outside his home in Kigali just three weeks before. Rugambage had been a staunch critic of the Kagame regime’s oppressive tactics and had allegedly uncovered evidence of the government’s involvement in the attempted assassination of former Rwandan General Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa in South Africa. In fact, on the morning of his death, the newspaper had published an article, implicating key government officials in Kayumba’s attempted murder. By 10 pm, Rugumbage was dead. Police had an immediate explanation, as well as two suspects, who, according to police, killed Rugambage because of lingering hatred over his alleged involvement in the killing of a family member during the ’94 genocide. How convenient for the government for the murder to have occurred on the same day of the article’s release and only weeks before the election.
Several months prior to Rugambage’s murder, Umuvugizi and Umuseso, the two top-selling independent newspapers, were ordered by the government to suspend operations for six months. The government’s reason for shutting down the newspapers was that they had violated Article 83 of Rwanda’s Media Law, which prohibits media outlets from fabricating information or publishing material that may be ‘provocative’. Since the end of the genocide, the Rwandan government, as well as sectors of Rwandan civil society, has struggled to maintain peace and stability, always wary of the potential for a reemergence of ethnic violence. However, the same mechanisms that have been implemented to prevent such an occurrence have also been used by the government to restrict basic civil rights, including freedoms of speech and expression, as is alleged in the suspension of the two newspapers. Both newspapers had been extremely critical of President Kagame and his administration, and Kagame had announced previously that he would close the critical papers ‘either in good faith or by force’. He had even threatened those critical of him to either leave Rwanda or face being ‘shut down’. Kagame’s government received widespread criticism for suspending the two newspapers, including condemnation from well-respected Reporters without Borders and The Committee to Protect Journalists; however, his government’s onslaught against critical, independent media continued unabated.
So what qualifies as ‘provocative’ language in Rwanda? Both newspapers had been accused of publishing highly opinionated articles that threatened the stability of Rwandan society. However, although material printed in the papers was highly critical of the Kagame government and had called upon political forces to challenge the current regime, neither paper had attempted to manipulate ethnic sensitivities to incite violence, which is what post-genocidal media laws were created to specifically protect against. The government’s actions have led subsequently to accusations that it is using ‘genocidal ideology’ or ‘ethnic divisionism’ to impede the opposition and secure its power, or in other words, the government is manipulating the memory of genocide for its own political gains. The case of the Union of Democratic Forces (FDU-Inkigi) Party Chair, Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, directly illustrates this point. Ingabire is an outspoken ethnic Hutu who had plans to run for the presidency. However, although her party has made multiple attempts, it remains one of several opposition parties (which includes Rwisereka’s party, the Democratic Green Party) that has not been allowed to register. In addition, Ingabire currently remains under house arrest, after being charged by the government with ‘genocidal ideology’ and ‘spreading ethnic dissent.’ The government is referring to public statements Ingabire made highlighting a simultaneous genocide against Hutus and the RPF’s involvement in the killings of Hutus during and in the years following the genocide. The government has also charged Ingabire with allegedly cooperating with the Hutu rebel group, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
Although Ingabire’s statements and accusations are certainly provocative and do bring the focus back onto aspects of the genocide, they are not unsubstantiated. Regardless, the level of intimidation and harassment she has suffered throughout her political campaign is troubling. It’s been more than 15 years since the genocide and yet balanced public discourse on the subject is repeatedly repudiated, most recently to the benefit of the Kagame government. The regime has continuously invoked national security and the 1994 genocide to silence dissidence. Numerous government critics and opposition leaders have either been threatened or otherwise intimidated and have had to flee as a result. Many opposition leaders have been imprisoned, including presidential candidate for the Parti Social Imberakuri, Bernard Ntaganda, who was arrested on arbitrary charges of ‘ethnic divisionism’ and currently remains in custody pending prosecution. Ntaganda was arrested the same day that opposition parties were to hold a protest against the National Election Commission. Over 30 protesters, including Rwisereka, were arrested either on their way to the protest or at the protest location. Police officials actually claimed, rather laughably, that their intent was not to break up the protest and that the arrests were ‘coincidental’.
By the time of the election, there were only three challengers to Kagame’s campaign. All three were dismissed as being Kagame puppets, placed into the election race by the government to provide a mere facade of multi-party politics. Two of the candidates were members of Kagame’s coalition government, who supported him during his 2003 campaign, and all three candidates vowed to continue their support of the Kagame government after the election. The three candidates were as follows: Vice-President of the Chamber of Deputies and former Minister of Health Jean Damascene Ntawukuriryayo, of the Social Democratic Party; Vice-President of the Senate and former Minister of Commerce Prosper Higiro of the Liberal Party and Senator Alvera Mukabaramba of the Party for Progress and Concord. The candidates’ campaigns were rather uninspiring, and not a one of them presented any real challenge to Kagame. In fact, Ntawukuriryayo even stated after his candidacy was ‘approved’ that his “campaign [would] not inconvenience any of the other candidates,” and shortly after Kagame’s victory was announced, he gracefully conceded defeat with a statement that could only be described as finely scripted. Ntawukuriryayo stated in a rather contrived manner, “Elections were peaceful and transparent, so I would accept whatever comes out of these elections.” Such a statement ignores the terrible events leading up to the actual election and the repressive political environment in which real opposition candidates and the media were forced to operate. Even during the elections, Amnesty International reported that some villagers admitted to being forced to vote as early as 3am, although polls were supposed to open at 6am. Others described how their voting cards were forcibly taken from them by local authorities and then returned later with a ‘Voted’ stamp on them. There were also reports of arrests of individuals who had voted for opposition candidates. These incidents would of course help to explain how Kagame won an outstanding 93 percent of the vote.
Rwanda’s history necessitates a certain level of sensitivity when dealing with political matters; however, the current government should not be permitted to exploit this sensitivity to its advantage. If Rwanda is to heal and move forward with achieving sustainable democracy, the Kagame regime must not hinder basic freedoms and rights under the guise of protecting national security. Although Kagame has claimed numerous times that recent attacks and arrests against opposition leaders and journalists are not politically motivated, it would be ridiculous to believe otherwise. Rwandans must be given a real opportunity to choose how and by whom they want to be represented. The current environment does not allow for this. The concept of ‘free and fair’ during times of political elections means unrestricted access to information, the right to freely campaign and inform and the right to participate in the process at all levels for those vying for political positions. The Kagame government must put its own political interests aside for the good of the entire nation. It is nothing less than immoral to allow narrow, short-term personal power gains to supersede the importance of instilling and preserving larger democratic ideals and freedoms.
Although the election is over and Kagame has won as expected, uncertainty regarding the future of the Rwandan political process is prevalent. The recent election confirmed Kagame’s popularity, but it also revealed the extent of his tyranny, as well as the RPF’s hold upon Rwanda. Rwandans will now have to wait seven years until the next presidential election, and although this is a long period to wait, it will also bring with it the opportunity for increased political dialogue and accountability and the development of a true multi-party political system. It is imperative that in the next few years, Rwandan civil society and the Kagame government work cooperatively to develop and protect basic democratic rights and freedoms. If progress is not made on this front, the Rwandan government may very well transform into a full-blown dictatorship, with RPF, or even Kagame, at the dynastic helm.
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