Tuesday, March 9, 2010 8:04 AM
With an election looming in a few months, Rwanda’s authoritarian government has made an astounding claim: democracy leads directly to genocide.
The claim is made in an article this week by Jean Paul Kimonyo, an advisor in the office of Rwandan President Paul Kagame. He argues that Rwanda has only had “plural politics” for two brief periods in its history, and both times it “led to mass killings.”
He also makes the sweeping statement that “political parties and independent media” were a big reason for the killings. All parties and all media, in his view, are just as dangerous as the hate-spewing radio stations and politicians that fuelled the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
His conclusion, apparently, is that Rwanda needs to suppress its political parties, restrict its independent media and tightly control its elections, even though it’s been 16 years since the genocide. Democracy – or “confrontational politics,” as he prefers to call it – would “almost certainly lead to renewed violence.”
This is a very convenient argument for those who are currently in power. But what about everyone else? Opposition political parties are already finding it almost impossible to get registered for the August election. Independent journalists are harassed and threatened.
In Kigali recently, I had an interesting chat with Didas Gasana, editor-in-chief of an independent weekly newspaper called Umuseso – one of the few sources of independent information in Rwanda.
Mr. Gasana (pictured below) has been a target of the authorities for years. Twice he has been prosecuted for “criminal defamation” for his investigative articles about corruption and wrongdoing. He was forced into exile for a year in 2005 after police warned that he could be killed for what he was reporting in his newspaper. A government media council has recommended the banning of his newspaper. Even now he gets anonymous calls from people accusing him of working for “negative forces” – code words for the armed rebels in neighbouring Congo, and a veiled threat that he could be killed.
Any independent newspaper would struggle for survival in such an environment, but the government has further squeezed Mr. Gasana by prohibiting public agencies from advertising in his newspaper. Only one private company – along with some foreign embassies and organizations – is daring to advertise in the weekly. He estimates that his total advertising revenue is barely $300 a month.
“It’s part of a broader pattern of intimidating us, silencing us and suffocating us financially,” he says. “I try to shrug it off. But the situation is getting more tense as the election approaches.”
In the last election in 2003, President Kagame claimed to have captured the election with nearly 95 per cent of the vote. This year the election will be even more lopsided, Mr. Gasana says. “People are afraid to make themselves heard. We are far from having a free election.”
People like Mr. Gasana are crucial to the country’s future if Rwandans want to learn the truth about the shadowy events that drive the political agenda here. In recent weeks, Rwanda has been shaken by a series of mysterious grenade blasts and the equally mysterious defection of a former army commander who fled to South Africa. The government was quick to blame the defector for the grenade blasts. But the reporting by Mr. Gasana suggests another possible explanation.
Mr. Gasana was at the scene of the first grenade blast within minutes of the explosion. An eyewitness told him that a man on a motorcycle had flung a grenade and raced on. The witness also noticed a police car parked nearby. Instead of following the motorcycle, the police car drove off in a different direction, the witness told Mr. Gasana.
Although he cannot prove it, he believes there is a possibility that the grenade attacks were orchestrated by state intelligence agencies to justify a crackdown on electoral politics. It’s an uncomfortable question, but without the independent media in Rwanda there would be nobody to raise such questions.