On a late summer day in 2017, nearly four months after she dared to challenge Rwanda’s most powerful man, three plainclothes police officers entered the office of former presidential candidate Diane Rwigara, sneaking up on her with silent strides and pistols drawn. Rwigara was washing her hands in the bathroom. She gazed through the open door, realized that she couldn’t escape and that the men had come to arrest her. The authorities took Rwigara and her family into custody and brought them to the police station for questioning.
A friend had warned her two days earlier that she could expect trouble. In Rwanda there are regularly reports of people disappearing whose plans collide with those of the president. They are arrested or abducted — and some even die, like Diane Rwigara’s father.
Diane Shima Rwigara, 37, a slim woman with a shy manner, tells this story in March, during the rainy season, as anthracite clouds billow on the horizon. She’s wearing a floor-length dress and sitting on a rattan chair on the veranda of her parents’ house, which is built on the same parcel of land as her own home. The garden has ornamental plants and primly trimmed hedges. Six SUVs are parked on the paved courtyard. Rwigara belongs to the country’s elite and the surroundings are perfectly idyllic, except that a wall topped with barbed wire separates the property from the outside world.
Rwigara shields herself from the capital Kigali, where she has many supporters who wore T-shirts with her likeness during her election campaign, yet now lower their voices at the mere mention of her name and say: “No comment.”
“In Rwanda,” Rwigara says firmly, “everyone lives in fear.” She has grown cautious and only allows journalists behind the walls of her property after she has learned enough about their intentions. Whenever she talks about the most traumatic events of her life, — her father’s death, the smear campaign against her and her imprisonment for a year and two weeks — she laughs as if she could color the memories a shade brighter.
She’s convinced that one man is responsible for her family’s misfortune: Paul Kagame, 61, the man who has served as Rwanda’s president for the past two decades.
Most of the others are afraid of him or grateful to him as the commander of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the man who put an end to the genocide of 1994.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of these events and the day that the massacre erupted, April 7, is a national holiday. Memorial sites honoring the victims are scattered throughout the country. Roughly 800,000 people died from April to July 1994 — most of them Tutsis, but also moderate Hutus who stood up to the death squads. On average, five lives were violently ended every minute during those 100 days.
Unfinished Life Stories
The capital is home to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where the remains of more than 250,000 people are buried under rose bushes. In one of the rooms inside the building hang photos of the victims during their former lives, showing them in settings like picnics, photo studios and graduation parties. Another room exhibits portrait photos of children, two to three years old, photographed on carefree days before someone split their skulls with a machete, smashed their bodies against a wall or riddled them with bullets.
There are pictures of tens of thousands of unfinished life stories.
All these people died because of the notion that there are differences between ethnic groups, that someone with “Hutu” printed in their passport was worth more than someone with the word “Tutsi.”
In a bid to put a stop to this kind of thinking, President Kagame has banned anyone from publicly referring to ethnic groups and has had all references to ethnicity removed from passports. Instead of focusing on the differences, he has forged a constitution in which everyone in Rwanda has equal rights, at least on paper.
Article 16 states: “All Rwandans are born and remain equal in rights and freedoms.”
This principle also means that men and women are equal and at least 30 percent of politicians and public employees must be female. There are also pragmatic reasons for this doctrine: For every man who survived the genocide, there were seven women survivors. The Rwandans had no choice but to rebuild the country as widows and orphans.
Today, 61 percent of the members of the lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, are female — more than in any other country in the world. On top of this, women have the right to divorce and are entitled to half of a married couple’s jointly owned property.
This enforced unity of all Rwandans undeniably created peace, at least superficially. Conflicts between Hutus and Tutsis rarely surface, and it’s hard to find anyone who is willing to talk about the suffering that they experienced or inflicted upon others.
Walking through the streets of the capital Kigali, there’s no noticeable trace of this past. People wearing Nike sneakers and shirts sit in cafés or hawk their wares in front of stores: SIM cards for mobile phones, newspapers that claim to be independent, cotton dresses and earrings made of fabric. Women study at universities, launch startups, become professionals, like journalists and neurosurgeons, and generate tax revenue for Rwanda. The economy is booming, the school enrollment rate is close to 100 percent and nearly all Rwandans are covered by the health insurance system.
The streets are lined with many well-kept houses surrounded by trimmed hedges and acacia trees with yellow flowers. Plastic bags have already been banned — and new buildings are going up all over Kigali.
In recognition of his reforms, Kagame was named “African of the Year” at the 2018 All Africa Business Leaders Awards. The monthly magazine Forbes Africa featured him on its cover, and many in the West praise the progress in Rwanda, with some even calling it the “Sweden of Africa.” Rwanda appears to be a wonderland of economic development and equality — and Kagame is its architect. He offers peace, a prosperous economy, a well-functioning state and a level of equality that is unparalleled in Africa. In return, he demands undivided loyalty.
But how credible is this emancipation that came from above? How freely do people live in a country ruled by a man who oppresses the opposition and condemns any dissent as a betrayal of national unity? What, if anything, is genuine in Kagame’s wonderland?
Curled up on a chair on her veranda, Rwigara says: “Everything Kagame does, he does to impress the West.”
Gazing Forward, Never Backward
When she was born into an affluent family in 1981, Paul Kagame was living in exile in Uganda because Tutsis like himself already felt unsafe in Rwanda. The Belgians made the Tutsis the elite in the country, even though they comprised only around 10 percent of the population. After the end of Belgian colonial rule in 1962, many Tutsis were persecuted, displaced or killed. The civil war erupted in the early 1990s when the Tutsi-led RPF advanced against the Hutu government from its base in Uganda. The RPF was a militarily superior force, prompting Hutu extremists to vow revenge and plot the annihilation of all Tutsis.
Rwigara was 12 years old when the genocide began. Many members of her family were murdered because they were Tutsis, but she survived because her parents and siblings were living in Belgium when the RPF first advanced from the north to the east and south, then moved into western Rwanda. By July, the Kagame’s forces had killed thousands of civilians to put an end to the genocide. To this day, Kagame legitimizes his authoritarian rule by pointing to the military victory that he achieved back then.
Rwigara says she didn’t return to Rwanda until two years later, at a time when Kagame had already risen to become vice president. In those days, it seemed as if everyone was just gazing forward, never backward, as if there had never been a genocide in which members of her family — as well as Kagame’s — had perished. Rwanda felt like a free country to her back then.
‘Who Would Expect a Murder’
But she says her illusions were shattered on February 4, 2015 — the evening her father died.
She was in the United States at the time. Her father, as Rwigara was told over the phone, was driving his car up a hill when he hit a bump in the road. He was driving too fast and, according to the official report, crossed into the oncoming lane, where he collided with a truck. The next day, The New Times, a pro-government newspaper, ran the following headline: “Businessman Assinapol Rwigara Dies in an Accident,” but his daughter believes it was murder.
Her mother told her that when she rushed to the scene of the accident her father was still alive. She wanted to call an ambulance, but the police prevented her. Rwigara says that her father died because someone hidden in the back seat of a patrol car stabbed him in the neck with a knife.
“He had problems for a long time because he had become too dangerous for the president,” she says, again with that same laugh, “but who would expect a murder?”
Assinapol Rwigara was a tobacco and real estate tycoon who helped finance the Tutsi army during the civil war. Later, he was favored by the Kagame regime, allowing him to increase his wealth and fame. But then — at least according to rumors — he joined forces with a group of businessmen and former military officials who wanted to revolt against Kagame. Many were killed or imprisoned.
The real reason for her father’s death, says Rwigara, is that he was unwilling to relinquish control of his businesses — a tobacco firm, a construction company and a wholesaler of soaps and cardboard packaging — to the RPF, which continues to control Rwanda’s economy.
After her father’s death, she held a press conference, wrote to human rights organizations, and sent a letter to the president to confront him with the autopsy results, but he didn’t respond.
On May 3, 2017, she announced her intention to run for president, in effect challenging the man who may be responsible for her father’s death.
Only two days later, photos appeared on the internet that allegedly showed her lying on a sofa and standing in front of a closed curtain; in both pictures, she’s completely naked. Rwigara says the images are fakes made with Photoshop. Later, government officials said that she didn’t have the requisite 600 signatures for a candidacy.
“In reality,” says Rwigara, “I had more than twice that amount.”
On July 14, she founded the People Salvation Movement to rally all those who wanted to stand up to the government.
And although she was barred from running in the election — which Kagame won with almost 99 percent of the vote — she was arrested nearly two months later.
The Rwandan parliament is located in the Kimihurura district. The walls of the building are still pockmarked with 25-year-old bullet holes and there’s a museum that glorifies Kagame on large panels as a war hero. It’s a sham parliament. The deputies are all either members of the governing RPF party or an opposition that supports the president.
‘Without Him, No One Would Be Doing So Well’
On a Friday morning in late March, Clarisse Imaniriho, 24, is sitting in the parliamentary building. Imaniriho is the youngest member of parliament in Rwanda and, as one of the 49 women in the 80-member Chamber of Deputies, she’s part of the success story that Kagame likes to project to the world. She says: “My biggest role model is Paul Kagame. Without him and his troops, no one in the country would be doing so well.”
She leans back in a leather chair, a stern-looking woman who has her hair woven in a tight braid. When questioned about current policies, regardless of the topic, she glances at a sheet of notes and responds with words of praise about Kagame’s regime. On the issue of unemployment, she say it’s virtually nonexistent; on the demands of young people, she says that they couldn’t be happier; when asked what she, as an individual, wants to achieve, she says that she emulates the RPF soldiers who liberated Rwanda. And she constantly repeats various permutations of the same message: “In Rwanda everyone is equal.”
There’s a word for this attitude that is propagated by Kagame and regurgitated by parliamentarians like Imaniriho: Rwandanness.
Persistent Racial Tensions
Journalist and professor Christopher Kayumba interprets it in his doctoral thesis. Dressed in a black suit, Kayumba is sitting on the terrace of a café as he explains that the word characterizes the people of Rwanda and reflects “a sense of community through a common nationality.”
In his work, Kayumba traces Rwanda’s path from a nation ravaged by genocide to a country with a high proportion of women in parliament. He describes how colonial powers and Rwandan rulers provoked conflicts between ethnic groups. He shows how Kagame later did everything in his power to gloss over these ostensible differences.
“Kagame made it illegal to talk about ethnic groups,” says Kayumba, adding that the president constantly talks about equal rights. “The role of women has actually changed. They have rights and even sit in parliament,” he says, adding: “But the Rwandan parliament has no power.”
Emancipation serves Kagame as a billboard where he can advertise the proportion of women in parliament in neon colors. The reality — that such a quota is worthless in a repressive country — pales in comparison.
“Just because nobody talks about ethnic tensions,” says the professor, “doesn’t mean there are no tensions anymore.”
‘A Cemetery for the Living’
On the day of Rwigara’s arrest, the police brought her to the station. Every day, she says, she was questioned for between five and seven hours, for an entire month.
In September, Rwigara, her sister and her mother were put in prison — and although they were initially arrested on charges of tax evasion, they were indicted for inciting insurrection.
The guards shaved Rwigara’s head, gave her prison garb — a pink dress — and put her in a cell with two beds, a sink and a toilet that she shared with five other women.
“In prison,” Rwigara says, “it’s like a cemetery for the living.” She picked up the phrase from a fellow inmate who was detained for abortion, which is largely banned in Rwanda.
Rwigara became friends with many of the women who, after a few days or weeks, were replaced with other prisoners. It soon dawned on her that the women were supposed to spy on her, so the government could finally get some inside information on the People Salvation Movement. She says that she kept quiet after that.
It was not until a year and two weeks later that she was released on bail along with her mother. The charges were dropped shortly thereafter. Rwigara says she was only let go thanks to pressure from abroad after the media and human rights lawyers started calling her a political prisoner.
Rebuilding a Movement
Sitting on her veranda, Rwigara says she wants to continue and that she’s not afraid to be arrested again. “It’s part of life in the opposition to be imprisoned or killed.”
She wants to rebuild the People Salvation Movement and, when presidential elections are held again in 2024, run for the highest office in the land — perhaps. “What else is the point of living for me?” she says, adding: “Living in Rwanda feels like prison.”
Back in parliament, Deputy Imaniriho is busy scrutinizing her red-painted fingernails when she’s hit with one more question:
“What should change for women? The abortion laws?”
Imaniriho laughs for the first time during a one-hour interview full of the same rote responses and says: “No comment.”
Then she quips: “Everyone loves Rwanda. We’re all free here.”
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