The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I wanted to be Rwanda’s first female president. Then fake nude photos appeared online.

She announced she was running for president. Then fake nude photos were released. (Video: Gillian Brockell, Kate Woodsome, Karen Attiah, Daniel Mich, Malcolm Cook/The Washington Post)

Diane Shima Rwigara is a Rwandan activist and former contender for the Rwandan presidency.

It’s no longer news that I have been disqualified as a candidate in Rwanda’s presidential election. Unfortunately, Rwandans will not see my name on their polling cards when they go to vote on Aug. 4.

President Paul Kagame will eventually be crowned as an undisputed king of Rwanda and will continue to rule the country in a climate of fear and lack of fundamental freedoms. By extending his 23 years in power, Kagame is denying Rwandans an opportunity to experience the first-ever peaceful transition of power in their country. The millions of Rwandans who will go to the polls will not be exercising their democratic rights, but rather, will be participating in a forced and staged ceremony that will be more like a coronation exercise than a democratic election.

Don’t be fooled by those happy campaign rallies. Rwandans live in fear.

On May 3, I announced my intention to become an independent candidate in the upcoming Rwandan presidential election and was ready to challenge the domination of Kagame’s regime. Immediately after that announcement, Photoshopped, nude pictures of me were circulated online. It was the regime’s attempt to discredit me and taint my public reputation. It did not stop there. While touring the country in order to get signatures required for my presidential candidacy, some of my assistants and supporters were harassed and jailed. I know how the ruling party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RFP), works. It stops at nothing if you dare to challenge or oppose it. If the RPF is so loved in Rwanda as it claims, why is it so scared of me running and competing against it?

None of the authorities has condemned the circulation of those fake online pictures, nor attempted to address the issue of my colleagues who were illegally jailed, harassed or disappeared.

International supporters praise the fact that women occupy about 60 percent of Rwanda’s parliament as evidence that Rwanda values women in politics. My treatment shows how untrue that is. The parliament mostly rubber-stamps the president’s agenda.

In disqualifying my presidential candidacy, the National Election Commission claimed that I failed to gather the 600 signatures required, despite the fact that I had submitted more than 1,100 signatures. Only 572 signatures were deemed to be admissible; the others, including signatures of my colleagues, were dismissed as invalid. Coincidentally, in the same period, the Rwandan Revenue Authority suddenly “remembered” that my family business had an unpaid tax bill of 5.6 billion Rwandan francs ($6.7 million). Our business was closed, and all the bank accounts were frozen. The genesis of that bill has not been explained. I am not surprised: This tactic is a widespread practice used by the ruling party to bankrupt and silence people who speak against the regime.

My experience in this process has reminded me how Rwanda has become increasingly a country where most institutions are not independent and put all their resources, plans and actions into supporting and maintaining the president. Furthermore, the well-documented human rights record of Rwanda under the current regime has been one of the worst on the African continent. This includes lack of freedom of expression, lack of democratic participation, almost nonexistent media freedom and a very closed economic space. This is the definition of a dictatorship state.

Nevertheless, I was not discouraged by the unfair discrimination that prevented me from getting on the electoral ballot. Instead, my determination to continue campaigning for the rights of Rwandans is refueled by the extreme hunger for freedoms and democracy that I have felt from the people.

On July 14, the day I was supposed to start my presidential election campaign, I launched the People Salvation Movement, a grass-roots effort that will be a platform to campaign for the rights and democracy that all Rwandans deserve. Yet again, fake, Photoshopped, nude pictures of me circulated on the Internet after my announcement. As I said before, the ruling party will stop at nothing. But I am not afraid.

I therefore call on all Rwandans and friends of Rwanda to join me so that we can achieve the important and noble objectives of the People Salvation Movement.

I call on all supporters and development partners of Rwanda to put necessary pressure on Kagame’s regime so that it allows Rwandans to gain fundamental freedoms. These would guarantee the sustainable peace and development that Rwandans desperately need and deserve.