Rwanda: Political Heat As Election Nears

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[Global: Africa]

On Thursday, March 4th, two days after Senator Russ Feingold, Chair of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Africa, called for the opening of political space in Rwanda, grenades exploded again in Kigali, with 16 people hurt, some critically.

The Feingold Statement on the Fragility of Democracy in Africa was read into the Congressional Record and released to the public on Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010, as tension continued to increase in the run up to this year's Rwandan presidential election, with polls scheduled for August 9th, and opposition parties still struggling to convene, register, campaign, and avoid arrest.

The next day, Wednesday, March 3rd, incumbent President Paul Kagame announced that order had been restored since grenades exploded, killing two and injuring 18, at three heavily trafficked sites in Rwanda's capitol city, Kigali, on February 19th.

The grenades exploded at two new sites in Kigali the evening after Kagame's assurance, and the African Great Lakes regional outlet also reported gunfire.

Earlier in the week Kagame's former Army Chief of Staff, and, until last week, Ambassador to India, Lieutenant-General Kayumba Nyamwasa, was reported to have fled to South Africa, via Uganda and Kenya, after questioning by Rwandan authorities, to join Kagame's former right hand man and Director of External Intelligence, who escaped from Rwanda in 2007.

Kagame was reported to be seeking to extradite both, but Kayumba has since been reported to be proceeding to Europe.

News also reported that their Rwandan correspondent Godwin Agaba had gone into hiding after Kagame ordered his arrest for alleged links to his fleeing general.

Rwanda's Ambassador to the Netherlands, said to have helped Victoire Ingabiré Umuhoza return to Rwanda, reportedly fled to Ireland last week.

Amidst all this, Rwandan opposition leaders and dissident exiles cheered the news of Senator Feingold's call, addressed to President Barack Obama, for the United States to stand with Rwandans for political and civil rights. The UK and the United States are widely known to be the foreign powers with greatest influence in the region.

"Good news indeed," said Donatien Nshima, a Rwandan exile and FDU-Inkingi Party activist in Brussels, who added that he was creating a Twitter account immediately to share some of Senator Feingold's words: "We fail to be true friends to the Rwandan people if we do not stand with them in the fight against renewed abuse of civil and political rights."

Feingold's statement on Rwanda was a substantial part of his larger statement regarding African democracy and elections in 2010 and 2011:

Mr. President, Burundi’s neighbor to the north, Rwanda, is also slated to hold important elections this summer. Rwanda is another country that has come a long way. Since the genocide in 1994, the government and people of Rwanda have made impressive accomplishments in rebuilding the country and improving basic services. It is notable that Rwanda was the top reformer worldwide in the 2010 World Bank’s “Doing Business Report.” President Kagame has shown commendable and creative leadership in this respect. On the democratic front, however, Rwanda still has a long way to go.

Understandably there are real challenges to fostering democracy some 15 years after the genocide, but it is troubling that there is not more space within Rwanda for criticism and opposition voices.

The State Department’s 2008 Human Rights Report for Rwanda stated, “There continued to be limits on freedom of speech and of association, and restrictions on the press increased.” With elections looming, there are now some reports that opposition party members in Rwanda are facing increasing threats and harassment. The international community should not shy away from pushing for greater democratic space in Rwanda, which is critical for the country’s lasting stability. We fail to be true friends to the Rwandan people if we do not stand with them in the fight against renewed abuse of civil and political rights. In the next few months in the run-up to the elections, it is a key time for international donors to raise these issues with Kigali.

Editor's Note: [The Feingold statement also discussed Uganda]

Finally I would like to talk about Uganda, which is set to hold elections in February 2011. Uganda, like Rwanda, is a close friend of the United States, and we have worked together on many joint initiatives over recent years. President Museveni deserves credit for his leadership on many issues both within the country and the wider region. However, at the same time, Museveni’s legacy has been tainted by his failure to allow democracy to take hold in Uganda. Uganda’s most recent elections have been hurt by reports of fraud, intimidation and politically motivated prosecutions of opposition candidates. The Director of National Intelligence stated in his testimony that Uganda remains essentially a “one-party state” and said the government “is not undertaking democratic reforms in advance of the elections scheduled for 2011.”

Uganda’s elections next year could be a defining moment for the country and will have ramifications for the country’s long-term stability. The riots in Buganda last September showed that regional and ethnic tensions remain strong in many parts of the country. Therefore, it is important that the United States and other friends of Uganda work with that country’s leaders to ensure critical electoral reforms are enacted. In the consolidated appropriations act that passed in December, Congress provided significant assistance for Uganda, but also specifically directed the Secretary of State “to closely monitor preparations for the 2011 elections in Uganda and to actively promote…the independence of the election commission; the need for an accurate and verifiable voter registry; the announcement and posting of results at the polling stations; the freedom of movement and assembly and a process free of intimidation; freedom of the media; and the security and protection of candidates.”


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