Diane vs Rwanda’s Goliath

Long shot: Diane Rwigara plans to run for president in the August election. Despite no previous political experience, she claims that she would win if the election was fair and transparent. (Cyril Ndegeya/AFP)

Long shot: Diane Rwigara plans to run for president in the August election. Despite no previous political experience, she claims that she would win if the election was fair and transparent. (Cyril Ndegeya/AFP)

It takes a few weeks to arrange an interview with Diane Rwigara. The 35-year-old businesswoman and now politician is busy, and who can blame her? Running for president anywhere is hard. In Rwanda, where political opponents of Paul Kagame’s government are routinely harassed, persecuted and sometimes killed, it is relentless.

By the time we do finally connect, another complication has arisen. A week earlier, Rwanda’s electoral commission had instituted a new form of social media censorship, ruling that no presidential candidates can post on social media without first getting content approved by the commission.

Did our conversation, conducted by Whatsapp call, fall into the restricted category? Was our interview illegal?

Rwigara laughs. She’s not worried. Even by Rwandan standards, this was a step too far, and pressure from both within Rwanda’s ruling establishment and the international community has already forced the electoral commission to rescind the restrictions.

This, at least, has gone Rwigara’s way. Not much else has.

According to Rwanda’s unusual electoral laws, officially she has just three weeks to campaign before the August 4 vote. She can’t put posters up anywhere, which makes self-promotion difficult. Her campaign is not allowed to solicit donations, so must be entirely self-funded.

It gets worse. Just two days after announcing her presidential bid, the internet was flooded with nude pictures supposedly featuring Rwigara — an obvious, crude smear. “Fake news,” she says. “Just one of the many tactics being used to silence me.”

Added together, this is not exactly a promising position from which to take on the incumbent, who has ruled Rwanda for 17 years and counting, and won the referendum that allowed him to run for a third term in office by a staggering — and scarcely believable — 98%.

Can she win? “In fair and transparent elections, yes I would win. I would definitely win, and I’m not just saying that. If RPF [the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front] is so confident in itself, if they are loved by the people as they claim, why so many attacks? Why won’t they let me compete fairly? They do what they do because they are threatened. They know the truth.”

It’s brave talk from a brave woman. Kagame’s most vocal opponents have a strange way of meeting unfortunate ends. Victoire Ingabire, leader of a small opposition party, is serving 15 years in jail for supposedly conspiring against the government. Patrick Karageya, the former spy chief who fell out with the regime, was murdered in Johannesburg’s Michaelangelo Hotel on New Year’s Eve in 2013. Kayumba Nyamwasa, a disillusioned general who also fled to Johannesburg, has survived three assassination attempts there. Opposition activist Illuminée Iragena disappeared in March 2016 on her way to work in Kigali and hasn’t been seen since. The list goes on.

Rwigara accepts the risks. “It took me a while to decide to run because of my family and friends. Whatever you do here in Rwanda, you’re not the only person involved; it has consequences also on your loved ones. But it got to the point where I felt I had no choice but to do it. I got tired of waiting for somebody else, some politician, to come and speak up about the many issues in the country and offer solutions. I said, ‘why not me, why can’t I do it?’ ”

Although Rwigara maintains that she has always been outspoken, her public-political consciousness can be traced back to a specific moment: the death, in suspicious circumstances, of her father Assinapol. He was a wealthy businessman and for many years a major funder of Kagame’s RPF. The Rwigara family say he was assassinated after getting on the wrong side of the ruling party; the police claim it was a traffic accident.

Rwigara’s wealthy background raises an important point: for all her undoubted courage, and for all her promises to change the system, Rwigara is in many ways an establishment candidate. She is a Tutsi from deep within the ruling elite, whose family has profited enormously from its political connections. That she can pay for her presidential campaign tells its own story.

The timing of her Damascene conversion may also be a problem for voters: as far as the public record shows, her resistance to the regime began only after her father’s death; after her family began to be frozen out of the lucrative patronage networks that come with such lofty social status.

Rwigara tells the story slightly differently. “My father was one of the major contributors to RPF back in the 1990s. He continued to do so even afterwards. But again, living in this country you have no choice but to make big donations. We did.”

It’s just how business works — and it’s one of the things she is determined to change. “The outside world thinks that those being persecuted are just those with a political opinion. It’s not just that. If you have a business and you don’t let RPF be part of that, you will not be able to operate in this country. So they don’t just want to control what you think and say but also what you do.”

This is not the only thing that outsiders get wrong about Rwanda, which is so often lauded as a model for development in Africa. “Rwanda is not the Singapore of Africa. It’s one of the poorest countries. Rwanda has sold an image to the outside world, a positive image to the outside world, and they have succeeded at that.

“But it’s just an image. It’s not reality. There’s so much hidden behind the façade. People talk about how clean Kigali is, they talk about the nice hotels and buildings. But most of those hotels are empty because most Rwandans don’t have the money to go eat or spend a night at those hotels. Most of those new buildings are empty. They have focused on impressing the outside world instead of trying to take care of Rwandans.”

She reels off statistics with the confidence of a politician about to hit the campaign trail: 80% of the population below the World Bank’s poverty level of $3.10 day; a GDP per capita of just $697, one of the lowest in Africa; and unemployment officially at 13.2% but “much higher than that in reality”.

Her solutions to these problems are generic and tinged with naivety — unsurprisingly given her youth and lack of government experience. She says she rejects any standard political labels, and would instead focus on opening up political space, addressing economic inequality, inclusive development and housing provision.

Despite her protestations to the contrary, she speaks like someone who knows she will never actually have to run a government: big on rhetoric, beautifully expressed, but light on concrete policy.

There are still several weeks to go before campaigning can begin in earnest. Rwigara must first submit 600 signatures in support of her bid, including 12 from each of the country’s 30 regions, to the electoral board, who will then confirm her candidacy. She says she has the signatures. As well as Kagame, Rwigara will be facing off against Green Party head Frank Habineza and independent Philippe Mpayimana.

No, Rwigara will not win this election. But that doesn’t make her candidacy irrelevant. On social media, Rwigara paraphrases former United States first lady Michelle Obama: “When they go low, we go higher.” And that really is the value of what she is doing. As a 35-year-old, she is raising the bar for what younger people in Rwanda can aim for. As a woman, she’s doing the same. And as a renegade from within the ruling party establishment, she’s showing that even Kagame can’t paper over all the cracks in the regime.

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