The last time I communicated directly with Victoire Ingabire, on October 13th 2010, she sounded tense and tired. After an absence of more than 16 years, she had come back to Rwanda in January to participate in the presidential elections as the candidate of the Unified Democratic Forces (UDF-Inkingi), a coalition of Rwandan opposition parties with a large base of active members in the diaspora. But things had turned out differently - she had been barred from running. A day after we last chatted, she was arrested and thrown in to jail. That’s where she has been until today. Two years later, she was sentenced to 8 years imprisonment for conspiracy against the country through terrorism and genocide denial. Two weeks ago her appeal trial started. The judgment is expected sometime in May.
All the victims
Victoire Ingabire stepped into the political ring in a country that is unaccustomed to open debate. Over the years, the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) has built up its control over public life (including the political and judicial organs) along the lines of a one party system. This has happened despite the existence of a number of other satellite political parties which operate on the fringes of power but do not seriously dispute their basic loyalty to that power.
The presidential election of 2003, which brought the country’s political transition to an end, was organised without any real political space: the only true opposition party did not receive official approval, and the main independent candidates for the presidential elections were disqualified on the eve of polling day. The campaign was accompanied by disappearances, arrests and intimidation of candidates, the electorate and observers.
In the Netherlands, where she lived with her family, Ingabire had developed political commitment and activism – she invested a lot of her energy in bringing together the most diverse opposition groups with people of very different ideological, regional and ethnic backgrounds within the Rwandan diaspora. In 2009, she gave up her high profile job in an international accounting firm to dedicate all her time to politics. She arrived in Kigali on Saturday January 16th 2010 to prepare her campaign for the presidential elections in August.
The first hours after her arrival were very important. “I am ready to canvass for my candidature for head of state and victory is certain”, she declared after stepping on to the tarmac at Kigali international airport. She drove from the airport straight to the Gisozi Memorial, built on a site where over 250,000 victims of the genocide are buried, to place flowers to commemorate “all victims”, those who were killed in the genocide but also all the others who died in those years of conflict and violence. Her speech caused fury on the part of genocide victims, the media and the authorities who accused her of propagating genocide denial.
Together with her team, she had to build up her party from zero. UDF-Inkingi was relatively well known in the Rwandan diaspora but nearly unheard of in the country itself. Exactly like the other genuine opposition parties, Bernard Ntaganda’s Parti Social Imberakuri and Frank Habineza’s Democratic Green Party, UDF-Inkingi tried to establish itself as a party and get through to the electorate.
No elections for Victoire
Soon after Ingabire’s return to Rwanda, her party’s office was demolished and her colleagues were roughed up by militants from the ruling party. The police were present but did not intervene. Later on, Ingabire personally suffered violence and intimidation. Starting three weeks after her arrival, she was regularly summoned by the police for investigation, accused of spreading “genocidal ideology, ‘divisionism’ and contact with the FDLR”. In this first phase, no formal charges were brought against her, but a legal framework was created to slow down or hinder her other activities.
For example, on March 13th 2010 she received a letter from the communal authorities which forbade her from organising political meetings since she was subject to police investigation. She wanted to react by holding a press conference but all the hotels where she had booked meeting rooms were threatened and cancelled the bookings at the last minute. When UDF tried to organise its constituent assembly, the municipality was willing to authorise this on the condition that the police would confirm that they would be present to ensure security. The police would be happy to ensure security provided that the commune gave its written authorisation.
Neither Ingabire, Ntaganda nor Habineza were able to register as candidates for the election and the three of them were at a disadvantage for teh following reasons:
- The regime’s monopoly of the media, which continually demonise the opposition parties and their leaders.
- Verbal and physical intimidation of opposition parties, their leaders, members and activists.
- The creation of a legal framework in which proceedings can be brought very rapidly and where the opposition finds it hard to defend itself: Accusations of spreading genocidal ideology and divisionism are very broad and not clearly defined in law. This terminology is applied to all those who have a different understanding than the official one of the recent history of Rwanda. This means it can be used to paralyse the leaders of the opposition and to prevent them carrying out their daily duties and exercising their political rights.
- An administrative policy which aims to prevent opposition groups being registered, setting themselves up, organising meetings or making themselves known to the general public.
- Infiltration of opposition parties in order to destabilise them from within.
First brick in the wall
I had regular contacts with Victoire in the 18 months before her return to Rwanda, but it took me a while before I started to take her seriously. I found it difficult to imagine that someone who had left Rwanda before the genocide and had never been back could threaten a regime with an obsession in controlling public life (and posessed of the deadly efficiency to materialize that obsession). But as she continued to prepare her campaign and raise support, I started to appreciate her dedication. She was modest and ambitious at the same time. She knew she would not be able to tear down fortress Kagame, built over a decade and a half, but she often said to me: “At some point, someone will have to break the first brick in the wall. Let this be my contribution.” So she left for Rwanda to fight for real democratic space and genuine multiparty competition.
For a while she was public enemy n°1, but a month and a half after her arrival this stopped. At the end of February 2010, General Kayumba Nyamwasa left the country to oppose his former comrade-in-arms, thus starting a new phase in Kagame’s annus horibilis. All of a sudden, the main threat to the regime came from within.
This, however, didn’t mean the pressure on Victoire was relieved. On March 23rd she wanted to take a plane for a short holiday in the Netherlands with her family, but she was not allowed to cross the border. On April 21st she was arrested for the first time. Her documents and computer were confiscated and the restriction of her movements became more and more severe. She had to leave the modest but comfortable house she lived in because the regime put the landlord under pressure not to rent it out to an opposition personality.
She was eventually arrested two months after the elections, on October 14th 2010. Her trial started in September 2011 and ended in April 2012. The verdict fell on October 30th with Ingabire being found guilty of conspiracy to undermine the government and genocide denial, she was sentenced to eight years in prison.
Amnesty International immediately asked for a prompt and fair appeal as the trial fell short of international standards. The trial was marred by the court’s failure to ensure that evidence was properly tested, combined with the prosecution’s disregard for due process in some instances,” said Sarah Jackson, Amnesty International’s Acting Deputy Africa Director in a press release on the same day.
Human Rights Watch also published a statement on the day of the verdict, in which their Africa Director Daniel Bekele clarified: “The prosecution of Ingabire for ‘genocide ideology and ‘divisionism’ illustrates the Rwandan government’s unwillingness to tolerate criticism and to accept the role of opposition parties in a democratic society.”
It is very hard to defend yourself against charges of divisionism, genocide ideology and genocide denial. The legal definition of these terms is very broad and imprecise, which means that the law is easily used as a tool to silence dissident opinions, stop criticism or avoid debate.
I find it rather difficult to understand how you can accuse someone of genocide denial when the first thing she does when she comes back after 16 years of absence is to visit the Genocide Memorial to commemorate and pay respect to the victims. In her speech she said:
“I came back to my country after 16 years, and there was a tragedy that took place in this country. We know very well that there was a genocide, extermination. Therefore, I could not have returned after 16 years to the same country after such actions took place. They took place when I was not in the country. I could not have fallen asleep without first passing by the place where those actions took place. I had to see the place. I had to visit the place.”
Ingabire, however, crossed the regime’s red line by pointing out that not all the crimes committed during the war and the genocide have been registered and punished, clearly alluding to the crimes committed in 1994 by members of the former Tutsi rebellion - the Rwanda Popular Front (FPR) – now the ruling party:
“For us to reach reconciliation, we need to empathize with everyone’s sadness. It is necessary that for the Tutsis who were killed, those Hutus who killed them understand that they need to be punished for it. It is also necessary that for the Hutus who were killed, those people who killed them understand that they need to be punished for it too. Furthermore, it is important that all of us, Rwandans from different ethnic groups, understand that we need to unite, respect each other and build our country in peace. What brought us back to the country is for us to start that path of reconciliation together and find a way to stop injustices so that all of us Rwandans can live together with basic freedoms in our country.”
I don’t see genocide denial in this. I don’t feel any hidden sectarian or ethnic agenda. Not in this text, nor in other speeches I heard, texts I read or talks we had.
Talking to the FDLR
Ingabire has also has been condemned for alleged terrorism and preparing an armed struggle against the regime. According to her judges, she did not only collaborate with the FDLR, she also planned to form a new armed group, the Coalition of Democratic Forces (CDF).
Indeed, she had met with the FDLR in July 2009, in the form of Aloys Ntiwiragabo, one of its leaders. Some weeks earlier, the Congolese Minister of information, Lambert Mende, made use of a visit to Belgium to visit Victoire Inabire in Zevenhuizen near The Hague, where she lived with her family. He invited her on behalf of President Kabila to Kinshasa, because the Congolese government wanted her to talk to the FDLR leadership and convince them to give up their armed struggle and join her political approach. She accepted the invitation, was received by Kabila and talked to Ntiwiragabo. Unfortunately, the FDLR did not follow her advice.
Instead of, as was alleged, working with the armed groups on an agenda of terror and violence, Ingabire talked to the FDLR and asked them to cease the armed struggle.
Victoire Ingabire was condemned after a political trial. Now appealing against her earlier sentence, Ingabire wants her sentence to be quashed, the Prosecutor demands 25 years. I personally do not see many reasons why the trial would be less political in appeal than it was in first instance, but this does not mean that the outcome is certain. Rwanda has been under very strong pressure from its main donors, including the Netherlands, and might use Victoire Ingabire’s situation to show its humane and democratic side. On the other hand, people are already begining to get nervous about the forthcoming elections in 2017. Rwanda might use Victoire Ingabire as a statement about democracy and elections really being simple window dressing and not about effective participation.
In Rwanda, as in many other countries in the region, the opposition’s role has never been considered to be positive, constructive and essential for democracy and the management of public affairs. Opposition is treated as a potentially destabilising, subversive and threatening element. Unfortunately for Mrs. Ingabire, these considerations could play to her disadvantage for the verdict in appeal.
Once more, Rwanda’s international partners are getting stuck in their own ambiguity. On the one hand, they heavily insist on democracy and elections, but on the other they go very far in accepting non-democratic practices. This behaviour is a product of that difficult balance between contributing to the development of democracy and concern about not damaging stability that is relative and precarious. The result is often a choice between what is considered the lesser of two evils.
As long as President Kagame is considered a key factor for relative regional stability, donors will tolerate what they consider to be a mild form of enlightened despotism. Despotism it sure is and history will teach us how enlightened it will have been. But I hope for Victoire that the regime will take this opportunity to show its mild side.
Kris Berwouts has, over the last 25 years, worked for a number of different Belgian and international NGOs focused on building peace, reconciliation, security and democratic processes. Until recently, he was the Director of EurAc, the network of European NGOs working for advocacy on Central Africa. He now works as an independent expert on Central Africa.