Friday, November 25, 2011

Rwanda: Susan Rice, Ingabire's Trial and Kagame's Despotism

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Yet again, Rwanda is the site of another unsettling drama and President Paul Kagame is the clear villain. The struggle for political reforms has been challenged with brutal and unforgiving force. A few journalist and political activists have died, many are either in prison or have fled into exile. However, the case of Victoire Ingabire, a woman in her early forties who returned to Rwanda last year to contest for presidential elections (her democratic right), is unlikely to end well. It is a blessing in wrapped in pain, which I believe will further weaken the military junta that overruns Kigali.

Last summer, Ingabire was not allowed to run. Her party was denied registration. And, in the typical dictatorial manner, no reasons were given. Just a week after she arrived, hired gangs were mobilized to rough her up and her aides. But she was not your usual "African" woman and she refused to be cowered down. Her bravery remained consistent in her speeches, some delivered via YouTube, in which she openly called into question the conduct of Kagame's military. In particular, her claims that Kagame's army had committed "crimes against humanity" did not go well with the junta.

Since Ingabire's defiance was quickly gaining popularity, she had to get controlled. Kagame who refers to her as "this/that woman" and never by her name, was utterly upset. In an interview with Christian Amanpour just before she left CNN, Kagame made it clear that Ingabire would end up in jail.  A few days later, Ingabire was arrested. For challenging his rule, Ingabire would be made into an example.

Quick allegations were fabricated. At first, the government charged her with inciting hatred and genocide denial. But it was clear that the evidence was very flimsy. In fact, the premise of the charges were based on a speech she delivered after her visit to the Kigali genocide memorial. In the speech, she had acknowledged the genocide against Tutsi and moderate Hutus in 1994, but expressed her concerns that crimes against humanity committed by the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front had not been prosecuted. Generally, mentioning crimes committed by the RPF is considered an informal crime.

Indeed, because of the wide international coverage of Ingabire's case, government officials quickly learned that the charges would fail to convince. Something more sinister had to be concocted. As with most tyrannical regimes, the obvious charge against political opponents is treason. The government started making attempts to associate her with extremist Hutu rebels (FDLR) based in the DRC. It was now alleged that Ingabire had become a terrorist.

Fast forward. More than a year later, the case is still ongoing. The government has failed to show any evidence linking her to Hutu rebels. What they claim to have, are two sheets of papers, indicating a record of Western Union money transfers. The transfers do not have her names on them, and the prosecutor argues that Ingabire used intermediaries. Whether this will be deemed enough evidence to sentence her with treason is still an open question. What is clear is that, the government seems determined to break her will.

As of yesterday, the case has been postponed again. The prosecutor was able to get permission from the Dutch government to get more evidence for the case. Back in the Netherlands, Ingabire's house was ransacked, her documents confiscated. They have been sent to Rwanda. The court is adjourning to allow for the translation of these documents. But sources following the case closely have informed me that the documents do not have the smoking gun. In fact, to think that these documents will show much, would be to assume that the charges have any credibility to begin with. For in a country operating under the rule of law, individuals are not arrested first, and held in jail while the prosecution gathers evidence. Just the illegal procedural violations of this case are enough to disarm the prosecution.

Speaking as someone who has met Ingabire before, I know for a fact that she had no interest in mounting a military struggle against Kagame. In fact, it seemed to me that many Rwandans in the opposition were frustrated with her because of her commitment to non-violence. There are a lot of people who believe that Kagame cannot be removed without violence. Just after she left for Rwanda, a well known activist told me that, "Ingabire is stupid to want to commit suicide". Ingabire's commitment to non-violence was not based on some superior moral character; I think, it was more of a pragmatic stand. She told Rwandans through a conference call that a military offensive against Kagame would be counter-productive and ineffective. "We have neither the money nor the military supplies to do so", she added.

Like many Rwanda, I am convinced that the trials are nothing but political witch-hunting. If the main reason for the trials is to preempt Ingabire's alleged terrorist aspirations, they are, in actuality, likely to achieve the opposite goal. Rwanda's internal political climate is at the highest antagonized level since the 1994 genocide. Many had hoped that Ingabire's return would create avenues for more political negotiations and help delegitimize potential armed struggles. By jailing Ingabire, Kagame is only helping strengthen the confirmation bias that many Rwandans have. The thinking that political freedoms can only be achieved through violence. This, in my view, is very alarming.

This is why the international community is needed before it gets too late. Ideally, the calls for democracy should not wait until the dictator starts to wiping out entire communities. Neither should we understand intervention or Responsibility to Protect (R2P), in purely military terms. One advantage that Rwanda has, say over North Korea, is that our country is heavily dependent on foreign aid. What that means is that, whatever western diplomats say, carries a lot of political weight. This can help avert future violence.

I suspect the trend has began. I hope that it will continue, until Rwandans, realize full dignity. There is really no choice. Aware of this possibility, Susan Rice has become the first high ranking US official to point towards this direction. Her speech, calling for political and media freedoms in Rwanda, has inspired a lot of hope. While I do not want to read too much into her speech, it is a BIG and positive more in the right direction. Outing Kagame's dictatorial tendencies, and his many crimes, helps inform him that there is a limit to what he can do. This is an important and equally humbling message for any autocrat the world over.

For more on Victoire Ingabire's trial, visit Anneke Verbraeken's blog. Also, Anneke is currently in the DRC, covering the presidential elections. She provides regular updates on her twitter @anneketanneke

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