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The State of Democracy in Rwanda as Presidential Poll Approaches


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Rwandan general, Kayumba Nyamwasa was shot in the stomach at the gate of his home in Johannesburg last Saturday in what is believed, by his family and close friends, to be an assassination attempt by the government of Rwanda. A former Rwandan envoy to India and chief of defence staff, Gen. Nyamwasa fled Rwanda through Uganda after falling out with the Rwandan government. Together with Col. Patrick Karegeya, former director of External Intelligence, Nyamwasa has been living in South Africa after leaving Rwanda.

Nyamwasa did not mince his words after his defection. In an interview with Voice of America in March he said, "the regime in Kigali is really descending into a total dictatorship and you know, absolute power corrupts absolutely. So, in this case you don't have to have a different opinion [to get in trouble], you are not supposed to debate and if you are perceived to have a different opinion on anything, then you are an enemy. That's what happened to me." The government has since linked the former army chief to a series of grenade attacks that recently rocked the Rwandan capital. The Kigali government also accuses the two military two military officers for having ties with "terrorist" networks.


Gen. Nyamwasa, like Karegeya, fought alongside President Paul Kagame and both have served under him since the creation of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), the current ruling party. Soft spoken and intelligent, Gen. Nyamwasa remains one of the few officers who has never shied away from reminding the RPF senior leadership of the need to stick to the ideals that brought about the liberation of Rwanda. According to sources close to him, his reminders fell on deaf ears and Kagame came to view him as too liberal. He was, not once but twice, accused of plotting a coup against a regime that he has served after the genocide.

After fleeing the country, Gen. Nyamwasa is accused of conniving with Col. Karegeya to terrorise Kigali by planting grenades around the city. Kigali has been subjected to grenades attacks since March 2010, with the latest in May, claiming the life of one and injuring 21 people, according to police reports. These accusations represented a sudden shift from an earlier official statement by the country's police spokesman who had said that the grenade attacks were work of FDLR (Forces Democratiques pour la liberation du Rwanda) rebels operating in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). If indeed Nyamwasa was responsible, as the government claims, then this must mean that there are significant and growing differences between Kagame and his top military aides.


In another surprising development, former air force chief Lt. Gen. Charles Muhire and Maj. Gen. Emmanuel Karenzi Karake, the former deputy commander of UNAMID were arrested in April, on accusations that they had committed "serious misconduct". On 10 June, senior presidential aide on Security and former AMIS deputy commandant, Brig. Gen. Jean-Bosco Kazura, was arrested for insubordination in an incident that reportedly began in South Africa. According to Lt. Col. Jill Rutaremara, the army spokesperson, Gen. Kazura (who also heads the national football league FERWAFA) left for South Africa for the 2010 FIFA World Cup without official permission from the Army. The arrest took place a few weeks after Kagame denied reports from a Rwandan tabloid, Umuseso, that some high ranking officials faced arrest, and made a major shake-up in the military leadership on anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. The three arrested generals, like Nyamwasa and Karegeya, were members of an exclusive circle of top military officers in the former RPF movement which brought an end to the 1994 genocide - with Kagame, its current head, who is seeking and is widely expected to secure re-election in the presidential poll in August this year.

Back in 2007, human rights groups accused Karake of supervising extra-judicial killings of civilians before and after the Tutsi-led RPF rebels took power in Rwanda following the genocide there. Karake was at the time nominee for the post of the deputy commander of UNAMID but his endorsement faced problems in the light of these accusations. At the time, Kagame fiercely defended Karake and even threatened to withdraw Rwandan troops from Darfur if he was not appointed to the position. What has happened in their relationship between then and now remains a mystery.

With no threat from the nine registered opposition parties, the ruling RPF and the Rwandan government have thwarted the efforts of two newly formed opposition political parties to register. Victoire Ingabire, the outspoken president of FDU-Inkingi (Unified Democratic Forces), who recently returned from exile in the Netherlands and is now under judicial surveillance, and Frank Habineza of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, have been vocal and critical of RPF policies. Human Rights Watch's Africa Director, Georgette Gagnon says, "The Rwandan government already tightly controls political space. These incidents will further undermine democracy by discouraging any meaningful opposition in the elections."

If there is actually political freedom and space in Rwanda, as the current government claims, then it should allow opposition parties flexibility for participating in the forthcoming elections. Whether their views on genocide are ‘revisionist' and unacceptable is for the Rwandan electorate to judge. Given the country's recent history, Rwandans should be able to make choices that will strengthen the progress registered so far, particularly on security and reconciliation.

Government's intolerance of political opponents has been extended to the media. In March this year, the Media High Council in Rwanda suspended two local-language newspapers, Umuseso and Umuvugizi for 6 months for allegedly "violating media law and inciting public disorder."
 To outsiders, this may sound shocking, but to those that have closely followed the Rwandan political and security situation, this development was long coming. The two newspapers have been critical of the Kagame government, the RPF and the military.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the February ruling. Speaking about the suspension of the two publications' licenses, CPJ's Africa Program Coordinator, Tom Rhodes, says "by silencing these two local-language newspapers the Media High Council is robbing Rwanda voters of crucial alternative voices during the presidential election campaign."

If Rwanda appeared to the outside world to show immeasurable promise 16 years after the genocide, then these events bring into question the sustainability of the country's democracy, and its ability to translate this into prosperity for all its people.

Written by: Emmanuel Nibishaka, Intern, Security Sector Governance Programme



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