Who Will Stand Up to Kagame?

New Vision (Kampala)

April 30, 2003
Posted to the web April 30, 2003

Vision Reporter

May 26, 2003 will be a momentous day in Rwanda. On this day, a referendum to adopt the draft constitution will be held throughout the country.

According to a government official in Kigali, the referendum will be the climax of the constitutional review process that traces its origin to the 1993 Arusha Agreement. "The draft constitution has been discussed by Cabinet and the National Assembly. The masses are also being asked to express their opinion on the draft," said the government official who declined to be named.

After the referendum, Rwandans will be gearing for Presidential and Parliamentary elections. The transitional provisions in the draft constitution stipulates that Presidential and Parliamentary elections be held within a period of six months after the referendum. If the referendum is held to on May 26, then elections will be held at least before November 26, this year.

Although there is said to be no excitement in Rwanda about the elections, the region is anxious to see how Rwandans elect a leadership of their choice. President Paul Kagame has been quoted as insisting that the elections have to take place in whatever circumstances. These elections will bring to an end the transitional government of national unity that took over power in July 1994, after the genocide.

At first there were reports that Parliament would be allowed to choose the president. But the draft constitution provided that the president be elected by all Rwandans who are 18 years old and above. Another provision in the draft states that the elections be held under a multi-party arrangement. This however, puts President Kagame in a tricky situation. The experience of the last elections in Burundi, where benevolent Tutsi leader Maj. Pierre Buyoya pulled crowds on his campaign trail, but was beaten by a Hutu leader on election day is not lost on Kagame. Some observers say that some opposition political parties have been banned in order to deny them a platform for mobilisation.

Events on the ground point to a situation where the government is becoming more and more intolerant to the political opposition. For instance, MDR (Republican Democratic Movement), one of the oldest and biggest political parties has been banned. There are also reports that some members of the MDR and PDR-Ubuyanja (Party for Democratic Renewal) are facing unprecedented harassment from government authorities.

Mr. Celestin Kabanda, the former State Minister for Economic Planning and leader of the MDR, was forced to resign his ministerial position over allegations that he is involved in a conspiracy to resurrect Hutu supremacy ideas. Almost all MDR top leaders were blacklisted in a Parliamentary report that also recommended the banning of MDR party. The respected and soft-spoken Prime Minister Bernard Makuza, who has distanced himself from the day-to-day running of the party was also mentioned in the report. Prime Minister Makuza's father was one of the founders of the MDR party.

This paints a very bad picture for the RPF and President Kagame who would benefit from a well-organised poll. Given the history of mutual ethnic suspicion in Rwanda, the clampdown may be interpreted as targeting a particular ethnic group. This may tempt some leaders who feel cheated to drum up ethnic support for dissent.

The clampdown on the opposition politicians aside, three people have already shown interest to stand for presidency. They are Jean Napomoscene Nayinzira, Faustin Twagiramungu and Pasteur Bizimungu. Although President Kagame has never made it public that he would stand, he has stopped hinting that he will run for president.

Napomosecene Nayinzira is Chairman of the PDC (Christian Democratic Party). From 1994, he has served as the Minister for Environment and Tourism, Minister for Information, Minister for Public Service and as Chairman of the Unity and Reconciliation Commission. He is now an MP representing his PDC.

Faustin Twagiramungu was the first post-genocide Prime Minister. Before that, he was President General of the MDR party and Managing Director of STIR, a private transport concern in which government had shares.

Another person who had shown interest in the Rwandan presidency is former President Pasteur Bizimungu.

However, some provisions in the law may disqualify both Twagiramungu and Bizimungu. Twagiramungu has been in exile for more than two years which disqualifies him while Bizimungu can not offer his candidature from prison. The only person who has the chance to appear on the ballot paper is Nayinzira.

Problem is that Nayinzira is very inconsequential in the politics of Rwanda. Already some people in Rwanda are saying he has been persuaded to present some sort of opposition to whoever the RPF candidate will be. If the only opposition to Kagame is Nayinzira, then Kagame might about 95% of the votes. The only candidate who would give Kagame a run for his money is the abrasive Twagiramungu.

Twagiramungu who does not have any case to answer in Rwanda however, has the problem of not having a party under which to contest. The Rwanda Transitional National Assembly resolved to ban the MDR party. But in an interview with the BBC, Twagiramungu said that banning his party cannot deter him from standing for president. He said he still has options. "I can stand as an independent candidate or I can form another political party under which I would run for president," he told the BBC.

For former President Bizimungu, the situation is even bleaker. A relative who said he had just visited him in prison last week told this writer on phone from Kigali that his health was deteriorating. His PDR-Ubuyanja is also banned.

However, there is a likelihood that notwithstanding his insistence to run, Twagiramungu will not step on Rwandan soil; even when it is the office of the president which is at stake. "Twagiramungu is just playing psychological games on President Kagame. He has already driven Kagame to ban MDR. He used to play such games with the late President Habyarimana. I am sure he does have the stomach to stand up to President Kagame in Rwanda," said a Rwandan journalist in Kigali.

Although circumstances on the ground in Rwanda cannot be described as conducive for multi-party presidential elections, these elections will be influenced by pressure from donors and the need for the Tutsi minority leadership to gain political legitimacy. If an election is about making political choices, Rwandans do not seem to have options but to endorse the status quo where Kagame remains president.