Rwanda: Violence and Political Oppression Escalating in Months before August Elections

Though President Paul Kagame has been widely praised in the international community for bringing economic reforms and even received a global citizen award from U.S. President Bill Clinton for his commendable leadership in public service [1], the government and the ruling Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) have steadily tightened their control of the media and any form of opposition as the presidential elections on August 9th approaches. This will be only the second presidential election to occur since the 1994 genocide when more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.  The  number of threats and attacks on opposing party members and journalists have been steadily increasing with the persecution of dissenting journalists and the arrest of two presidential candidates, both under the charges of promoting ethnic divisionism and genocide ideology, accusations that several international human rights groups have found concerning.  As Human Rights Watch’s Africa director Rona Peligal points out, ‘These incidents are occurring at the very moment that parties are putting forward candidates for the presidential elections…The government is ensuring that opposition parties are  unable to function and are excluded from the political process” [2]. 

President Kagame argues that censorship and tight control of the media is necessary to avoid a return to the circumstances that led to the 1994 genocide.  The message he is trying to relay is one of unity and that they are all Rwandans over individual ethnic identities, but as many Rwandans have observed, simply ignoring or suppressing any dialog about ethnic divisions has not worked to resolve Hutu-Tutsi relations [3]. 

The Republic of Rwanda consists almost entirely of the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi ethnic groups.  These two groups have been entwined in a vicious cycle of violence and power-grabbing since Rwanda was a German and then Belgian colony.  Though social hierarchies and conflict existed between the agrarian Hutus and cattle-herding Tutsis before colonization, German and Belgium colonists perpetuated and exacerbated ethnic divisions by giving Tutsi power over Hutus by instating oppressive laws against Hutus.  This created a violent backlash against the Tutsis once Belgians relinquished their power, and the beginning of the perpetual acts of violence that both Rwanda and Burundi have experienced leading up to the 1994 genocide, which culminated in the Tutsi-led RPF taking control of the government and eventually restoring order.  Tutsis have since dominated government positions even though 85% of Rwandans identify as Hutus and only 15% identify as Tutsi [4]. 

A study of post-genocide Rwanda has found that the political space for debate in Rwanda is closing down through the use of legislation, threats, and intimidation.  The RPF’s concept of civil society is “an extension of, rather than a counterbalance to, the state,” which leaves no room for any type of debate or dissent.  Legislation that particularly limited the powers of opposing political parties was Article 52 of the 2003 Constitution, which prevented political organizations from conducting grassroots campaigns for elections by limiting their offices to “national, provincial and Kigali City levels” [5].  Though this ban on grassroots campaigning was amended in 2007, the RPF still retains a considerable advantage as other parties lack its comparable personnel and funds [6]. 

Two current laws that enable the government considerable freedom to eliminate any opposition are Law 47/2001of 18/12/2001 relating to discrimination and sectarianism [7] and the Law Regulating the Punishment of Genocide Ideology [8]. These laws are defined quite broadly and with such ambiguity as to what qualifies as divisionism or genocide ideology that they make it easy for the government to use them to suppress legitimate free speech and expression.  Opposition parties are often persecuted under this law as the government often interprets criticisms of their regime as threats to national security and stability [6]. 

On top of the arrests of two presidential candidates under the charge of genocide ideology, party members from all three of the major opposition parties (United Democratic Forces (FDU) -Inkingi, Socialist Party (PS) -Imberakuri, and the Democratic Green Party) have experienced harassments, assaults, and threats from both unidentified assailants and people believed to be directly linked to government or RPF institutions. 

As reported by Human Rights Watch, on February 3rd, Victoire Ingabire, the leader of the FDU-Inkingi and her party colleague Joseph Ntawangundi were attacked by a group of people in front of a government office accusing them of being génocidaires, or people involved in the genocide.  Ingabire was able to get away, but Ntawangundi was severely beaten.  Although the government and police authorities claim the attack was wrought by people waiting in line for identity documents who were angered when Ingabire and Ntawangundi cut the line, Ingabire and Ntawangundi say the attack was carefully planned [9].  Ingabire has called for the postponement of the presidential elections, citing “the rising tension, nervousness, repression and the shrinking of the political space” in Rwanda until the ruling RPF party can been contested on a more level playing field.

 Ingabire is currently under house arrest, facing charges of promoting genocide ideology, based on to her public demand that crimes committed by the RPF and Rwandan army against Hutus during and after the 1994 genocide should be better investigated [10].  Even Ingabire’s American lawyer, Peter Erlinder was imprisoned this June after flying to Rwanda to represent her.   He has published articles that they considered genocide ideology that argue that the number of Hutus that were killed has not been properly recognized and the Hutu death toll might have even exceeded the number of Tutsis killed in the conflict.  He was freed for medical reasons but he reportedly feared for his life while in prison and believed the “government wanted to make him disappear”.  Erlinder worked as a defense lawyer with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda based in Tanzania, which prosecutes those accused of participating in the genocide [10]. 

Bernard Ntaganda, the leader of the PS-Imberakuri party, was also arrested and taken in for questioning.  As quoted by Reuters, a police spokesman said the charges include “divisionism based on ethnicity, gathering people without permission, creating groups of people that are suspected of being criminals and attempted murder.”  Ntaganda has been suspected of being involved in an attempted assassination of former party vice-president Christine Mukabunani on top of stirring ethnic divisions [11].

Finally, Frank Habineza,leader of Democratic Green Party, reported to Human Rights Watch that he was approached by an unidentified man who warned him saying, “We’re monitoring you very closely. Be careful.”  The man’s comments alluded to his ties with the RPF and the government [9].  The Democratic Green Party could be a formidable opponent considering its major support base is the same as Mr. Kagame’s, consisting of previously exiled Tutsis, many of who hold many high-ranking positions in the government.  The PS-Imberakuri and FDU-Inkingi parites are supported by the majority Hutu ethnic group [3]. 

Opposition parties are not the only groups affected by the recent narrowing of political space and press freedom as presidential elections near.  Several prominent journalists have been killed or exiled and two independent papers have been shut down. 

Jean-Bosco Gasasira, the former editor of the independent newspaper Umuvugizi, fled Rwanda in April 2010, leaving John Leonard Rugambage as editor.  Gasasira was assaulted in February 2007 by armed assailants following the publication of articles critical of the RPF in addition to receiving threats that finally led him to self-exile.  The Rwandan High Media Council recently suspended Umuvugizi and another private newspaper called Umuseso, for six months before then ordering them to be completely shut down, calling them threats to national security [12]. 

On June 24th, Rugambage was shot and killed outside his home in Kigali by a man who approached and fired several shots at Rugambage as he was driving up to his gate.   Umuvugizi had posted an article online that day that linked the shooting of former Rwandan general Kayumba Nyamwasa to Rwandan intelligence officials.  Umuvugizi’s website is now blocked inside Rwanda [13, 14].  Nyamwasa was shot and killed while in exile in South Africa.  He was once allies with Kagame, but reportedly Nyamwasa was increasingly seen as a political rival.  He was suspected by the Rwandan government of being behind three grenade attacks in Kigali February 19th [15]. 

The closing of and the limitations imposed on these two prominent independent newspapers is yet another example of how disappearances and self-imposed exiles perpetuates the government’s tactic that allows only pro-government opinions to be disseminated, creating a climate of fear, deterring any individuals from speaking up against the government. 

Although the minister of Foreign Affairs and government spokeswomen Louise Mushikiwabo has denied that the government has had any hand in the killing of Rugambage and that the multiple arrests of opposing party members by the government were carried out to enforce Rwanda’s laws against genocide denial [10], the IIJD calls upon Rwanda’s government stop the rising acts of violence and arrests of opposing media and political voices.  Whether or not the government or RPF members were directly involved in these incidents, President Kagame’s government should feel obligated to investigate these harassments and murders and protect the rights and well-being of its citizens.

The IIJD supports Human Rights Watch’s call for a full investigation into the persecutions endured by opposing political parties as well as Amnesty International’s request to Rwanda’s government to “respect the rights to freedom of association and freedom of expression and ensure that journalists can work freely, independently and with protection from state authorities” [12].  Allowing political space for debate and freedom of press should not be confused with instigating ethnic divisions or genocide ideology.  The only way to continue the peace and economic prosperity that President Kagame and his government have maintained for the past ten years is to keep Rwanda’s institutional framework strong and assure that elections are truly democratic by allowing anyone to run without the fear of persecution.  This involves amending their laws about genocide ideology to be more specific to reduce its abuse so that any candidate can participate in the election and voice their opinions freely.  If the current government continues to suppress free speech and narrow the political space, they risk refueling the type of resentment that led to the genocides and civil wars of Rwanda’s past. 

Rwanda fell to 157th place out of 175 worldwide in Reporters Without Border’s 2009 Press Freedom Index (Rwanda was 147th in 2008, 145th in 2007, and 129th in 2006) [16].