Is Rwanda ready to give a voice to the opposition?

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A high court in Rwanda last week released opposition leader Diane Rwigara on bail. The 37-year-old, who was put in jail last year along with her mother, was released on bail by a high court in capital Kigali on the condition that she and her mother don’t leave the capital. She is due to reappear in court on the 7th of November this year.


This latest move has been greeted with a great deal of enthusiasm by many in Rwanda and in the world. And after recent developments just like this, people are asking if Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame is finally releasing his foothold on political power in the East African country.


Diane Rwigara was disqualified from contesting for presidency in Rwanda last year, arrested and put in jail by Rwandan authorities for forgery and insurrection.


She was accused of forging signatures that would make her contest for president in last year’s Rwandan general election. She was also accused of inciting insurrection in Rwanda due to her pre-election rhetoric, where she accused President Kagame of stifling free speech in Rwanda.


The Rwandan authorities also arrested her mother and sister, accusing them of tax evasion and putting up pieces of equipment from the family business up for auction.


Many say Kagame’s harassment of the Rwigara family could be connected to the patriarch of the family, late Assinapol Rwigara who died in a controversial car accident in 2015. There were reports he was killed as a result of ending his financing of the ruling party, Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF)


However, Rwigara’s arrest last year could be possibly linked to the increasing opposition to Paul Kagame’s rule in Rwanda. Despite the economic development and the good metrics in health and education, Kagame’s critics have often accused him of having a thin skin towards critics and free press in Rwanda.


Read more here: Celebrating the Rise and Rise of Rwanda


There have been arbitrary arrests of opposition leaders, members of the opposition and members of the press. The Rwandan parliament was also majorly occupied by members of the ruling party RPF.


A string of recent changes, culminating in the release of Diane Rwigara are beginning to suggest maybe Kagame is having a change of heart. Rwanda’s strongest and only registered opposition party Democratic Green Party won seats in the Rwandan Patriotic Front-dominated parliament. They garnered 5 percent of parliament votes, winning 2 seats out of 53 while the ruling party won 40. Though the number is small, opposition members have said it is a major step in Rwanda opening up its political space.


“I think it is a positive step forward. Our say was rarely given consideration because we lacked power,’’ a leader in the party, Frank Habineza said.


The Rwandan government also released Victoire Ingabire, along with more than 2000 other convicts. Victoire Ingabire was jailed in 2012 for allegedly planning to form an armed group to sabotage the government, and for denying the 1994 genocide that occurred in the country in her speeches. Victoire, who returned to Rwanda from the Netherlands in 2010, was contesting for the presidency against Kagame and founded her FDU-Ikingi party, which has remained unregistered since then.


Hence, these sweeping changes have been sudden, and when people consider that Kagame’s 2017 re-election into another term in office seemingly cemented his hold on power, opening up access to power to the opposition might look a bit counter-productive.


A reason for Kagame’s change of mind could be that he is trying to avoid making any leader of the opposition a martyr, and hence, a rallying point for revolution.


Events unfolding in neighbouring Uganda in the past 3 months over the unlawful detention of Member of Parliament and former Afropop musician Bobi Wine have seemingly shone a light on Rwanda’s treatment of its opposition members too.


Calls for Bobi Wine’s release in Uganda were interspersed with calls for Rwigara’s release in Rwanda. What had seemingly gone under the radar was in a moment a rallying call for young activists on the continent.


Kagame’s increasing involvement in world affairs could be another reason why he needs to revamp his image. His reputation as a ‘benevolent dictator’ is dissonant with his new found role as Africa’s ambassador for development and ICT technology.


Read more here: Should ‘Benevolent Dictator’ be used to describe Paul Kagame?


Kagame, who addressed the Official Opening of the General Debate of the 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly held last month, and is also the African Union Chairman, will surely be abhoring any bad press.

Releasing his political prisoners is good news; however, will an open political space be a constant feature in Rwanda now?

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