In Rwanda, a young woman activist challenges longtime leader

Kigali - In Rwanda, where rights groups say many people fear to speak up against the ruling party, Diane Shima Rwigara thought she knew the risks of challenging one of Africa's longest-serving leaders.

Then, two days after declaring her candidacy for president, nude photographs allegedly of her were leaked on social media.

The 35-year-old women's rights activist quickly disowned the images, calling it a smear campaign. It is not clear who was behind the leak, and Rwanda's government has not commented.

"Do you think practicing politics is easy in these countries?" Rwigara asked, laughing, during an interview with The Associated Press. She said those behind the photographs want to "kill" her politically as she works to expose abuses she blames on the government. "But the issue has made me more resilient."

As slim as her chances at defeating President Paul Kagame in the August election may be, Rwigara has intrigued Rwandans by speaking openly in a country known for its devastating 1994 genocide and recovery.

She acknowledges that much has improved under Kagame, who has a reputation for stabilizing the East African nation but faces rights groups' accusations of authoritarianism. The government has strengthened the economy, reduced child mortality and is sending more children to school.

Kagame also has pushed for more women in political office, and Rwanda now has a higher percentage of women in parliament — 64% — than any other country in the world.

"They developed an ingenious system of women's councils ... where women learn political skills and move up into greater power. Now women running for office is the norm," said Swanee Hunt, a former US ambassador and author of the book "Rwanda Women Rising." She did not respond to questions about alleged harassment of presidential challengers, including Rwigara.

But Kagame's government also may be the most complicated in Africa, Rwigara said.

"People disappear, others get killed in unexplained circumstances and nobody speaks about this because of fear," she said. "We must end this silence."

The US-educated, soft-spoken businesswoman recognizes the dangers of speaking out from inside the country, instead of from exile like others, but she said: "I trust in god."

She has never been elected to public office. She doesn't belong to any political party. But she says the issues she raises are important to everyday people.

Rwigara was unknown until the death in 2015 of her father, business tycoon Assinapol Rwigara. While police called it a vehicle accident, his family suspected foul play. The death stunned them. For years, the prominent ethnic Tutsi family had worked closely with the ruling party. Then there was a falling-out, followed by alleged harassment by officials.

Rwigara insists that her candidacy is not for revenge.

One resident of the capital, Dan Karangwe, said he likes Rwigara because of her honesty.

"For a long time, nobody is allowed to criticize government, even a constructive criticism. We need someone who will allow people to talk," he said.

Rwigara was born a few years before the 1994 genocide in which more than 800 000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus were killed. The massacres forced her family to flee to neighboring Burundi, but violence there had them migrating to Belgium and then the United States.

She returned to Rwanda to focus on the family business, staying out of the spotlight. Her father's death changed that. "My father helped the poor and those marginalized. My father wanted all Rwandans to live in peace," she said.

In her campaign manifesto, Rwigara vows to eradicate poverty, champion free speech and set up a commission of inquiry to look into past injustices. She also wants an independent parliament.

Kagame has led the country for nearly as long as Rwigara has been alive. He became president in 2000 after being Rwanda's de facto leader since the end of the genocide. In January, he declared he would run for a third seven-year term. He is widely expected to win in August after taking 93% of the votes in the last election.

Rwigara is not his only challenger. She joins a small list of independent candidates including former journalist Phillipe Mpayimana and Frank Habineza, leader of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, the only authorized opposition group.

Even campaigning will be difficult. The government-backed electoral commission has announced it must vet all social media messages by candidates or their accounts could be blocked.

"Despite weak prospects for opposition candidates, the government is taking no chances," said Human Rights Watch's Central Africa director Ida Sawyer.

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