Rwanda: Rwanda: An opposition politician challenges nation's image

Published on by KANYARWANDA

As Rwanda heads for presidential elections in November, human rights groups are focusing increasing attention on the record of President Paul Kagame, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) leader who grew up in exile in Uganda, then led the military assault which brought to an end the 1994 genocide.


In recent weeks, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have issued statements condemning Kagame's handling of opposition.

Frank Habineza, head of the Democratic Green Party which largely comprises ex-RPF members, has allegedly been warned not to run against Kagame. Efforts to register his party for the upcoming elections, he says, have been sabotaged at the local level. Members of his party have also been arrested without charge.

However, it is the attacks on Victoire Inagbire of FDU-Inkingi that have gained most media attention, both negative and positive.

Ever since Ingabire and an aide were reportedly attacked when picking up candidate registration forms, this 41-year-old repatriate from the Netherlands has become a polarizing figure in Rwanda and is the subject of a must-read report from Canada's Globe and Mail making the rounds in the African blogosphere.

As the Globe and Mail reports, she is not only harassed like other opposition politicians, but is also working in a hostile media environment. Kigali's New Times newspaper treated the reported attack on her as a fracas arising from queue-jumping.

Before emigrating to Netherlands during the 1994 genocide in which hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus died, Ingabire experienced her own tragedy: her brother was killed when mistaken for a Tutsi.

"When people talk about the pain they feel, they need to understand that everybody feels pain," she says in the Globe and Mail interview. "We have to understand the pain of others. When I condemn the genocide, I'm also thinking of my brother. Not all Hutus are killers, and not all Tutsis are victims."

In a country still trying to make sense of the genocide, Ms. Ingabire says she draws a distinction between the slaughter of the Tutsis – which she calls a genocide – and the killings of many Hutus, which she describes as a crime against humanity.

The killings of Hutus to which she refers are RPF killings of Hutus in the same three-month period during which the genocidaires were operating.

Ingabire's public statements have helped make her a controversial figure. She has said that she does not know the actual death toll of either Tutsis or Hutus, or even who suffered a higher death toll, in spite of evidence that the Tutsi and moderate Hutu victims of the genocidaires were far more numerous and were systemically hunted down and killed.

Such statements have not only been widely panned and evoked the ire of genocide survivor groups like IBUKA, but have also helped feed the notion that she is "leaving the impression of an equivalency between the two sides," in the words of the Globe and Mail report.  According to the report, the managing director of the New Times, Joseph Bideri, wrote a personal letter to Inagbire on January 22 saying the paper will not give her space in which to counter the attacks on her because she is a "genocide denier." The New Times has written report after report criticizing Inagbire since the date of that letter.

Kagame has not shied from criticizing media coverage of Ingabire either. In a recent interview, he condemned the Kenya-based regional weekly The East African for interviewing Ingabire, calling the actions of the newspaper "offensive" and an attempt to make Rwanda "less East African."

As the election draws nearer for a country portrayed widely abroad as one of Africa's success stories, the glare of media may prove harsh. At issue is not the right of the media to ask legitimate questions of any political candidate – Ingabire included – but the right of a political candidate aspiring to any office to be heard.

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