KIGALI, Rwanda — It’s three weeks before presidential elections in Rwanda, and news of an opposition leader’s brutal murder is still fresh in the minds of many.
Green Party Vice President Andre Kagwa Rwisereka’s head was “almost completely removed from his body,” according to Frank Habineza, Green Party chairman. “It is very sad and very shocking,” he told GlobalPost. “We are calling on the government to bring a quick investigation and bring to justice those who committed this crime.”
On top of that atrocity earlier this month, in which Rwisereka’s body was found dumped near a river outside the country’s second largest city Butare, there have been a slew of other suspicious incidents — including the murder of a prominent journalist, the shooting of an exiled army general and the arrests and harassment of scores of opposition activists.
How worrying are the signs that Rwanda is becoming more politically repressive?
President Paul Kagame's government — which has been praised for leading the country to stability since the genocide in 1994 — is drawing more critical attention.
So far, there are no proven links between the recent killings and the Kagame government. Yet critics of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) say the events must be seen in a context where opposition groups and independent media have been intimidated in advance of the Aug. 9 election.
Kagame is widely expected to win re-election in a poll opposition leaders charge will be an “obvious masquerade,” as, only parties allied to Kagame's RPF have been allowed to register candidates for the ballot.
“As the August presidential election approaches, the government is organizing a tightly controlled and monolithic electoral campaign in which all sources of criticism are being suppressed,” said Reporters Without Borders, an international media watchdog, in a recent statement.
The Paris-based organization called on the European Union and other international donors to suspend their assistance to the Rwandan government and stop providing funds for the election.
“If the European Union stopped disbursing its funding, it would be clear sign of opposition to the Rwandan government’s practices,” the group wrote on July 13.
Just weeks ago, it appeared diplomatic pressure might help ease Rwanda’s political tension.
Until mid-June, the election campaign had been dominated by the saga of opposition leader Victoire Ingabire and her American attorney Peter Erlinder, both of whom were arrested and charged with violating a series of laws prohibiting speech that questions the official history of the genocide.
Erlinder, lead defense council for genocide suspects at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, was hospitalized several times during a three-week stint in a Rwandan prison, including what Rwandan authorities allege was a faked attempt at suicide.
On June 17 Erlinder was released on bail for medical reasons with the reported assistance of United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and was allowed to return to the U.S.
While few in Rwanda harbored illusions of a fair election, many hoped that Erlinder's release would reduce tensions between Kagame and his many critics. Kagame had already been nudged by Clinton — on behalf of the U.S., a key donor and military ally. The 52-year-old president is known for his mastery of public relations to draw aid and investment to Rwanda and many in the West, including Clinton, have praised Kagame for Rwanda's efficient government and economic development. However there is growing concern that Kagame's effective leadership is being overtaken by a more ruthless drive to stay in power.
“We really don't want to see Rwanda undermine its own remarkable progress by beginning to move away from a lot of the very positive actions that undergirded its development so effectively," said Clinton at a June 14 foreign policy roundtable on Africa at the State Department.
Just days later, Kaymuba Nyamwasa, an army general and former Rwandan ambassador to India, was shot and wounded in his self-imposed exile in South Africa. A long-time Kagame insider, Nyamwasa was director of RPF military intelligence during its four-year civil war against the regime of former President Juvenal Habyarimana — a conflict that ended when the RPF seized power in the wake of the genocide.
Yet the general and Kagame had recently fallen out. Nyamwasa, who claims he is alive only because his would-be assassin’s gun jammed, has leveled detailed accusations of corruption against Kagame and denounced the RPF as a party preoccupied with “furthering hatred.”
Nyamwasa fled to South Africa in March after the Rwandan government accused him and another senior military officer, Colonel Patrick Karegeya, of masterminding a series of recent grenade attacks in Kigali, allegations he denies.
Though the Rwandan government rejects any links to the attempted murder, Kagame told Rwanda’s parliament he would “crush” Nyamwasa and Karegeya like “flies with a hammer,” according to local reports.
In an ongoing diplomatic row, Rwanda has lashed out at South Africa for “insinuating” the shooting may have been the work of Rwandan agents.
Rwanda has also denied involvement in the killing of Jean-Leonard Rugambage, deputy editor of the Kinyarwanda-language publication Umuvugizi, who was gunned down outside his home in Kigali on June 24.
The journalist’s murder came the same day police arrested several members of the opposition during peaceful demonstrations in Kigali. The murder followed an article published by Rugambage on the Umuvugizi website alleging Rwanda’s intelligence chief made telephone calls to suspects arrested in South Africa on suspicion of involvement in Nyamwasa’s attempted murder.
Police have since arrested two suspects in Rugambage’s killing, one of whom authorities say admitted to killing the journalist to avenge the death of his brother, who he claims Rugambage killed during the genocide. Revenge killings of that sort, however, are increasingly rare in Rwanda, and Rugambage was acquitted of genocide crimes by a local “gacaca” court in 2006.
Ambrose Pierre, head of the Africa desk at Reporters Without Borders, says he is “shocked” by the revenge-killing narrative.
“We don’t believe this argument,” he told GlobalPost. “We cannot say the government is guilty, but everything is possible. He was a brave journalist investigating very serious issues, and he might have been killed for his journalistic activities.”
Though Rugambage is the first journalist to be murdered in Rwanda since 1998, his killing is part of what Pierre and other critics allege is a deepening crackdown on press freedom in the country.
Umuvugizi is one of two publications known for criticizing the Kagame government that were suspended from print in April. Its editor, Jean-Bosco Gasasira, who was nearly killed in a 2007 ambush after speaking out against the harassment of journalists, is currently in exile.
A week after Rugambage’s murder, another exiled reporter, Dominique Makeli, was reportedly abducted from his home in Uganda and dumped along the side of a road when his captors realized that police were on their trail.
In the last two weeks, authorities have arrested two journalists from the publication Umurabyo, including one, Saidati Mukakibibi, whom police allege wrote articles comparing Kagame to Hitler.
In a country just 16 years removed from genocide, where ethnic tensions are still prevalent, many in Rwanda argue that an element of press censorship is warranted to mitigate the sort of incendiary rhetoric that has contributed to past violence.
Yet Pierre says Rwanda’s administration has taken things too far.
“It is the responsibility of the government of Paul Kagame to create an environment in which media can speak freely but professionally,” he said. “Today in Rwanda, genocide is used as an excuse for silencing people and controlling all freedoms in general.”
In the wake of the most recent killing, this silencing has left opposition leaders frightened. Habineza, the Green Party chief, whose name will not be on the August ballot, says it’s too early to place blame for his deputy’s murder.
On July 15, police arrested one suspect, a business partner of Rwisereka who allegedly shared drinks with the politician the night before he was murdered. Police have suggested a robbery motive, but Habineza says this is unlikely, as the keys to Rwisereka’s home and car were found inside his abandoned vehicle.
“If it were a robbery, they would have stolen the vehicle and broken into his house,” he said.
“All of us in the opposition are very scared because we don’t know who caused this.”