Fred Muvunyi, a former chairman of the Rwanda Media Commission, is an editor at Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster.
This week, the Rwandan authorities arrested Diane Shima Rwigara and charged her with “offenses against state security and forgery.” (She was already detained once before at the beginning of the month, though under different charges.) It’s clear to everyone, however, that her real crime was her attempt to run against incumbent Paul Kagame in the presidential election last month. Her mother and sister were also detained on similar charges. The three of them are expected to face trial in October. If Diane Rwigara is convicted on the state security charges, she’ll be facing a minimum of 20 years in prison.
Challenging the all-powerful Kagame would have already been enough to get the 35-year-old Rwigara in trouble. But she was especially bold about it. She chose to announce her protest movement the same day Kagame officially kicked off his campaign. Then she upped the ante by also demanding justice for the killers of her father, the businessman Assinapol Rwigara. He died in 2015 under what his family and many Rwandans consider suspicious circumstances, after years of tense relations with Kagame.
Kagame clearly didn’t want to complicate his campaign by facing off against an outspoken young woman. The election commission refused to admit Rwigara to the official candidate list, which included only one opposition candidate to give an illusion of choice. To no one’s surprise, Kagame won with 99 percent of the vote. Having essentially run the country since he returned from exile after the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis, he could now, under the current constitution, potentially remain in power until 2034.
Rwigara is intelligent and strong. But she has never enjoyed anything like the political stature of her wealthy father, who enjoyed considerable influence among the military, political and business elites. Kagame had every reason to see him as a serious rival. The fact that the president has now seen fit to crack down so harshly on Diane Rwigara, who never posed a comparable threat, says a lot about his sense of vulnerability.
Her father’s troubles started in July 2007, when he narrowly escaped arrest. Assinapol Rwigara’s friends in the top ranks of the military prevented the police from detaining him. I remember the episode well, because one of the police officers involved was a friend of mine. I can vividly recall how he received a phone call ordering him to take Rwigara into custody. My friend left to carry out the assignment, and the next thing I knew he himself was in jail — apparently because the army had blocked him from getting his man.
The Rwandan capital of Kigali was rife with rumors that Rwigara had joined a group of 14 prominent businessmen, who were soon dubbed “the Great 14.” They were said to be planning a revolt against Kagame with the aim of “overthrowing” his government. The businessmen were apparently financing a group of officers led by Rwanda’s former chief spy, Patrick Karegeya.
Karegeya fled Rwanda that same year. In January 2014, his body was found in a hotel room in Johannesburg. Critics blamed the Rwandan leader for Karegeya’s death.
Then, a year later, Assinapol Rwigara, Karegeya’s friend, died in a mysterious accident in Kigali. Rwandan police said that Rwigara died when a truck rammed into his car. The circumstances of the accident left many Rwandans doubting the official narrative. Rwigara’s family bravely petitioned Kagame to investigate the matter, but he refused.
All of this shows just how daring it was of Diane Rwigara to openly call out the government. Many people I’ve spoken with believe her political ambitions are motivated by her desire to overcome the suffering her family has endured.
To be honest, Diane Rwigara has little political capital of her own, but many Rwandans relate to her anguish. Rwandans know about the pain of loss. Many of us are survivors, orphans or widows.
Diane Rwigara thought that the authorities would show at least some sympathy toward her and allow her to make a symbolic run against the powerful Kagame. She didn’t reckon with his intransigent character. Kagame has never been a man to take any chances. He knows perfectly well that many Rwandans, including genocide survivors, would happily side with anyone who can share their anguish and speak on their behalf.
Diane Rwigara’s mistake was to forget that many of her father’s supporters, including quite a few powerful members of the military, have died or are in prison. The list is long. Consider the fate of Gen. Frank Rusagara. He is serving a 20-year prison sentence for inciting insurrection and tarnishing the government’s image — similar to the charges now facing Diane Rwigara and her family.
Like many Rwandans who have dared to criticize president Paul Kagame, Diane Rwigara’s political journey has ended early.
In keeping with other modern-day despots, Kagame has literally taken the law into his own hands. He presides over a tame parliament that agrees to all his edicts. His judiciary is a team of paid supporters whose job is to convict anyone excommunicated by the ruling party.
Just to make matters worse, Rwandan laws are always open to reinterpretation. Prosecutors can redefine charges as their master wishes. That’s exactly what happened to the Rwigara family. The authorities revised the initial charges of tax evasion and forgery to allow for much harsher sentences.
Kagame has all the power he ever wanted. But he’s using all tools at his disposal to keep it. Prosecuting a young woman whose only offense was to challenge his policy indeed raises many questions about where Rwanda’s president is taking the country.