The role of the activist within Rwanda is extremely fraught as it involves balancing the desire and need to express oneself in order to build a better future for the country, while entering increasingly dangerous territory for even attempting to do so. Diane Rwigara’s bravery is a call to other activists within Rwandan to begin to assert themselves peacefully on their government, reminding it that they want to be heard, reminding it that they too are part of its developmental project.
Rwanda was recently in the news because of the arrest of Violette Uwamahoro in February 2017. Uwamahoro, the wife of a Rwandan opposition activist, was returning to Rwanda from England in order to attend a funeral when she was arrested. She was detained without charge for two weeks, had her phone messages checked and was interrogated about the actions of her husband, Faustin Rukundo. Uwamahoro was released in March by a Rwandan court following substantial international media attention and pressure on the Rwandan government to do so. Her arrest is by no means an unusual occurrence within the Rwandan context. Her release, in no doubt linked to her British citizenship, is not characteristic of the current status quo.
As things stand, the Rwandan Patriotic Front has become known for its despotic rule and the restrictive political and civic life it enforces. Unlike the former vice-president of the Democratic Green Party Andre Kagwa Rwisereka who was found beheaded in 2010 and unlike the former spy chief Patrick Karegeya who had fallen out of favour with the Rwandan President and was found dead in a South African hotel room in 2014, Uwamahoro can count herself lucky, and an exception to the rule.
The above examples are of high-profile Rwandans who have suffered because of President Paul Kagame’s governance strategies. However, multiple cases of the arrest, exile, imprisonment, disappearance (such as Illuminée Iragena) and murder of less well-known Rwandans often fly under the radar of the international media. I have written previously about the detainment of Shyaka Kanuma shortly after he made a Facebook post announcing himself as a peaceful activist.
Within this context, Rwanda has made some developmental gains since its genocide in 1994. Its healthcare reforms have seen the dramatic reduction of infant mortality and an increase in life expectancy, and it has achieved relative political stability in the past 23 years. However, amid these gains, some very worrying trends have emerged. Rwanda is ranked 161 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, and it ranked as the 5th least happy population in the world. Economic growth has indeed taken place, but this has done very little for the job market (an average of 8,810 formal jobs a year between 2006 and 2010), well below the estimated 120,000 to 125,000 jobs needed per year in order to absorb the new entrants to the labour market. Despite these trends, President Paul Kagame won a recent referendum where, it is claimed, 98% of the Rwandan population voted to change the constitution in order to allow him to remain president until 2034.
Michela Wrong comments on the two-sided nature of Rwanda’s developmental model and its conception by outsiders by saying, “Authoritarian regimes with shocking human rights records often deliver impressively in areas prized by development officials, like the Millennium Development Goals, and thus are allowed a pass on some of their most egregious behaviour.”
What happens when Rwandans attempt to stand up to their government in favour of advancing democratic reform within the country? The role of the activist within Rwanda is extremely fraught as it involves balancing the desire and need to express oneself in order to build a better future for the country, while entering increasingly dangerous territory for even attempting to do so. A prominent activist within Rwanda who remains free, steadfast in the face of danger, and outspoken against the oppression of the current government, is Diane Rwigara.
Rwigara recently conducted a press conference in Kigali and released an official statement asking her fellow Rwandans how much longer they will remain silent in the face of the country’s current injustices and oppression. Rwigara comes from a prominent Rwandan family that has long had an uncomfortable history with the current regime, but she insists that she speaks alone in her activism and does not represent her family when she does so. Her objective is to “peacefuly be able to have an open dialogue” with the Rwandan government, and she stated:
“I hope I will not be silenced, I hope for the best, I hope that our government will be able to see that all we want is to be able to peacefully, and I insist on that, be able to have an open dialogue. I am hopeful that things will change.”
She agreed to be interviewed for this article and asked how the government can say, “I work for you as your representative if it can’t hear me, if it can’t hear what I need.” What precisely are these needs, though, and how difficult is it to express oneself in Rwanda?
“Impyisi irakwirukansa ikakumara ubwoba’ – A hyena chases after you for so long that eventually you become fearless.
“This was the Kinyarwanda idiom that Rwigara replied with when I asked her why she had become an activist. There is “so much poverty, youth unemployment and injustice in many sectors of Rwandan society that are so obvious to Rwandans that we are supposed to keep secret. I got tired of portraying an image that is not real. I got tired of waiting and complaining about the state of my country and I decided instead of waiting, I will do something myself and I will stand up myself.”
A friend of Rwigara’s disappeared four months ago and instead of his family speaking to the police they chose to stay silent out of fear for the consequences of asking questions about him. In addition to “removing” political dissenters from civil society, the Rwandan government also detains street sellers and “locks up the poor” simply for trying to make a living for themselves. One can sympathise with the family of Rwigara’s friend for not speaking up because, as she put it:
“There’s a better chance for you to find a missing goat in Rwanda than a missing person.”
The politically fraught nature of political dissent in, and critique of Rwanda, is what makes Rwigara such an admirable activist – fighting for the emergence of what she hopes will be a non-violent movement towards a functioning, open civil society within Rwanda. She has done what so many others in the country want to do, but out of a legitimate fear for their and their family’s lives and safety, find themselves “suffering in silence” in order to preserve the status quo and their precarious safety.
In an interview for this article, a former chief strategist to President Paul Kagame, David Himbara, spoke admiringly about Rwigara’s bravery to take on the Rwandan regime’s governance strategies. “Diane is an amazing woman; she is like Rosa Parks in USA history. We must hope that more people like her peacefully challenge the government if we are to have inclusive development and progress.” Foreigners and donors who visit the country often depict Rwanda as a success story, but there are key parts of this story that go unreported because outspoken people like Rwigara are particularly hard to find.
Rwigara’s mandate is clear: she wants to have an honest and open discussion about poverty, injustice, security, unemployment and a lack of freedom of expression within Rwanda. All of these topics remain taboo within the country while “there is expropriation going on without compensation [and] street vendors [are] being chased off streets without other source(s) of income”. The World Bank reports that, in 2013, more than 60% of Rwanda’s population still earned less than $1.90 a day and that only 9% of its rural population has access to electricity. Rwandans need to have the ability to contest and improve their society, yet are persistently prevented from doing so.
Prominent international agencies like the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented the abuses taking place in Rwanda, yet the tale of the country being the embodiment of African modernity still persists. There is a myth about Rwandan development that asserts that in order for it to occur (through, for example, its healthcare improvements), a restrictive and authoritarian governance strategy is justifiable given its history of genocide in 1994.
Activists like Rwigara wonder why a post-genocide developmental approach cannot include democratic reform, freedom of speech and the formation of political opposition. In fact, asserting that Rwanda ought to proceed as things currently stand is to adopt a condescending attitude to the nation’s development. Post-genocide advances need not come in the form of a zero sum game, Rwandans are quite capable of achieving both economic and human rights gains at the same time. This type of logic, which constantly compares the present to one of the worst human catastrophes of the 20th century, sets the bar exceedingly low and is used to excuse the Rwandan Patriotic Front’s governance strategies.
A young man working in Kigali named Patrick told me about his frustrations living there: “As things stand, if people go on strike – they go straight to prison, you won’t see them for a year. This inability to express myself is the worst thing in my life. People in this country work for the president, everyone fears one man in this country. We don’t work for each other, we work for him – it is like a military camp… I have rage in me because I can’t talk.” Activists like Rwigara have spoken, and they hope that others follow.
Rwigara paused when I asked her if she feels fear for having “come out” as a critical, yet peaceful, activist within Rwanda: “I don’t have fear because I was more afraid of keeping it inside because there is no life in living a lie. It is living a lie to go on like this when we know the truth of the matter, which is our country is decaying from inside. It is built on sand.” Rwigara’s bravery is a call to other activists within Rwandan to peacefully begin to assert themselves on their government, reminding it that they want to be heard, reminding it that they too are part of its developmental project.