Ballon D’Or for Rwanda’s Rare Advocate

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By Constance Alice Mutimukeye and Claude Gatebuke

Rwanda, a small country in Central East Africa, is called the “country of a thousand hills'' because of its lush green hills and mountain sides. Rwanda is home to the now rare mountain gorillas which reside in some of those mountains. It’s hard to think it is home to a dark history -- the horrific genocide that took place in 1994, popularized by the Hollywood film “Hotel Rwanda.”

The real-life hero of the film, Paul Rusesabagina (played in the movie by Don Cheadle), is a staunch critic of the Rwandan government. Rusesabagina is currently incarcerated in Rwanda. The Rwandan regime led by Paul Kagame and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) ruling party organized and paid for Rusesabagina's abduction from Dubai to Rwanda for trial in August of last year.

The country of a thousand hills is also a country of a thousand problems. However, there is a silver lining in these thousand problems: human beings doing extraordinary activist and advocacy work.

How Did Modern-Day Rwanda Become Like This?

The current Kagame regime in Rwanda has been long supported by Western powerhouses, particularly the United States, Britain, and France. Unknown to many Westerners, the regime has gotten away with widespread mass murder and human rights abuses since the end of the 1994 genocide. Millions of Rwandans have been killed, tortured, raped, disappeared, dispossessed of their property, jailed, or forced into exile by the RPF. Freedom of speech and expression are essentially nonexistent in modern Rwanda, enforced by severe punishment.

Paul Kagame & The RPF have mostly escaped international criticism and sanctions. A large portion of Rwanda’s budget is supported by foreign aid, with the U.S. and the U.K. among the leading donors. In addition to its budget, the country receives military, diplomatic, political, and economic support from its western allies. Most insipidly, the judicial system used as an effective tool of repression toward Rwandans is financed by the Netherlands. Rwanda’s president Kagame counts on his powerful friends.

Allies turn a blind eye to the RPF’s aggressiveness, and when necessary, they step up public relations to defend him. Even when it comes to the destruction of Rwandans and the region-- particularly atrocities committed by Rwandan troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo-- Kagame can count on Western figureheads to minimize his crimes. Kagame's high placed friends are many. He can count on Tony Blair, Paul Farmer, Bill Clinton, Pastor Rick Warren, Romeo Dallaire, Patrick de Saint-Exupéry, Bernard Kouchner, and many others to speak up on his behalf.

Paul Kagame’s Far-Reaching (Devastating) Impact

Rwanda and Uganda’s invasion of the Congo over the past twenty-five years has led to the death of more than six million innocent Congolese lives and counting. This is more than the total deaths resulting from the Coronavirus global pandemic to date. It is the deadliest conflict since WWII, and western allies have been trying to suppress this fact. When the UN Mapping Exercise Report for Congo showed Rwandan troops may have committed genocide in Congo, instead of enforcing its recommendations, the U.S. tried to block the report from being released via the U.S. mission to the UN led by Susan Rice.

Today, positive signs show that perhaps the West is becoming embarrassed by Kagame and the RPF’s excesses. Earlier this year, the Commonwealth decided not to hold its annual heads of government meeting in Rwanda. Also, the upcoming Democracy summit held in the U.S., one of the top donor nations to Rwanda, does not include Kagame among its invitees. Rare criticism has emerged that a group of U.S. lawmakers called on the government of Rwanda to release Paul Rusesabagina. While the U.S. has continued to provide aid to Rwanda, USAID administrator Samantha Power said: “I don’t think that there is an environment on the ground that allows criticism, or that there’s pluralistic party development or the criteria that you would have in any textbook for a liberal democracy.”

Samantha Power is correct that Rwanda lacks an environment for free speech. In the past three months, multiple journalists and Youtubers who were critical of the government were jailed. Idamange Yvonne, a woman whose Youtube channel operated for only two weeks, was sentenced to 15 years. Meanwhile, Niyonsenga Dieudonne (Cyuma Hassan) was sentenced to 7 years in prison after the government appealed a previous acquittal. After sentencing, the prosecution also admitted that one of the laws used to convict Niyonsenga expired in 2019, way before he was initially arrested in 2020 and spent almost a year in detention before his release.

Insipid RPF Support Among Citizens

In October, nearly a dozen people were arrested, including journalist Theoneste Nsengimana, while planning a Youtube discussion about Rwanda’s political prisoners. In May 2021, Aimable Karasira was also arrested and has not been heard from for months. Others, like Rachid Hakuzimana, currently await their trials. Many critics, free thinkers, and ordinary citizens have languished in Rwandan prisons since 1994, causing the rise of the current Rwandan prison population. Many individual Rwandans and small groups with self-interest aid in free speech suppression and imprisoning those mentioned above. IBUKA, an organization said to represent the interest of Tutsi genocide survivors, is one of the leading backers of smear campaigns and motions for imprisonment. This article on BlackstarNews describes how this works well. Often, organizations like IBUKA who claim to support disenfranchised groups, end up contributing to harassment and suppression of marginalized Rwandans.

In 2019, professor and Youtuber Aimable Karasira had been under constant harassment by high-ranking authorities in Rwanda and high-ranking members of the RPF, with character assassination as the primary tool of harassment. The consequences of his character assassination by RPF-tied civilian organizations led to him being fired as a university lecturer in fall 2020, before his arrest. In recent times, members of IBUKA also directed their hate and fury at Rachid Hakuzimana, a YouTuber awaiting trial in Rwanda now. Afterward, they turned toward Niyonsenga (Cyuma Hassan). All are currently serving time in prison or detention, awaiting the outcome of their trials, although their convictions are usually a foregone conclusion. It’s just a matter of what their “punishment” will be.

Hope and Ballon D’Or Award

There is a silver lining of hope in this dark cloud of suffering and the collaboration of national and international communities. There are still brave Rwandans who refuse to be complicit in the suffering of the masses.

All of the activists mentioned above have sacrificed to ensure Rwandans do not suffer in silence. While these individuals are relatively new on the scene, many other journalists and activists were brave before the advent of social media.

Cassien Ntamuhanga, Nelson Gatsimbazi, Didas Gasana, Charles Kabonero, Agnes Nkusi Uwimana, Saidath Mukakibibi, Rubens Mukunzi, and many more contributed to challenging repressive regimes. Each one of the above experienced severe repression, and many are now in exile. Deo Mushayidi, co-author of the French book entitled “The Secrets of the Rwandan Genocide” with investigative journalist Charles Onana, is serving life in prison after being abducted from Tanzania and put through a biased trial.

Joseph Matata is a longtime advocate for human rights in Rwanda. His work has spanned pre- and post-genocide Rwanda. Matata’s best qualities include his integrity, impeccable documentation, and ensuring his information is of the highest level of credibility. Matata is a walking library of human rights abuses in Rwanda.

A rarity among Rwandans, Matata has taken a stand against repression for decades while other Rwandans lived in fear of challenging authorities. Like many advocates worldwide, such as Martin Luther King and Gandhi, he has been subjected to jail, insults, harassment, smear campaigns, and demonization by the regimes and their supporters. Many people facing unfair trials look to Matata for advocacy and documentation.

Matata arrived in Belgium poor and without modern technology. Still, he did not hesitate to invest the little personal finances into FAX correspondence, telephones, and printers to document what the Rwandan people were undergoing. He traveled throughout Europe to meet his compatriots and encourage them to follow in his footsteps. His extraordinary courage and dedication to the truth, even when it means stepping out of the box, has placed him in danger with the Rwandan regime. It has also made him a victim of non-stop smear campaigns by those embarrassed by his research. Matata remains and will remain in the hearts of many Rwandans the Ballon D’or winner when it comes to helping others. He is a humble man who is always motivated to advocate for others and speaks very little about himself and his accomplishments.

Matata’s work to expose the RPF’s killings of Tutsi genocide survivors dating back to 1996 is worth highlighting. This was more than two decades before Diane Rwigara, a former presidential candidate in Rwanda wrote a letter to president Kagame in 2019 about the killings of Tutsi genocide survivors. When Matata began reporting on these killings in the 90s, Tutsi genocide survivors began to direct their wrath toward him even though he spoke on their behalf. They hated that he called out the RPF, a party they favored despite its long record of mass murder and genocide. Over the years, genocide survivors began to see the RPF for what it is and have come to appreciate Matata’s work. He is a thorn in the side of Rwanda’s repressive dictatorship. Besides his work, Matata has inspired and continues to inspire generations of Rwandans who look up to him and seek a better Rwanda.

The work of all listed above -- as well as an attitude change toward Rwanda’s dictatorship from the international community-- will bring about positive change in Rwanda.

Constance Alice Mutimukeye is a human rights activist based in France and can be followed on twitter @mutikeys. Claude Gatebuke is a US based Rwandan genocide and war survivor and human rights activist. He can be followed on twitter @shinani1.

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