Missing without a trace in Rwanda

RWAOpposition19KIBUNGO, Rwanda – At a makeshift bus stop in this southeastern town of Rwanda, some residents recently met up secretly to discuss the disappearance of young opposition leader Eugene Ndereyimana.

“Where is he now? Is he alive or was he killed by police?” asked one of the elders, or leaders, of the town who asked that his name be withheld to protect his safety. “What kind of country is this where one cannot speak freely?"

"He is not the first one to go missing," he added. "We are losing our people in mysterious ways.”

Ndereyimana, 29, disappeared two months ago on his way to a youth meeting organized by United Democratic Forces of Rwanda (FDU-Inkingi), a coalition of small opposition parties that banded together to form a larger grouping to oppose Rwandan President Paul Kagame and his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).

Ndereyimana was a vocal opponent of Kagame. He was especially popular among the young. And he is the latest opposition leader to disappear, be imprisoned or murdered in a country hailed for its political and economic development since the genocide 25 years ago but has come under increasing criticism for human rights violations.

“On the international stage, Rwanda is a model of law and order, yet we are seeing a spate of violent and brazen attacks against opposition members go unpunished,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “Rwanda’s partners and donors should be raising questions about the fate of those who try to criticize the government or its policies. Otherwise, opponents or state critics will likely continue to end up dead or missing.”

Mr. Kagame officially came to power in 2000 after commandeering a rebel force that ended the 1994 Rwandan genocide that resulted to more than 800,000 deaths – he was considered de facto leader as vice president and minister of defense from 1994 to 2000.

Since that time, the country has rebuilt itself under the RPF party. The country has been hailed for its political stability, for decreasing corruption while improving its education and technology sectors. It has generated enviable growth rates for most of this century, reduced poverty and increased literacy and life expectancy significantly, according to the World Bank. It has more women in public office than anywhere on the planet.

To achieve all this, Kagame’s administration exerted strict control over the political landscape to bring about the political stability needed for growth, analysts say. However, that has gone too far over the past few years, they add. Opposition members challenging his authority have disappeared without trace. Others have been violently attacked and some jailed.

On Sept. 23, Syridio Dusabumuremyi of the FDU-Inkingi party was stabbed to death at his shop in the country’s southern Muhanga district by two men believed to be police officers.

In other cases, FDU-Inkingi spokesman Anselm Mutuyimana was kidnapped and his body dumped in a forest in the west of the country in March. Late last year, FDU-Inkingi's first vice president Boniface Twagirimana disappeared without trace.

“We don’t know what’s happening in this country…,” said Victoire Ingabire, leader of FDU-Inkingi. “We want the government to tell the country who is killing members of the opposition and who is responsible for those disappearances. We have many cases of unsolved murders and disappearances, but the government doesn’t say anything.”

In the past, the Rwanda's Investigation Office (RIO) has conducted official investigations into murders and disappearances of officials. So far, there has been no reports issued on the current cases.

“We are aware and investigations are ongoing,” RIO spokesperson Modeste Mbabazi said after Dusabumuremyi was stabbed to death. “Two people have already been arrested in connection with the murder.”

Kagame denies having anything to do with the murders and disappearances.

"You (Europe) really need to stop this superiority complex nonsense about human rights," he told France24 in an interview in Brussels recently regarding the West's nagging over civil liberties. You think you're the only ones who respect human rights…No, we have fought for human rights and freedoms of our people much better, and more than anyone including you people who keep talking about this nonsense. Where we have taken a country and where it is now, speaks for itself."

The atmosphere on the street, meanwhile, is tense. In the capital, Kigali, and other major towns across the country, most are afraid to speak openly about politics out of fear of repercussions.

“I don’t want to speak to you, I can get killed,” said a mother of three, who owns a grocery shop in Kigali. In her attempt to demonstrate that she wasn’t speaking against Kagame’s government, she said, “As a country we are united under the good leadership of our beloved president, Kagame. He cares about us and we love him very much.”

Meanwhile, residents are silently urging the international community to intervene and pressure the government to stop attacking opponents and release all political prisoners.

“This is another genocide perpetuated by Kagame and the world is unaware,” said the elder at the bus stop. “The international community should come to our rescue. We are helpless.”

Analysts say that while development in Rwanda is attributable to political stability brought about by Kagame's tough rule, it will be hindered in the future by the crackdown on political freedoms and civil liberties – especially the development of youth leaders like Ndereyimana, who was seen as someone that would likely become a leader of the region or even the country.

Edward Kisiang'ani, professor of political history at Nairobi's Kenyatta University, said Kagame has taken advantage of the country’s economic growth and his impressive development record to exert strict control over the political landscape and stamp out opposition

‘The international community see Kagame as a savior and he is not accountable to anyone because he saved his people,” said Edward Kisiang'ani, professor of political history at Nairobi's Kenyatta University. “Rwanda needs democracy to have sustainable development. The country cannot develop if there’s no space to criticize leaders because corruption and mismanagement of resources will become widespread.”

Kisiang'ani warned that due to Kagame’s past history, Rwandans should not expect to be given any democratic space and therefore they should fight for it, not least because of Kagame's own personal history.

Kagame grew up in exile in neighboring Uganda after Hutu violence against the Tutsi flared in 1959. As a refugee, he helped Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni overthrow President Milton Obote in 1986. It was the Ugandan army that helped Kagame’s Rwanda Patriotic Army, the armed wing of the RPF to stop the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

“Kagame has grown up in a very violent environment – he doesn’t know what peace means. He was a rebel soldier and he only understands war and killing," he said. "(Now), Kagame thinks Rwandans needs him more than he needs them. They were worse off before he came to power, he thinks, so they have no rights, they gave over (those rights) to him.”

"It’s about time they start questioning Kagame’s dictatorial regime,” he added.

Photo: Young opposition leader Eugene Ndereyimana, 29, disappeared two months ago on his way to a youth meeting organized by United Democratic Forces of Rwanda (FDU-Inkingi), a coalition of small opposition parties that banded together to form a larger grouping to oppose Rwandan President Paul Kagame and his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).
Credit: Courtesy of Rwandan Lives Matter Official Twitter page (07/27/19)

Story/photo published date: 10/30/19

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.
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