A woman who ran against Rwanda’s president is on trial

Diane Rwigara and the perils of dissent in Rwanda

PAUL KAGAME, the president of Rwanda, thinks there is nothing odd about how he won re-election for a third presidential term last year with 98% of the vote. “It could have been 100%,” he told the Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank in New York a few months later.

It is hard to tell how popular Mr Kagame really is. Serious candidates who tried to stand against him were barred from doing so—and then ruthlessly punished. One of them was Diane Rwigara, a young businesswoman who appeared in court this week with her mother, charged with “inciting insurrection or trouble among the population”. The government has also brought charges against her aunt and brother, who live abroad. 

The prosecution says the charges against Ms Rwigara relate, in part, to comments she made at a press conference last year. “She intended to smear the country and its leadership with lies,” Faustin Nkusi, the prosecutor, told the court. “She said that people are dying of poverty in Rwanda; this is a false claim aimed at insurrection.” The government’s own statistics show that more than one in three Rwandan children is stunted by malnutrition (though that ratio has fallen from one in two in 2005).

Many think Ms Rwigara’s real crime is uppityness. Mr Kagame has ruled Rwanda since 1994, when he first shot his way to power. (He led a Tutsi rebel army that stopped the genocide and overthrew the Hutu regime that orchestrated it.) Many people admire Mr Kagame for running a disciplined government that is relatively free of petty corruption. But he brooks no real opposition and shows worrying signs of wishing to remain in power indefinitely. His final term was meant to end in 2017, but a constitutional amendment passed in 2015 could let him stay in office until 2034.

Shortly after Ms Rwigara announced her candidacy, nude photographs of her were circulated on the internet. She blamed the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), saying the pictures had been faked. Then the electoral commission disqualified her, saying she had not collected the 600 signatures she needed to stand. It also barred another independent candidate, Gilbert Mwenedata, who fled Rwanda after being questioned by the police.

Ms Rwigara, who has been detained since September, knew the risks she faced. Her father, a prominent businessman and longtime supporter of the RPF, had clashed with senior figures in the party when they allegedly asked him to hand over part of his business. He refused. In 2015 he died in a car crash. The family claim he was murdered. A few months before Ms Rwigara announced her candidacy, a friend, who had criticised the government, disappeared. Yet she refused to stay silent, saying: “A hyena runs after you for so long that eventually you stop getting frightened.”

This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline”Stand, then stand trial”

Source: The Economist.com