Opposition stifled by fear as Kagame ‘dictatorship’ heads for polls

The Times of London
Kigali, Rwanda

Opposition figures have been arrested, beaten, murdered and banned from contesting next week’s elections in Rwanda.

Paul Kagame, the rebel leader who came to power after the 1994 genocide, has been accused by human rights organisations and diplomats of stifling all dissent as he heads almost unopposed for another seven-year term.

Mr Kagame’s predominantly Tutsi army put an end to the genocide, in which about 800,000 died in three months of killing. The slaughter was organised by ethnic Hutu extremists in the Government and perpetrated by ordinary Hutus against their Tutsi neighbours and moderate Hutus.

The Kagame Government managed to stamp out ethnic hatred but diplomats fear that the country is sliding into a different form of tyranny.

Victoire Ingabire, the aspiring presidential candidate of the FDU-Inkingi party, was arrested in April and another senior opposition official, André Kagwa Rwisereka, of the Democratic Green Party, was murdered last month, his head almost chopped off. Both parties have been blocked from competing in the presidential election next Monday.

Two private newspapers have been shut down. Jean-Bosco Gasasira, the editor of Umuvugizi newspaper, fled claiming that his life was threatened. In June Jean-Léonard Rubangabe, his deputy, was killed outside his home.

Most shocking was the attempted murder of a dissident army commander in South Africa during the World Cup. Lieutenant-General Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, a former army chief of staff who fled Rwanda in February, was shot in Johannesburg.

Bernard Ntaganda, another presidential hopeful, was arrested on suspicion of murder. Deo Mushayidi, a young Tutsi who once belonged to the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), was jailed on charges of attempting to raise an army against Mr Kagame.

One Western diplomat in Kigali confessed to being shell-shocked by the crackdown. Another described the human rights situation in Rwanda as precarious, adding: “This is still a military regime and threats are dealt with militarily.”

Ms Ingabire said: “Kagame is not yet ready to accept opposition, that there is a new generation that does not always agree with him.”

She is on bail facing charges of espousing genocide ideology, inciting divisions and collaborating with brutal anti-government rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Carina Tertsakian, of Human Rights Watch, said: “In recent months and weeks there has been an increase in intimidation, harassment and repression of anyone who is perceived to be an opponent or a critic of the Government.”

Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary-General, demanded an inquiry into the political violence when he met Mr Kagame last month.

RPF officials dismissed accusations that the party was behind the botched assassination of General Nyamwasa and denied any involvement in the other murders.

Mr Kagame’s Government has been accused before of trying to kill its opponents. In 1998 Seth Sendashonga, a former minister, was shot dead in Kenya, and Augustin Cyiza, a prominent judge and government critic, disappeared shortly before the last presidential election in 2003.

Mr Kagame, 52, has worked to rebuild the country’s society and economy, and the stifling of dissent is often seen as the price for Rwanda’s stability. However, it has taken a worrying turn of late, diplomats say.

The charges against Ms Ingabire, a Hutu politician, stem from her insistence that Tutsis admit responsibility for alleged war crimes committed before and after the genocide. Such open talk of the divisions that lie beneath Rwanda’s ordered society is illegal under new laws. Frank Habineza, the leader of the Green party, said that the murder of his deputy had left him scared. “It puts a lot of questions into our hearts about what’s next for Rwanda. Will it be like this for ever? Will the RPF ever bring democracy to this country?”

Mr Kagame counts Tony Blair among his advisers and Western criticism of Rwanda’s crackdown on dissent has been muted. Mr Kagame was re-elected seven years ago with more than 90 per cent of the vote.