Diane Rwigara and Paul Kagame

Rwanda’s parliament has more women than any other legislative body in the world. Women also constitute nearly half of the country’s cabinet, sitting on nine of its 19 seats. To an admiring West, the country is a beacon of gender equality, the ideal to which all countries should strive. But, aside from this being an oversimplification of the status of women in Rwanda, the treatment of plain-speaking women there tells a different story.

In late 2017, I wrote about Diane Rwigara, the 37-year old accountant whose misfortune it was to mount a convincing challenge to Paul Kagame during the last presidential election in Rwanda. Two weeks after Kagame was sworn in for his third term, Diane, alongside her mother Adeline and sister Anne, disappeared. The three turned up in a police cell a few days later. After a brief release, Diane and Adeline were rearrested on 15th September 2017.

The government brought charges of forgery, promoting sectarianism and insurrection (in relation to the election) against the two women. But it has been abundantly clear that challenging Paul Kagame’s presidency was their real crime. In the period since their last arrest, the government has wasted no time dispensing with their property. It auctioned assets from the family’s tobacco business, ostensibly to recover tax arrears.

It is against this background that their release on 5th October 2018 was surprising. Exuberant cheers erupted in a packed Kigali courtroom when three High Court judges determined that the pair should be released on bail. They said the prosecution could not offer credible reasons to justify their continued incarceration. The two will need permission to travel outside Kigali, but they were free to go home after more than a year in prison.

Equally surprising was the release, along with 2000 others, of Victoire Ingabire after a pardon from President Kagame a few weeks earlier. She was actually in the courtroom when Diane and her mother were granted bail. Sentenced to 15 years in jail in 2013, Ingabire’s story has many parallels with that of Diane. The crimes that landed her in jail were “threatening state security” and “belittling” the 1994 genocide. They were brought against her when she went back to Rwanda from exile and tried to run for president.

These developments, alongside the fact that opposition parties finally have seats (two) in Rwanda’s 80-seat parliament after the most recent legislative elections, have led some to speculate that maybe, just maybe, Paul Kagame might be loosening his grip on power. Some pundits even say this proves Kagame is not the monster that critics have painted him. After all, he has pardoned his nemesis, and has been pretty tame over the court’s decision on Diane.

However, this is another grand simplification. It ignores the fact that Diane Rwigara has been significantly weakened financially by the seizure and auction of her family’s assets. Continued opposition will be more difficult. It also ignores the president’s assertion that Victoire Ingabire could easily find herself in prison once again if she continues her political agitation. She is already in hot water after the imprisoned first vice president and another member of her unregistered party disappeared from jail.

In fact, this is not the first time a political prisoner has been released and expected (or forced) to be silent. The case of Bernard Ntaganda aptly illustrates this. The founder of Rwanda’s first registered opposition party, P S Imberakuri, was expelled from the party and thrown in jail after trying to run for president in the 2010 election, the same one in which Ingabire tried to run. Released in 2014, he has remained a pariah to the party. When P S Imberakuri won a seat in Rwanda’s parliament this year, it was as a government supporter.

In exchange for the president’s leniency, dissidents are expected to cease being a pain in the president’s neck or, even better, to join the roster of devotees. They gain a degree of physical freedom every now and then, and the courts may be allowed some room to flex their powers, but the President remains firmly in charge of everything, including the narrative. The hope harboured by many that recent developments hint at a softening of President Kagame’s furious disdain for all who dare to challenge him, is ill-founded.

What these developments more plausibly hint at is, sadly, that in Rwandan politics it is folly to celebrate small gains. They are small, true, but they are not gains. Until political opponents of Paul Kagame are free to ply their trade without the spectre of state-sanctioned persecution and imprisonment, democracy will remain a haunting mirage to the Rwandese people – no matter how many women there are in parliament.

Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi in Kenya.

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.