Published: June 6, 2010 09:34 ET in Africa
KIGALI, Rwanda — At first glance, Victoire Ingabire hardly seems the type to be challenging an African strongman. Staid and soft-spoken, she could easily be mistaken for a mid-career accountant — which she was until last year when she quit her job in the Netherlands and returned to take up politics in her homeland.
Now, as head of the United Democratic Forces party, she has emerged as the most prominent challenger to Rwandan President Paul Kagame in the run-up to this country’s August election.
Yet this does not mean her name will be on the ballot, as dissent is increasingly stifled in Rwanda. Two months before the poll, authorities have prevented Ingabire from registering her party, and she is currently being held under extended house arrest, awaiting trial on charges of “divisionism,” “association with terrorist groups,” and “genocide ideology.”
Last week, Peter Erlinder, the American attorney who flew in to defend Ingabire, was arrested in Kigali for engaging in “conspiracy theories and denial surrounding the circumstances of the genocide.”
The charges against both Ingabire and Erlinder have sparked growing Western criticism of Kagame, a figure often praised for transforming a shattered Rwanda into one of Africa’s fastest growing economies.
The Rwandan government is “doing everything it can to silence independent voices before the election,” charges the New-York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, whose researcher on Rwanda left the country in April when her visa renewal application was rejected.
While the United States remains a military ally and key source of development aid to Rwanda, American diplomats are beginning to warn of diminishing political space in the country. In a speech last week to Congress, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson said the political environment in Rwanda was “riddled with a series of worrying actions.”
“We appreciate, in the context of the most tragic event in recent history — the genocide — the need for security, stability and reconciliation is critical, but long-term stability is best promoted by democratic governance and respect for human rights,” said Carson.
Much Western criticism concentrates on a series of laws restricting free speech that Kagame’s Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) has enacted since seizing power in the wake of the 1994 genocide. In Rwanda, denying the genocide of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus is grounds for up to 20 years in prison. “Divisionism,” defined as “any speech, written statement or action that causes conflict or that causes an uprising that may degenerate into strife among people,” can also bring jail time.