Rwandan opposition politicians and independent journalists have been threatened or forced into exile in the run-up to the August 9 presidential polls, in which incumbent President Paul Kagame is seeking to extend his mandate for another seven years.
A few days ahead of Rwanda’s landmark presidential elections, the atmosphere in the capital city of Kigali is tense. Over the past few months, human rights groups say the country’s independent press is being muzzled, the opposition has been brutally silenced, and there have been numerous mysterious disappearances and arrests.
It’s against this fraught backdrop that Rwandan President Paul Kagame will be seeking to extend his mandate for a fresh seven-year term. The strong man of Kigali is widely expected to be swept to victory in the polls, which take place on August 9. Kagame rose to international prominence following the 1994 genocide in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred, when his victorious Rwandan Patriotic Front swept into Kigali.
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Since coming to power, Kagame has played a pivotal role in the economic success of his tiny African nation, earning him praise from countries such as Britain and the US. This year could well see a repeat of Kagame's 2003 victory, when when he was elected with over 95% of the vote.
Candidates allied to Kagame
Why this may happen is partly due to the fact that the three other presidential candidates do not pose a serious threat to Kagame’s re-election. Jean-Damascene Ntawukuriryayo is vice-president of the National Assembly and a former health minister in the Kagame government, while Prosper Higiro is vice-president of the Senate, and a former commerce minister. Meanwhile, Senator Alvera Mukabaramba has again announced her candidacy and intention to become the first woman to run for the presidency, but in 2003 withdrew from the race on the eve of the elections to endorse... Paul Kagame.
The Rwandan president is running on a platform of reconciliation, strengthening national unity and promoting economic development through public investment, the key ideas of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) - the governing party since 1994. This platform is popular with Rwandan voters who have seen their country transformed from the ravages of the genocide to comparative economic and political stability.
Three new opposition groups, the United Democratic Forces (UDF), the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, and Party Social-Imberakuri (PSI), have run into problems. The first two have still not received approval from the authorities, while the PSI - the only legal opposition party - was unable to stand after the party’s leader, Bernard Ntaganda, was arrested on June 24.
Ntaganda was charged with “genocide ideology” and “divisionism”. Rights groups such as Amnesty International say the charges were issued under vague laws that are ostensibly used to restrict hate speech, but often used to silence legitimate dissent.
Similarly, Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, president of the UDF, was arrested in April. Charged with "criminal association with a group" and "denying the 1994 genocide,” the opposition leader is currently under house arrest in Kigali. Contacted by FRANCE 24 - on a line monitored by authorities - she spoke of daily humiliation and intimidation. She was expelled from houses that she formerly rented after the owners were visited by "thugs in the pay of power."
She also spoke of daily threats. "I get phone calls, SMS texts, letters,” said Umuhoza, since returning to Rwanda in January after 16 years in exile in the Netherlands. “Before, I did not take these threats seriously. But since July 14, I'm afraid.”
Killings and intimidation
On that day, the tortured body of Andre Kagwa Rwisereka, Vice-Chairman of the Democratic Green Party, was found in a marsh a few miles from the town of Butare in southern Rwanda.
Rwisereka was a vocal critic of the Rwandan president. Dozens of opposition activists have been arrested, imprisoned or placed under house arrest. Many have been threatened and forced into exile in recent months.
But the political class is not the only victim of repression. The same day that Bernard Ntaganda was arrested, journalist Jean-Louis Rugambage was gunned down outside his home. An associate editor of the independent bimonthly "Umuvugizi," he was investigating the attempted assassination in June of General Kayumba Nyamwasa, a fierce critic of the Kagame regime.
Several journalists, including two editors of independent magazines have been forced into exile after having also received death threats. About 30 newspapers have been banned by the official media council on the grounds that they "did not fulfill the terms of distribution and transmission under the law."
Although the regime's involvement in these cases has not been proven, the finger of suspicion points toward the government. Kagame, dubbed "Bismark of the Great Lakes", has been a long-time supporter of various methods to muzzle dissent. "The climate in Rwanda at the moment is not unlike the situation in 2003 during the presidential election,” said Carina Tertsakian from the New York-based Human Rights Watch. “Kigali exercised the same type of repression in the 2008 parliamentary elections. Besides, neither Rwanda nor the international observers are really surprised at what is happening today," she maintains, condemning the silence of the international community.
But the regime’s response to the opposition is not the sole factor contributing to the noxious atmosphere. For Tertsakian, widening divisions within the ruling party have greatly contributed to the increasing repression. "In my opinion, Kagame has more fear of internal dissent that the opposition parties,” she notes. Few in the opposition have thrown in the towel. Victory Ingabire Umuhoza, for one, insists that despite the fear, "humiliation, injustice, dictatorship and arrogance give me more determination to continue my fight."
Date created : 2010-08-05