KIGALI, Rwanda — Rwandan President Paul Kagame received a royal welcome in London as he celebrated Rwanda’s entry into the Commonwealth early in March. The Rwandan flag was hoisted over Commonwealth headquarters at Marlborough House, and Kagame and wife were feted at a banquet hosted by Queen Elizabeth.
It was a moment of triumph for Rwanda’s leader who has guided the country back from the genocide of 1994. But back home, far from the pomp, Kagame is increasingly seen as autocratic and he is facing some of the most serious challenges since coming to power.
In the lead-up to the presidential election in August, there are mounting conflicts in Rwanda, including deadly grenade attacks in the capital, a challenge by a controversial opposition leader, and defections by high-level officials from his Rwandan Patriotic Front party.
In response, the Kagame government is cracking down. Human Rights Watch has warned that opposition politicians are facing increased threats, attacks and harassment.
On the international front, Rwanda has become the darling of many Western governments, widely praised for its economic development, environmental policies, anti-corruption efforts and embrace of information technology. Rwanda is one of only two Commonwealth countries that were not originally part of the British Empire — an unusual modern-day choice of alignment for this small African nation that in colonial times was under German and Belgian control, and in the 1990s more closely tied to France.
By joining the Commonwealth, Kagame has boosted his international support and bolstered his power at a crucial time in his presidency.
Back in Kigali, however, a string of grenade attacks has shaken this normally peaceful city. The latest incident saw 16 people injured in two near-simultaneous blasts on March 4.
When an earlier round of grenade explosions rocked Kigali in February, Rwandan authorities first pointed the finger at the FDLR, a Hutu rebel group across the border in Congo. But later they blamed it on Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, a former army general who was most recently the ambassador to India, and Patrick Karegeya, a former intelligence chief. Both men have fled to South Africa, joining the dozens of once high-ranking exiles who have defected to neighboring countries since Kagame came to power.
“The regime in Kigali is really descending into total dictatorship and you know absolute power corrupts absolutely … . You are not supposed to debate and if you are perceived to have a different opinion on anything, then you are an enemy,” Nyamwasa told Voice of America. “That’s what happened to me.”
At a press conference this month, Kagame also tried to link the grenade attacks to independent journalists who are critical of his rule, lashing out in particular at Rwandan journalists in exile who had interviewed Karegeya, one of the two ex-military officers accused in the grenade attacks.
Some observers, however, suspect the country’s intelligence services may have masterminded the grenade attacks in an attempt to create a climate of fear in Rwanda and justify a crackdown ahead of the elections.
“The situation is getting tense as the election approaches,” said Didas Gasana, editor of weekly newspaper Umuseso, one of the only independent papers in the country.
|Rwandan editor Didas Gasana
Gasana has been sentenced to jail time for “criminal defamation” after having reported on an extramarital affair between a cabinet minister and the Kigali mayor. He is currently out pending appeal and had previously spent a year in exile because of threats from the authorities, and he still regularly receives threats on his life. His newspaper is struggling; government agencies and private companies are warned not to advertise in its pages. “We’ve come to live with this,” he says.
The 2003 election was marred by accusations of vote-rigging and intimidation. Against a weak opposition, Kagame’s party won 95 percent of the vote. Gasana worries that this election might be even less fair because so far opposition parties have not been allowed to register.
“There can’t be elections when people aren't allowed to make a choice,” he says.
Kagame and his RPF party have been in power since the end of the 1994 genocide that killed 800,000 million Tutsis, when he led an army into the capital to expel a Hutu-led government. It is this history that Kagame uses to justify his continuing rule.
Kagame has publicly denounced a controversial opposition politician who recently returned to Rwanda. Since arriving in Kigali in January, Victoire Ingabire, who is Hutu, has been harassed by police and denounced by government-controlled media outlets, who have branded her a “genocide denier,” a charge she has repeatedly rejected.
|Rwandan opposition politician Victoire Ingabire
Ingabire and her assistant were attacked by a gang of young men outside a government office where she had gone to seek papers to register her political party. “They knew I was coming,” she said.
The men threw rocks at them, badly injuring her assistant Joseph Ntawangundi, who has since been imprisoned for “genocide crimes.”
Ingabire, who left Rwanda prior to the genocide to study in Rotterdam, has said that the deaths of Hutus during the genocide have not been investigated or acknowledged. She has pushed for discussion of this issue, “for reconciliation,” she says.
“After 16 years, it is time to move to democracy,” said Ingabire.
Kagame has publicly warned Ingabire that she is “going too far” in her comments about the
1994 genocide, but “the law will catch up with her.”
The Rwandan government has used accusations of “genocide ideology” or participation in the genocide as a way of discrediting those who are critical of its rule.
Ingabire has been accused of links to the FLDR, which she denies, but she has refused to give details about who is funding her campaign.
Speaking at Commonwealth Day ceremonies in London, Kagame praised the international partnerships in trade and education that membership will bring. Joining the London-based organization also reinforces that the official language in Rwanda is now English, not French — a major linguistic overhaul for the country, which was previously French-speaking.
In Rwanda, English is usually associated with the elite of the Tutsi minority, many of whom spent years in exile in English-speaking Uganda and who dominate the Kagame government and the political sphere. French is spoken mainly by Hutu people.
Observers, such as newspaper editor Gasana, say that the use of English gives a boost to the Tutsi minority — for example the job market favors English speakers — and the government is sidelining the Hutus.
“They are deepening the animosity, they are deepening the acrimony between the Tutsis and the Hutus,” said Gasana, who is himself a Tutsi.
“I understand that Kagame is in a dilemma, but he created the dilemma that he is in.”