Fearing genocide, Rwanda muzzles Hutu candidate

When presidential hopeful Victoire Ingabire, a Hutu, returned to

Rwanda after a long absence, she immediately visited a memorial to Tutsis killed

in the 1994 genocide and asked why Hutus who had also died were not remembered.

She then told Hutu prisoners she would get them out of chains.

For these actions, the 41-year-old Ingabire was arrested, charged

with genocide ideology and could be sentenced to more than two decades in prison

if she is convicted.

It has been 16 years since 800 000 Rwandans, the vast majority of

them Tutsis, were slaughtered by Hutus. With the nation still grappling with

ethnic divisions almost a generation later, Ingabire’s case has become a test of

where Rwanda stands in its effort to move past the genocide – and how much

freedom the government of President Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, will allow its


The government has been lauded by the international community for

its progress on women’s rights and economic growth, but analysts say it harshly

cracks down on dissent, something Kigali citizens confirm in nervous street


Ingabire says she was merely trying to exercise her rights and that

the government’s response showed Rwanda was “far from democracy”.

For its part, the government, wary of anything that could inflame

ethnic tensions, accuses her of risking another slide towards violence with her


Kigali, Rwanda’s hilly capital, is prosperous and beautiful. More

than half the members of the lower house of parliament are women; the highest

proportion in the world.

Former US president Bill Clinton’s foundation last year gave Kagame

an award in recognition of his work to develop rural health and education

systems and strengthen infrastructure.

Kagame is running for re-election in August and is expected to win

another seven-year term. But human rights groups say that under its

serene-looking surface the government has an ironclad hold on power and quashes

opposing views.

The US state department said in a March report that citizens’

rights to change their government were “effectively restricted” and cited limits

on freedoms of speech, media and judicial independence.

Daniela Kroslak, an analyst with the International Crisis Group in

Nairobi, said: “Politically there is no space for the opposition or any other

view than that of the government.”

Ingabire says she returned to Rwanda in January after 16 years

because the country needed an open discussion to promote reconciliation. In an

interview, she complained that she was being muzzled.

Ingabire says: “That’s the problem I have with this government. If

you talk about ethnicity, they say you are a divisionist. I think the better

solution is you talk about it and find a solution.”

The government’s chief prosecutor, Martin Ngoga, said this was not

simply a free-speech issue because Ingabire could incite Rwanda “to once again

explode as it did only 16 years ago”.

Ingabire has contacts with the FDLR, a group of Hutu fighters

operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Rwandan government has

labelled the FDLR as a terrorist group.

Ingabire says her party does not agree with the FDLR’s politics,

but Ngoga said she was seeking to destabilise Rwanda with her FDLR


Ngoga said: “We have done a lot in terms of trying to overcome the

legacy of the genocide and to get people to pursue the future. But we have not

gotten to the point where our community is educated enough to the extent where

it cannot be manipulated again.”

He warned that the government would not tolerate people giving

“speeches that incite ethnic divisions”.

In the wake of the 1994 killings, the government set out to

de-emphasise ethnicity. Many in the country now identify themselves simply as

Rwandan, not Hutu or Tutsi.

Gabriel Semasaka, a member of parliament, said: “When I was born,

when I was growing up, I was Hutu. But now when you see someone you can’t ask,

‘Is he Tutsi?’ There is no difference.”

Despite Rwanda’s advances, many Rwandans say they do not feel safe.

A series of grenade attacks in the capital this year injured dozens of people

and killed two, with the most recent attack occurring on May 15. Police haven’t

said whether the attacks are connected to the upcoming elections.

Some Rwandans won’t even give their names to reporters, fearing

government retaliation. One 24-year-old Kigali resident said that “tomorrow I’ll

find myself in prison” if he gave his name.

He and a 28-year-old friend said they did not trust the government

because of its rigid hold on power.

Many Hutus still live outside the country. Refugees in neighbouring

Uganda are afraid to come back and this month asked the Ugandan government for


Yowana Ahetegikimana (42) said from the Nakivale refugee camp in

western Uganda that he was arrested in Rwanda two weeks ago and was detained in

a container for a month for supporting an opposition party. “I was rarely given

food and was beaten often,” he said.

Amnesty International has urged the Rwandan government to ensure

Ingabire receives a fair trial. She is out on bail, but her passport was seized

and she cannot leave Kigali pending her trial on an undetermined date.

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