Rwanda: Elections and the Myth of Women’s Empowerment

Opposition to President Paul Kagame’s reelection has been jailed, thwarted, and suppressed.

By Claude Gatebuke and Helen C. Epstein

On August 4, Rwanda will hold its third presidential election since the genocide that nearly destroyed the country in 1994. Current president Paul Kagame has won international praise and much donor support not only for leading the country back from the brink but also for promoting public health and gender equality. Rwanda has the world’s highest percentage of women in Parliament; girls and boys are equally likely to be enrolled in primary school, and rates of maternal and child mortality are among the lowest in Africa.

But, as a new Amnesty International report on Rwanda shows, this rosy picture masks a terrifyingly repressive program of which many courageous Rwandan women have been victims. For over two decades, attacks on opposition supporters, journalists, and human-rights activists have created a climate of fear that renders the election a travesty.

Holes have also recently appeared in the story of Rwanda’s development success. According to Belgian political scientist Filip Reyntjens, Rwanda’s National Institute of Statistics changed the definition of poverty in its household surveys, so that it looked as though poverty had declined between 2010 and 2013, when it actually seems to have risen. A British consulting firm that had collaborated on past household surveys pulled out of this one, citing an unspecified “difference of view.” Western aid workers claim they’ve witnessed the undercounting of maternal and child deaths in health surveys and, in 2015, a Rwandan doctor who confronted the health minister about mismanaged health sector funds died in prison under mysterious circumstances. Former Kagame aide turned critic David Himbara told London’s Daily Mail that “statistical manipulation is so widespread [in Rwanda] that hardly anyone knows what the reality is.”

Rwanda has held two elections since Kagame seized power. Both were marked by voter fraud, ballot stuffing and intimidation and repression of opponents and their supporters. During the 2010 campaigns, an opposition-party vice president, Andre Kagwa Rwisereka, was beheaded; a journalist Jean Leonard Rugambage was shot dead; and two of Kagame’s opponents were jailed. One of them, Bernard Ntaganda, was jailed for four years for organizing an illegal demonstration, which never actually took place. The other, Victoire Ingabire, is serving a 15-year prison sentence for “divisionism.” Her crime was daring to mention that there were Hutu and Twa victims of the Rwandan civil war, as well as Tutsis, and calling for reconciliation and recognition of all victims of Rwanda’s past, regardless of ethnic background.

Under the 2003 Constitution, Kagame should be leaving office this year, but he maneuvered his way into this election by rushing through a referendum to change the term limit clause. The referendum was organized in just one week. In public areas or when collecting their salaries, people were forced to sign petitions in favor of scrapping presidential term limits. Government enforcers in many communities later coerced people into voting in the referendum. The change allows Kagame to remain president until 2034. Given that he has officially been president since 2000 and was the country’s de facto leader in a Putin-like arrangement (holding real power without the official title of president) from 1994–2000, this could mean a 40-year stay in power.

Five candidates declared their intention to run in this year’s election against Kagame. A sixth, Thomas Nahimana, remains in France, having been refused entry into Rwanda twice. Some opposition supporters have been found dead in gruesome circumstances; others have landed in jail without charges; others have disappeared or been physically attacked.

Kagame’s biggest threat, until she was recently disqualified, was Diane Shima Rwigara, daughter of the late Assinapol Rwigara, a business mogul and one of the top financiers of Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which took over Rwanda by force after the 1994 genocide.

The Rwigara family parted ways with the Kagame regime after Assinapol’s death two years ago. The government claims he died in a car accident. However, the Rwigaras say that he was assassinated after winning a series of court cases against the government, frustrating the government’s efforts to seize their assets. The family says that on the day he died, his wife and their other daughter, Anne, arrived on the scene to find him still alive with a fresh, bleeding wound on the back of his head. According to the autopsy report, it was caused by a blow to the head. In an interview with the BBC, Anne describes how the women pleaded with the police to allow them to rush him to a hospital, but the officers refused. An ambulance arrived, but the police turned it away. Then, according to Anne, the police put her still-breathing father in a body bag, and drove him past a hospital to a police morgue, where he eventually died. As the family continued to cry foul, the government destroyed the Rwigara hotel in Kigali.

When Diane Rwigara announced her candidacy, she caught the government off guard. She fearlessly condemned the large number of disappearances and mysterious deaths, particularly of dissidents and opposition supporters; she spoke out about the ongoing famine affecting over 150,000 Rwandans—something Kagame would prefer to cover up; and she criticized economic policies that have failed to relieve widespread poverty. Most infuriating—for government supporters—were her criticisms of Kagame’s lavish Kigali Convention Center, where rooms go for hundreds of dollars a night. The money to build it, she said, should have been used to bring clean water and electricity to ordinary Rwandans, most of whom earn less than $2 per day.

Rwigara became an instant sensation; crowds of journalists followed her everywhere. Nude pictures of her were soon spread throughout social media—later said by Rwigara and various Rwandan media outlets to have been fabricated by the regime.

In order to qualify for the election, each candidate must gather 600 signatures of support—at least 12 from each of Rwanda’s 30 districts. Early on, the National Electoral Commission disqualified three of Kagame’s five opponents, claiming they failed to gather the required 600 signatures. As Rwigara toured the country gathering signatures, the government-controlled media limited coverage of her activities and many of her supporters were harassed and jailed. When she finally submitted more than 1,000 signatures in addition to all of the other requirements, the commission rejected her candidacy anyway, claiming that only 572 signatures were qualified. After the commission rejected an earlier collection of signatures from Rwigara in June, she told a press conference that the signature of the man standing beside her on the podium, Robert Muhire, had been rejected as invalid.

A week after her candidacy was rejected, Rwigara launched the People Salvation Movement—Itabaza (itabaza means “a call for rescue” in Kinyarwanda), a campaign to bring basic needs including water, electricity, hospitals, and schools to all Rwandans and to promote freedom of speech and open debate about government performance.

Almost at once, more nude photos of her appeared on social media.

Diane Rwigara isn’t the only woman victim of Kagame’s repression. Victoire Ingabire languishes under her 15-year prison sentence. Agnes Uwimana Nkusi and Saidati Mukakibibi, two journalists who wrote articles criticizing the regime, served four years and three years in prison respectively. It’s widely expected that Rwigara will also end up behind bars. Others have suspiciously disappeared, or fled into exile.

Kagame will no doubt beat his hand-picked opponents on August 4, but this does not mean the country is stable or that its women are safe. If Rwanda’s international donors really want to help women, they must do more to support democracy and human rights for Rwandans of all genders.


Claude Gatebuke is a Rwandan genocide and civil war survivor. He is also the executive director of the African Great Lakes Action Network (AGLAN) and can be reached at [email protected].

Helen C. Epstein teaches at Bard College and is the author of Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda and the War on Terror, forthcoming in September 2017.