Just when you thought it was safe to leave Burundi…

Having spent the past three months getting neither shot by bandits nor maimed by flying hand grenades; having dodged Documentation – Burundi’s dreaded secret police – and suffered no more than a bit of sunburn after an epic session of doggy-paddling in Lake Tanganyika, it would seem like the perfect time to pack up shop, offer a few last merci beaucoups, and retreat to the cool, politically stable, corruption-free, soon-to-be-fully wired hills of Rwanda to catch my breath, before taking the plunge into the lawlessness of eastern Congo.

Sunburn, flaky skin, and other things you won't find in the State Department's latest travel advisory

But yesterday’s news out of Kigali, where simultaneous grenade attacks claimed at least one person and injured more than two dozen others, has been just the latest in a series of sobering stories from Rwanda in recent weeks.

Reuters reports that the three explosions went off within a half hour of one another; according to what I’ve picked up from the blogosphere, they occurred at the Nyabugogo bus station, the Rubangura building, and the restaurant Chez Venant. The latest update from AFP confirms that “two suspects have been detained in relation to simultaneous grenade attacks in the Rwandan capital Kigali that killed one person and injured some 30 others.”

“Two suspects were apprehended, they belong to the Interahamwe militia,” police spokesman Eric Kayiranga told AFP, referring to the extremist Hutu militia responsible for Rwanda’s 1994 genocide….

“Those who commit these kinds of crimes want to sow chaos, intimidate people and kill the genocide survivors,” Kayiranga said.

“We are continuing the investigation and questioning the two suspects,” notably on whether any link exists between the blasts and the August presidential election, he added.

For my Rwandan and Burundian readers, a Kinyarwanda-language article appears at igihe.com, and also offers some pics of the aftermath, including those posted below.

Kigaliwire, an ever reliable source of chatter out of Rwanda, notes that

there have been a number of grenade attacks in Rwanda in recent months. In July, 2009 an attack injured 2 girls at the genocide memorial in central Kigali. In September 2009 four people were killed and 52 injured in an attack in Karambo village, 60 miles south of Kigali. In addition there were three unrelated grenade attacks in December 2009 and another in January 2010.

I’ve reported in the past how hand grenades are a popular form of score-settling in the Great Lakes region, due to their nauseating ubiquity. In Rwanda, though, it’s difficult to dismiss the political dimensions behind such attacks – especially when they occur at the Gisozi memorial, or are used to silence witnesses in gacaca trials, as is so often the case. A grenade attack in Rwanda always seems to require an added level of scrutiny.

Or maybe it just seems that way, since the raison d’etre of the iron-fisted Kagame government remains the threat of Hutu barbarians at the gate. Yesterday’s attacks come against a backdrop of increasing tension and repression ahead of August’s presidential elections. Earlier this month Human Rights Watch published a report urging the government to end its intimidation of opposition parties. “Opposition party members are facing increasing threats, attacks, and harassment in advance of Rwanda’s August 2010 presidential election,” said a statement accompanying the report, published on February 10.

In the past week, members of the FDU-Inkingi and the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda – new opposition parties critical of government policies – have suffered serious incidents of intimidation by individuals and institutions close to the government and the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). One member of the FDU-Inkingi was beaten by a mob in front of a local government office. The attack appeared to have been well coordinated, suggesting it had been planned in advance.

“The Rwandan government already tightly controls political space,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “These incidents will further undermine democracy by discouraging any meaningful opposition in the elections.”

The Rwandan government and the RPF have strongly resisted any political opposition or broader challenge of their policies by civil society. On several occasions, the government has used accusations of participation in the genocide, or “genocide ideology,” as a way of targeting and discrediting its critics.

Notable is the case of Victoire Ingabire, a controversial politician who returned to Rwanda last month to prepare her candidacy for this year’s election, after spending 16 years abroad. An ethnic Hutu, she quickly found herself on the wrong side of the famously crotchety government and, according to HRW, “has been widely condemned in official and quasi-official media and described as a “negationist” of the genocide for stating publicly that crimes committed against Hutu citizens by the RPF and the Rwandan army should be investigated and those responsible brought to justice.”

Ms. Ingabire: Voted 'Most Likely to Get Pushed Down a Flight of Stairs By an Innocently Whistling Paul Kagame' in her high school yearbook

Two weeks ago, in a case whose details remain contested and ambiguous, Ingabire and her driver were attacked inside a government office as they waited to register their upstart political party.

Police spokesman Supt Eric Kayiranga said Ms Ingabire had jumped the queue at the local government office in Kigali, Rwanda News Agency (RNA) reported.

He said a group of local men attacked her because they were angry that a person who “negates the genocide” could be served before them.

The BBC also reports that he said this with a straight face.

The row over Ingabire has, predictably, taken center stage in the Rwandan press. The New Times – which is to President Kagame as a finely tuned 1733 Montagnana cello is to Yo-Yo Ma – notes in its typically understated manner that Ingabire has “earned herself the most vicious distinction for being the first and only person to publicly espouse a revisionist and Genocide denial position, in relation to the Genocide against the Tutsi, on the Rwandan territory.” The paper also took umbrage with an interview with Ingabire in The East African, noting with a dark sense of foreboding:

Reports that Ingabire’s interview with The East African was masterminded by some intelligence organizations within the region, with a long history of using journalists as agents and assets, if true, do not augur well for regional stability.

The suspicion that this is all an elaborate conspiracy, as opposed to just an earnest bit of reporting on a controversial figure, offers a revealing snapshot of how the Kigali junta views the role of the press in an ostensibly free society.

Which isn’t to say The East African can be excused for its own unbiased approach. “The big question now,” write Charles Kazooba and Esther Nakazzi, “is whether Kagame is ready to tolerate political opposition, or he will continue to use the past as a pretext to crack down on legitimate political dissent.” Sure, it’s not quite as comically one-sided as The New Times’ onanistic View From Kigali; but “tolerate” and “legitimate” are pretty loaded words, given the context.

Still, the interview makes for a fascinating read. On some points, Ingabire comes across as a reasonably sane and level-headed opposition figure. She says,

Kagame’s government is not ready to accept opposition. This is why they sent young men to beat me and my aide two weeks ago – which was a true reflection of the lack of democracy and freedom of expression in Rwanda.

This treatment extends to all opposition politicians. Kagame must accept that there is an opposition that needs political space. We are not enemies. Instead, he uses the genocide ideology against us. The genocide took place 16 years ago and now is the time for democracy.

These are points that, in various diplomatic and civil society circles I’ve encountered in both Rwanda and Burundi, are rarely disputed by anyone whose name doesn’t rhyme with “salami.”

But Ingabire’s relationship to the FDLR remains ambiguous. Some of her assertions are a bit too cannily worded to be taken at face value.

The FDLR claims to be fighting for peace. They also accept that some of their members took part in the genocide. Everybody involved in genocide and crime against humanity committed in Rwanda has to be judged. Our argument is political space – it would solve the problem.

While lack of political space is certainly a problem in Rwanda, I’m not entirely sure that extends to the FDLR, for whom a campaign of murder, rape, violence and general thuggery seems to be the more salient problem. And when she fussily refuses to “discuss with the media details concerning the sources of [her party's] funds,” you have to wonder whether the clumsy, heavy-handed assertions of The New Times about some of Ingabire’s political and financial allegiances might not have some small basis in fact.

In the end, the paper seems to hit the nail squarely on the head. “To certain Rwandan politicians, Genocide is an unfinished business,” says the paper, while referring to Ingabire. And the same could just as well be applied to the RPF leadership who continue to use the legitimate horrors of the genocide as a means to enforce an emergency rule without end. In Rwandan politics, the genocide is always an unfinished business.

4 responses to “Just when you thought it was safe to leave Burundi…

  1. Thanks, I really enjoyed reading your blog post. Keep us informed. I was in Kigali only a few weeks ago. Was also there when on the occasion of the 14th memorial of the genocide a grenade was thrown at the Gisozi Memorial. We were in there watching a movie with other journalists. The guard at the gate was killed on the spot by the grenade.

  2. Hey, thank you so much for this. I’ve been able to find ABSOLUTELY NO NEWS about the Rwanda grenades other than some two paragraph BBC thing. I’ve tried. I guess I wasn’t looking hard enough. Anyway, thanks for the info contained above!!!!

    For what it’s worth, I had a near miss with those grenades as on THE VERY DAY they were thrown I was IN THE COUNTRY way up North on a beach suntanning.

  3. Pingback: Strange times in Kigali. « This Is Africa

  4. Pingback: Strange Times in Kigali | Rwandinfo

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