It isn’t all rosy in Rwanda, an East African country described as one of the fastest growing economies in the continent and an emerging African powerhouse led by a former military leader who is credited for ending the dreaded genocide of 1994.
Paul Kagame led a Tutsi-backed and heavily armed Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) to take control of the country after an estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 Tutsis were mass slaughtered by members of the Hutu majority government.
Kagame was considered the defacto leader from 1994 to 2000 when he served as Vice President and Minister of Defence. He assumed the presidency in 2000 when President Bizimungu resigned and has since been the president without any fierce opposition.
Women have had slim chances of getting to the top in Rwanda’s political hierarchy as the only woman to ever rise to the topmost position was Agathe Uwilingiyimana who was Prime Minister of Rwanda in 1993.
She was assassinated on April 7, 1994, by the presidential guard 14 hours after the assassination of President Habyarimana which commenced the genocide.
Two decades later, two Rwandan women have attempted to run against President Paul Kagame but ended up in jail for various reasons which they claim to be politically motivated. Read more about them below.
Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza
Born in October 1968, Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence at the Kigali Central Prison on charges of terrorism and threatening national security.
She was arrested in 2010 after she returned to her country following 16 years in exile to contest as a candidate against Paul Kagame in Rwanda’s August 2010 presidential election.
Umuhoza was the leader of the coalition of exiled opposition political groups, Unified Democratic Forces (UDF), and she resigned her work as an official of an international accounting firm in the Netherlands, where she was in charge of its accounting departments in 25 branches in Europe, Asia and Africa, to help rebuild her country.
She has worked for her party since 1997 from her base in the Netherlands and was key in the creation of the coalition to rival the dominant Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) party of Paul Kagame which has no opposition in the country and was stifling dissent and persecuting opposition members.
Umuhoza was held under house arrest only three months after arriving in the country. She formed the Permanent Consultative Council of Opposition Parties with two other opposition leaders in Rwanda to strengthen the democratic process.
She became a threat to Kagame’s government since the first day of her arrival when she gave a speech at the Gisozi Genocide Memorial Centre to honour the victims of the genocide. Umuhoza called for the acknowledgement of Hutus who also died during the genocide and justice for all to bring about reconciliation.
This speech was used as evidence for the charge of genocide revisionism which was levelled against her in court after her arrest. She was placed under house arrest in April 2010 and then detained in October with four alleged co-conspirators accused of “forming an armed group with the aim of destabilising the country, complicity to acts of terrorism, conspiracy against the government by use of war and terrorism, inciting the masses to revolt against the government, genocide ideology and provoking divisionism.”
After a long court battle including intimidation of witnesses and allegations of bribery attempts by the Rwandan intelligence agencies to rebels to testify against Umuhoza, Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza boycotted the court proceedings.
In 2012 after four postponements of the verdict and the prosecution’s request for the maximum life sentence, Umuhoza was sentenced to eight years by the Kigali High Court for “conspiracy against the country through terrorism and war” and “genocide denial”.
A year later, the Supreme Court has upheld the conviction and increased her jail term to 15 years.
Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza is married and a mother of three. She was nominated with two other Rwandan political figures in prison for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2012.
Diane Shima Rwigara
Diane Shima Rwigara is a 36-year-old women’s rights activist and entrepreneur who is currently behind bars in Rwanda for alleged incitement to insurrection.
Her woes started after expressing interest in challenging Paul Kagame in the August 2017 presidential election as an independent candidate.
The daughter of businessman Assinapol Rwigara, who was pivotal in the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front, distanced herself from the party after her father’s death in 2015 in a road accident which she claimed was an assassination.
Two days after announcing her candidacy, Rwigara was hit with a scandal as nude pictures believed to be hers speculated on social media. The pictures which she claimed were “manipulated” were shared widely by blogs and websites in Africa.
She gained a lot of support on social media after the scandal including condemnation of the act of online shaming. After a few days of silence, she bounced back to continue her campaign.
After picking up forms to file her candidacy, she was hit with another blow as the National Electoral Commission disqualified her with other opposition candidates for errors in application forms and inadequate signatures from the districts. Rwigara described the disqualification as a political influence.
She launched an activist group called the People Salvation Movement to challenge the Kagame regime to ensure human rights. This was immediately followed by a raid of her family’s house by the police who said they were investigating them for forgery and tax evasion.
Rwigara and her family faced series of arrests without specified charges. Separate charges including inciting insurrection, tax evasion, offences against state security, use of counterfeited documents among others were levelled against Diane, her sister Anne and mother Adeline.
She remains in prison as her trial is ongoing. Meanwhile, her family’s assets and stock of their tobacco company have been auctioned off by the country’s revenue authority which said it was recovering unpaid taxes.
The family has filed court cases against the confiscation of its assets and the sale of their stock at a much lower rate.
Civil society and rights organisations have described the arrests and intimidation as politically motivated. Amnesty International has called on the Rwandan judiciary to ensure that Diane Rwigara’s trial does not become another means to persecute government critics.
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