Hutu presidential hopeful says Rwanda 'far from democracy'

When presidential hopeful Victoire Ingabire, a Hutu, returned to Rwanda after a long absence she immediately visited a memorial to Tutsis killed in the 1994 genocide and asked why Hutus who also died were not remembered.

When presidential hopeful Victoire Ingabire, a Hutu, returned to Rwanda after a long absence she immediately visited a memorial to Tutsis killed in the 1994 genocide and asked why Hutus who also died were not remembered.

She then told Hutu prisoners she would get them out of chains.

For these actions, the 41-year-old Ms Ingabire was arrested, charged with genocide ideology and could be sentenced to more than two decades in prison if convicted.

It has been 16 years since 800,000 Rwandans, the vast majority of them Tutsis, were slaughtered by Hutus.

With the nation still grappling with ethnic divisions almost a generation later, Ms Ingabire’s case has become a test of where Rwanda stands in its effort to move past the genocide – and how much freedom the government of President Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, will allow its people.

The government was lauded by the international community for its progress in women’s rights and economic growth, but analysts say it harshly cracks down on dissent, something Kigali citizens confirm in nervous street interviews.

Ms Ingabire said she is merely trying to exercise her rights and that the government’s response shows it is “far from democracy”.

For its part, the government, wary of anything that could inflame ethnic tensions, accuses her of risking another slide toward violence with her actions.

Kigali, Rwanda’s hilly capital, is prosperous and beautiful. More than half the members of the lower house of parliament are women, the highest proportion in the world.

Former US President Bill Clinton’s foundation last year gave Kagame an award in recognition of his work to develop rural health and education systems and strengthen infrastructure.

Mr Kagame is running for re-election in the August 9 elections and is expected to win another seven-year term.

But human rights groups said that under the serene-looking surface the government has an ironclad hold on power and quashes opposing views.

The US State Department said in a March report that citizens’ rights to change their government are “effectively restricted” and cited limits on freedoms of speech, press and judicial independence.

“Politically there’s no space for the opposition or any other view than that of the government,” said Daniela Kroslak, an analyst with the International Crisis Group in Nairobi, Kenya.

Ms Ingabire said she returned to Rwanda in January after 16 years because the country needs an open discussion to promote reconciliation. In an interview, she complained that she is being muzzled.

“That’s the problem I have with this government. If you talk about ethnicity, they say you are a divisionist,” Ms Ingabire said. “I think the better solution is you talk about it and find a solution.”

The government’s chief prosecutor, Martin Ngoga, said this is not simply a free-speech issue because Ms Ingabire could incite Rwanda “to once more explode as it did only 16 years ago”.

Ms Ingabire has contacts with the FDLR, a group of Hutu fighters operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Rwandan government has labelled the FDLR as a terrorist group.

Ms Ingabire said her party doesn’t agree with the FDLR’s politics but Mr Ngoga said she is seeking to destabilise Rwanda with her FDLR contacts.

“We have done a lot in terms of trying to overcome the legacy of the genocide and to get people to pursue the future,” Mr Ngoga said. “But we have not got to the point where our community is educated enough to the extent where it cannot be manipulated again.”

He warned that the government won’t tolerate people giving “speeches that incite ethnic divisions”.

In the wake of the 1994 killings, the government set out to de-emphasis ethnicity. Many in the country now are identified simply as a Rwandan, not a Hutu or Tutsi.

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