Time to Turn the Heat On President Kagame

The Monitor (Kampala)

June 8, 2003
Posted to the web June 10, 2003

Bernard Leloup

As elections approach in Rwanda, international donors need to decide whether or not to lend their financial support.

Yet donors should recognise that under present circumstances, the just concluded referendum on the constitution, coupled with the legislative and presidential elections slated for later this year, are meaningless and potentially dangerous.

By taking this public position, we hope to incite the European Commission, its sponsors and other governments to confront the reality - head on. For a long time, a number of academics, journalists and NGOs have expressed grave concern over events in Rwanda. They have good reason to be worried: the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), the all-powerful party of Maj. Gen. Paul Kagame whose tenure of office will soon clock ten years, constantly stifles any opposition within the country.

It is important to highlight the flagrant contradiction between preaching democratisation and national reconciliation on one hand, and engaging in actions which intimidate and effectively eliminate all opposition on the other. The Government of Rwanda has stifled all criticism and strictly controls its population.

Since RPF's ascension to power in 1994, the regime has not ceased to harden, particularly during the last few years. Repression has reached great heights, as political instability has increased across the country and within the army.

Political parties in Rwanda assure the regime a democratic facade, while the RPF is concentrating power at all levels and is ready to discard all potential competitors in the planned referendum. All journalists, who dare step out of bounds permitted by the regime, are constantly harassed and live in a daily climate of fear and repression.

The political opposition is confined to exile or clandestine activities.

Dozens of people suspected of having a link with the opposition, have been forced to keep quiet, simply killed or reported missing.

In this context, we must ask whether it is wise to give unconditional support to the agenda of the current Rwandan regime. Are elections of any value in a country where all dissident voices are systematically subdued and silenced? What goal will elections serve, other than encouraging further control of the country by RPF under Maj. Gen.


What are the alternatives? For a start, there should be the immediate re-establishment of the right to association and expression and the immediate release of all political prisoners.

Moreover, it is no longer acceptable to marginalise external political opposition. The external opposition must be supported, before other challengers try to take over by military means. It is certainly necessary to exclude those whose racist ideologies led to the genocide of the Tutsi and moderate Hutus in 1994. But there exists today a legitimate Rwandese political opposition with a political platform that is broadly representative of different communities and tendencies.

This political class is made up of responsible men and women who are ready to return to Rwanda and engage in the debates within their country. If it is willing to do so, the European Union has the ability to push for more political openness in Rwanda. East Africa can also influence the current government in Kigali and can give the democratic opposition the weight it deserves.

Finally, Maj. Gen. Kagame should be continually reminded that anyone, within his regime, who commits crimes, would sooner or later be brought to justice.

The regime has sent some positive signals. The recent contact between the opposition and the Embassy of Rwanda in Brussels is a good sign.

Last October, the withdrawal of troops from Congo, even though it was incomplete, was another positive signal.

But, these actions do not reflect a real willingness on the part of the regime to open-up political space. Rather, they point to the fact that currently, the only counter-balance to the power in Rwanda is that of the international community. May they not forget this.

*The author is a Political Scientist and Researcher at the Centre for the Study of the Great Lakes Region of Africa at the University of Antwerp, Belgium.