Some three years ago, I was fortunate to meet Madame Victoire Ingabire. It was at a small town hall-style meeting involving a very diverse audience. She had come to articulate her vision with regards to Rwanda's future and her role in it. Repeatedly in her speech, she said that she was prepared to promote democracy in Rwanda even if it meant facing the "bull by its horns". I felt immediately captivated.
There is a something immensely charming about Ms. Ingabire. Something that has yet to be fully appreciated by the vast numbers of journalists and scholars who seem quite eager to understand her. This is what I call, for the lack of a better description, the "Ingabire phenomenon".
Despite the efforts by the Rwandan government to ruin her reputation, Ms. Ingabire remains a leader of a different kind--at least in the view of her many supporters. To understand this, one must recognize the difficult context and set of circumstances that Ms. Ingabire was trying to weave through in order to promote democracy in Rwanda.
Before Ms. Ingabire's arrival to Rwanda, Mr. Kagame had completely uprooted all forms of civil society. Though a lot of that had been accomplished through the use of brutal force, some of it was through legal mechanisms such as the changing of the constitution in 2003.
The last challenge against Mr. Kagame's rule had been during the 2003 presidential elections, which, according to multiple reports, had been manipulated in his favor. Since that time, most of Mr. Kagame's critics had either been killed, jailed or exiled. Mr. Kagame was now living in a dictator's paradise!
So palpable was Kagame's terror that when Ms. Ingabire landed in Kigali, a close friend picked the phone to tell me that, "Ingabire's return seemed like more like suicide". Indeed, we were all aware that the regime would react in an uncivilized and heavy handed manner. But on her part, Ms. Ingabire felt she was paying the necessary price.
I have some vivid memories of parts of Ms. Ingabire's speech. For instance, she felt that it was upon us as Rwandans to champion for democratic reforms rather than relying on outsiders to do that for us. It seemed very clear to her that the international community could only do so much. "They [Spanish and French courts] have already identified Mr. Mr. Kagame's crimes, it is upon you to bring him to justice", she had urged.
More than anyone else, it is Ms. Ingabire's charisma and fearlessness that has helped rejuvenate the current pro-democracy movement in Rwanda. In truth, it is upon her arrival in Rwanda that Mr. Kagame's once unified camp fell into disparate tatters. People who previously felt completely powerless, started sensing the urge to do something. Many were mobilized for the cause of democracy. I was among them.
It is under these circumstances that my blog was born. As I tell my friends, it was the cowardly thing to do. Though I felt the necessity of political change, I was not ready to be involved with some sort of political group. Challenging Mr. Kagame's narrative appeared to be much more impressive. At the time, I also considered it to be less risk. At least I admit I was wrong on the last count. Mr. Kagame's killing machine has spared neither journalists nor bloggers who try to ruin his dictatorial paradise.
Even in prison, Ms. Ingabire continues to gain more influence. I have seen much more pro-democracy movements born after her arrest than ever before. One of the new movements is Jambo News, a new media venture by young Rwandans based in Brussels. Jambo News has taken the center stage of counteracting Mr. Kagame's media monopoly at a time when Rwandan journalists are severely threatened. Their work is helping give a much needed balanced view on Rwandan political affairs.
Ms. Ingabire's inspiration has perhaps been mostly felt on the internet. More Rwandans have started blogging and the pro-democracy movement is especially active on both Twitter and Facebook. Of course the challenge here is that only a very small percentage of Rwandans regularly use the internet--most of whom are likely to be closely tied to the dictatorship. Even in a limited way, internet has nonetheless helped reawaken collective consciousness.
With the release of United Nations Mapping report on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) which accuses Mr. Kagame of committing genocide against his own people, more genocide survivors have started speaking out. Just to mention a few, Claude Gatebuke is a young Rwandan genocide survivor who has been fearlessly raising awareness on Mr. Kagame's criminal past. Another survivor, Jean Luc Dushime, hopes to film a documentary exposing Kagame's atrocities in the DRC. These are ordinary young citizens with a big heart for justice and fairness.
I honestly think that Mr. Kagame now finds himself forced between a rock and a hard place. I sometimes cannot help but feel pity for him. He is quite a cornered man. The biggest challenge for him at the moment is what to do with Ms. Ingabire. When asked by journalists yesterday about Ingabire's arrest, he responded that Ms. Ingabire had already pleaded guilty (watch the video here). Of course, this is a big lie. Which makes me highly suspicious that the government has no idea what to do with her.
Since the charges that Ms. Ingabire faces have already been proven to be bogus, this is the dilemma that the government faces. Sentencing Ms. Ingabire is automatically going to cause international condemnation. As such, Mr. Kagame can hardly afford to do so at such a fragile period in his presidency. Even worse for Mr. Kagame, freeing her is bound to help start a popular grass-root movement that is likely to leave Kagame toppled. Such an action would be interpreted by many as a sign that the ruling junta is getting weakened. Something that Kagame cannot tolerate either.
Looking at my crystal ball, I can predict that Mr. Kagame will opt for the first option. Dictators do not easily accept to lose power. But imprisoning Ms. Ingabire will not stop her revolution from taking place.
To learn more about Jean Luc Dushime's courageous project, click here. Also, visit his site for amazing photography. http://dushimejeanluc.com/