/ 23 July 2010

Rwanda’s opposition silenced

In five weeks, Rwandans go to the polls to elect a president. But the incumbent, Paul Kagame, continues to exert total control over the country’s electoral processes.

Kagame, who came to power as the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the rebel army that ended the 1994 genocide, legitimised his rule in 2003 when he won the presidential elections with 95% of the vote. Such a result would suggest that he was not elected in a free and fair poll.

But even though Amnesty International, the European Union, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations found serious irregularities and widespread repression during the elections, Kagame has won praise from major donors such as the United States and the United Kingdom for his leadership of Rwanda’s rebirth.

Many in the international community have remained supportive of Rwanda’s “democratic transition”. They ignore the widespread arrest of journalists and opposition politicians, the closure of independent newspapers, the ejection of a Human Rights Watch researcher, the attempted assassination of exiled General Kayumba Nyamwasa, who had a falling out with Kagame, and the killing of pressman Jean-Leonard Rugambage, who tried to report on the assassination bid in the online version of a Rwandan newspaper whose print edition had been closed by the state.

Although diplomats and policymakers in some countries, including Sweden and The Netherlands, have cut aid, the US and UK publicly continue to support Kagame.

In Rwanda, politics is the preserve of elite actors who represent about 10% of the population. The rest has almost no say in the political process. In November last year a group of farmers in southern Rwanda sought to register a new political party and put up their own presidential candidate. Several were arrested without charge — the organisers either remain in prison or have fled to neighbouring Burundi. Anyone who questions RPF policies or its treatment of the opposition and its critics risks being beaten or harassed. Those perceived as sympathetic to the opposition are often arrested or die mysteriously.

This has prompted Human Rights Watch to report that the stifling of political freedom is an RPF strategy to “silence critical voices before the elections”. None of the three main opposition parties — the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, FDU-Inkingi and PS-Imberakuri — can take part and even distant family members of opposition politicians and critical journalists find themselves under surveillance.

As an aide to the minister of local government put it: “In 2010, the people will also vote as we instruct them. This means that those who vote against us understand that they can be left behind. To embrace democracy is to embrace the development ideas of President Kagame.”

Rwandans are sceptical about the government’s commitment to democracy. A male university student, who asked not to be named, told me: “Voting is not something done freely. Since the middle of 2009, students have been told to take an oath of loyalty to the RPF. If we don’t join the party, we have no opportunities to get a job, get married or have any kind of life. In Rwanda, democracy means understanding that the power of the RPF is absolute.”

A rural woman who lost her husband in the 1994 genocide and who also asked to remain nameless said: “Democracy is something the government says we need when they fear losing their power. We heard this before the genocide and we hear it now. Democracy would be OK if ordinary people like me could participate rather than being told who to vote for and when.”

Behind the elections looms the spectre of renewed violence. “Anyone who has the means to do so is getting out of the country,” said an academic, who chose not to speak in his own name. “For those of us who can’t, we just hope the elections are without violence.” — Guardian News & Media 2010

Susan Thomson is a US academic who has been researching state-society relations in Rwanda since 1996

Another Critic Murdered

A senior member of an opposition Rwandan political party has been murdered in the third attack on a government critic in a month.
The body of Andre Kagwa Rwisereka, vice-president of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, which was unable to gain registration to contest next month’s poll, was found near a river in southern Rwanda.

He had been reported missing on July 13.

“His head was almost completely removed from his body. His brother, Antoine Haguma, confirms seeing the dead body,” said Frank Habineza, the party president.

Police said a machete had been found near the victim, who had also suffered chest wounds.

Eric Kayiranga, a police spokesperson, said Rwisereka had reportedly been carrying a lot of money and robbery might have been the

The murder follows the killing in Rwanda on June 24 of Jean Leonard Rugambage, acting editor of the Umuvugizi newspaper.

The government suspended the paper for six months in April for “inciting insubordination in the army and police” and publishing “information that endangers public order”.

Five days earlier, the former Rwandan army chief, Lieutenant General Kayumba Nyamwasa, who had fallen out with President Paul Kagame, was shot in the stomach in South Africa.

Both the exiled Umuvugizi editor and Nyamwasa’s wife accused the Rwandan government of being behind the attacks.
The government has vigorously denied this. But human rights groups have accused Kagame’s regime of clamping down on political opponents and the independent media in recent months.

The press watchdog Reporters Without Borders has called on the European Union and other donors to suspend financial support for the election because of “a series of grave press freedom violations”.

“How much longer will the international community continue to endorse this repressive regime?” the organisation asked. — Guardian News & Media 2010