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Futile ballot in the land of 1,000 hills

By Eleneus Akanga
Posted on Friday, 19 March 2010 10:58

In the Know features an interview, opinion or analysis on the events making the news in Africa each week.

Rwanda has made remarkable progress since the 1994 genocide, but a series of grenade attacks and flying accusations against former generals and journalists have exposed how unprepared the country is for multiparty democracy.

Sixteen years ago, Rwanda was on the blink. The economy was at a standstill, chaos loomed and an estimated 800,000 locals had been killed in the shortest and most brutal mass slaughter known to mankind. Today, the country continues to make remarkable economic progress, recording 7% year-on-year gross domestic product growth and creating new business opportunities to lift many out of poverty.

At the helm, President Paul Kagame, a former rebel, remains tough and popular. Having won overwhelmingly with 96% of the vote in 2003, he remains a cult figure among many who believe that without him the country would slip back into mayhem.

Kagame’s party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) has been growing. His economic successes have made him a darling of Britain and the US, who view him as one of a new brand of African leaders. Despite its record on free speech and democracy, Kagame’s Rwanda was accepted as the 54th member of the Commonwealth in November. He has also mended ties with France, which has yet to reconcile itself to its role in the 1994 genocide, despite President Nicolas Sarkozy’s admission this year that mistakes were made.

However, Kagame remains as uncompromising to dissent as he is to competition. Hard-nosed newspapers that refuse to be used as political tools by his government have been denied advertising revenue and stifled out of business. Independent journalists and human rights activists are being ruthlessly treated, either by declaring them persona non-grata – the fate of Daily Monitor reporter Robert Mukombozi in 2009 – or through a visa policy that refuses entry to known critics.

Room for a fair vote?

Before the 2003 poll, Kagame’s main challenger, former Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramungu, returned to contest the election only three weeks before the poll, citing a lack of political space. He claimed his campaign posters were confiscated by Rwanda Customs and that his campaign managers were intimidated by members of the ruling party. It came as no surprise that he managed a mere 3.6% of the vote.

This year Victoire Ingabire, an accountant-turned-politician who spent 16 years in exile in Netherlands, has made an effort to turn up early. Her political party, the Forces Démocratiques Unifiées du Rwanda (FDU- Inkingi), however, is yet to register. Joseph Ntawangundi, her political aide, was arrested on genocide charges in February and Ingabire remains a subject of constant criticism from government spin doctors.

In October 2009, Rwanda promulgated a law that criminalises “genocide ideology”. Article 13 of the country’s constitution makes it an offence to engage in “revisionism” or “genocide denial”. The two terms have been broadly defined to include any diverging views about the ruling party’s account of the 1994 genocide. Critics say the law is vague, ambiguous and that it was essentially enacted to unduly stifle freedom of expression.

It is this law that the government seems to be using against Ingabire. On March 13, local authorities in Kigali foiled plans to hold the first party conference of the FDU-Indingi, stopping it on a technicality because Ingabire is the subject of an on-going police investigation. “We asked her to first clear her case with the Criminal Investigations Department, and if she is cleared, she will be allowed to go on with her activities,” Nyarugenge district mayor Theophile Nyirahonora told local media.

Ingabire, a controversial figure, is being investigated over her links with the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), a rebel organisation operating in neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo. A report from United Nations investigators last November said she had regular contact with its leaders. Since her arrival in the country a few months ago, Kigali has been up in arms against her campaign, with critics saying that her manifesto is hinged on divisionism and ethnicity.

“The [UN] report claims the commander in chief of the FDLR is my brother,” said Ingabire in answer to emailed questions from The Africa Report. “This is rubbish. The truth of the story is that the government does not want a true dialogue and wants to demonise any true dialogue that is not under its iron fist.”

Presidential elections in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda are often preceded with high expectations and political parties congregating to pitch their election agendas to the electorate. Not so in Rwanda. The holding of political rallies is banned.

Under the country’s electoral laws, candidates are not allowed to begin campaigning until 26 days before the election. When you have 26,338km² to cover in less than four weeks, it is an uphill task.

Explosions in Kigali

Ingabire’s introduction into the Rwandan political arena, besides exposing how undemocratic and unprepared Rwanda is for true multiparty politics, has helped raise political temperatures.

Early last month, the capital was rocked by a series of grenade blasts which police spokesman Eric Kayiranga was quick to blame on FDLR rebels. Arrests were also made. Three weeks later in an impromptu press conference, Prosecutor General Martin Ngoga claimed that Lieutenant General Kayumba Nyamwasa and Colonel Patrick Karegeya were behind the attacks. Both are now in exile in South Africa. President Kagame accused journalists of working with the fugitive officers to destablise the country.

Journalist Godwin Agaba, currently on the run, has since gone on record to claim the grenade attacks were an inside job. In fact one of the accused, Gen. Nyamwasa, hinted as much during a radio interview with Voice of America on 3 March. “These are just threats. It is the government threatening the population, threatening anybody who would want to raise his voice,” he said.

With Rwanda on tenterhooks, it is no surprise that international lobby groups are worried. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalist has already expressed concern over the chances of balanced election coverage. Amnesty International’s Africa Programme Director Tawanda Hondora is concerned “that these recent incidents are part of wider pattern of intimidation and harassment to discourage and discredit opposition groups”.

As Kagame looks forward to another massive victory that will guarantee his tight grip on Rwanda for another seven years, questions should be asked as to whether sixteen years after the genocide, time has not come to open up the very issues that affect the populace.

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