Despite release of political prisoners, President Kagame still despotic

The Rwandan head of state Major-General Paul Kagame speaking in Rwandan parliament on September 19, 2018.

The recent release of many Rwandan political prisoners should not stop campaigns aimed at a more open and tolerant political environment in the country.

For the past eight years, we have watched our birth country of Rwanda descend further into repression resulting from the political intolerance of its leaders. In 2010, when Victoire Ingibire Umuhoza tried to run for president, the first woman in the country to do so as a bona fide opponent, she was accused of political crimes and put in prison. Four years later, after performing a wonderfully inspiring and unifying song, beloved gospel artist Kizito Mihigo also was accused of political crimes and put in prison.

We watched as the ballooning tyrannyof the Rwandan government swallowed up any sense of independence, any dissent, opposition, defiance, or challenge in the public and private lives of Rwandans. Journalists were jailed, killed, or exiled; citizens disappeared without a trace; and neighbouring nations were torn and occupied. The message from the ruling government was clear: severe punishment for non-conformity and non-acquiescence to its prescribed mandate. A perceived challenge, even in the form of a compassionate song or an attempt to provide alternative leadership, was severely punished. Aggression against neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congoand extreme constriction and limits within the Rwandan political space became the standard function. In the face of such a terrifying reality, activist Ingabire and singer Mihigo displayed incredible courage.

On 14 September 2018, Rwandan people rejoiced at the news that the two political prisoners, Ingabire and Mihigo, had been “pardoned” by Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame. The next day, 2,400 other prisoners were released. Social media lit up with pictures and videos in celebration. Judging by the jubilations, the event was like Rwanda’s version of South Africa’s freeing of Nelson Mandela from prison. President Kagame’s allies quickly laid claim to victory and credited the political prisoners’ release to Kagame’s moral grandeur and benevolence.

Lost in the fray and celebratory noise was the fact that President Kagame should have never imprisoned either of the two and therefore should not claim moral victory for their pardon. Ingabire was imprisoned on the charges of genocide denial, a sweeping charge used against criticswho call for accountability for crimes committed by President Kagame’s ruling party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), and its military wing, the Rwandan Patriotic Army, before, during, and after the Rwandan Genocide. Her real “crime,” however, was daring to challenge President Kagame in the presidential election of 2010.

In fact, another woman, Diane Rwigara [she and her mother were later released from prison], spent a year in pre-trial detention for the same “crime,”after attempting to challenge President Kagame in the subsequent 2017 elections. Kizito Mihigo, the beloved and popular gospel musician, was imprisoned after singing a songthat boldly challenged President Kagame’s official version of the genocide that conveniently erases crimes committed by his party’s troops. Mihigo’s song squarely acknowledged the victims of Kagame’s RPF troops. That President Kagame would claim moral victory for the pardon is absurd.

Soon after her release, Ingabire gave a passionate interview to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in which she reaffirmed her commitment to her cause, and vowed to continue her previous activities, including advocating for other political prisoners such as Diane Rwigara and Deo Mushayidi. When pressed about whether she asked for pardon from President Kagame, she proudly proclaimed she had asked to be released according to Rwanda’s constitutional provision that gives the president the ability to release individuals from prison. She referred to the decision of the independent and international African Court of Human and People’s Rights, a court that had the jurisdiction to hear an appeal of the Rwandan courts’ judgment against her. Particularly, the court ruledthat her rights to a fair trial had been violated, vindicating her.

Ingabire in her BBC interview also reaffirmed her innocence, and defiantly reiterated that there was no crime for which she should have been imprisoned in the first place. Soon after her interview, President Kagame gave a speech of his own, in which he responded to her interview. He mockingly mimicked her assertion that she did not seek pardon, ridiculed her status as an international “star” politician, and threatened to throw her back in jail, should she fail to toe the line.

The reality shown by these releases is that President Kagame is crumbling under increasing pressure from the international community and needs positive press to rehabilitate his image. Rwandans and international allies have methodically applied constant pressure for the Rwandan government to release these innocent political prisoners, their supporters, and thousands of innocent Rwandans languishing in prison. Through social media, connections have been made with other ordinary Africans also pursuing democracy in their respective nations, and together, the combined voices grew into a mainstream chorus. These voices continue to reach many people who would otherwise not be exposed to nor know the extent of President Kagame’s brutality, repression, and dictatorial rule.

Outside of Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, most of Africa’s young population and the larger international community have been misled by President Kagame’s public relations mastery. In fact, lots of Africans treat President Kagame as a saviour—but millions of Rwandans and Congolese know he is not. In the late 1990s as he ascended into the global political stratosphere, President Kagame was proclaimed to be part of a “new breed of African leaders” that would usher in a new era in African leadership and politics, an era devoid of past shortcomings. Since then, social media and technology have served in spreading the word of his true actions, hidden from the world at large. More than at any time in the past, African youth and the larger international community are awakening to the brutality of President Kagame and his godfather, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. The added attention from social media has helped highlight the plight of Rwanda’s political prisoners Ingabire and Mihigo, along with tortured Ugandan musician and politician Bobi Wine.

It is now evident that the hard work by global citizens against the dictatorial regimes continues. The release of Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza and Kizito Mihigo is evidence that pressure on dictators like Kagame does work and must be sustained and increased. The media has produced reports, leading to limited access in diplomatic circles. Many donor nations have reduced aid. Kagame is looking to bolster his image. The celebrations of Ingabire’s and Mihigo’s freedom should not forget those who are still behind bars or who are missing—Deo Mushayidi, Theoneste Niyitegeka, Jean D’Amour Ngirinshuti, Lionel Nishimwe, and many political opponents. Let the celebrations not allow Kagame to claim the giving of pardon when he should be asking for the pardon of Rwandans and Congolese people. Let the celebrations not allow Kagame to cynically use this as another public relations campaign to regain favour with donors and the international community.

* Claude Gatebuke is a Rwandan war and genocide survivor. He is the executive director and co-founder of the African Great Lakes Action Network. He can be reached via email at [email protected]. Twitter @AGLANglr. Alice Gatebuke is a Rwandan genocide and war survivor, and a human rights advocate. She serves as the communications Director for African Great Lakes Action Network. She can be reached at [email protected]. Twitter @AGLANglr