These last days in Rwanda – a time I’d hoped to devote to cathartic reflections, soulful musings, and rampant promiscuity – have instead been gobbled up by the dreadful realities of packing up a life into two musty old suitcases and hoping it weighs less than 30 kilos. This isn’t how I expected to spend my last week in the Great Lakes, a region to which I’ve grown greatly attached in the past year. Already I’ve had to cancel my farewell dinner with His Excellency PK (“No prob. Keep up the good work,” read the presidential text); and most of the tender moments I’ve shared with friends around Chez Mzungu have been equally devoted to backing up my hard drive in the event of a carjacking outside of Jo’burg’s OR Tambo International Airport.
A shame, too, with these having been some of the more eventful weeks in what’s becoming an increasingly eventful country. (To the friend who once called Kigali “the Morgantown, West Virginia of Africa,” one can only say, “Take that!”) Caught up in a whirlwind of revisionism, divisionism, and pre-electoral hooliganism, Rwandan authorities shuttered two independent news weeklies; arrested two high-ranking military officers on charges of “misuse of office” and “immoral conduct”; and arrested opposition candidate Victoire Ingabire on charges including collaborating with a terrorist organization and denying the genocide, before releasing her the following day.
“Whew!” would be an appropriate response here.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, last seen on President Kagame’s Christmas list, criticized the ruling by Rwanda’s humorless – yet inadvertently hilarious – Media High Council for its six-month suspension of the vernacular weeklies Umuseso and Umuvugizi, on the grounds of “insulting the head of state, inciting the police and army to insubordination, and creating fear among the public.”
“By silencing these two local-language newspapers the Media High Council is robbing Rwanda voters of crucial alternative voices during the presidential election campaign,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes said. “The ruling is a thinly disguised attempt at censorship. If the election is to be seen as free and fair, the council must reverse this ruling and ensure that all media are able to cover the campaign.”
Umuvugizi editor Jean Bosco Gasasira, in an interview with the Voice of America, criticized the Media High Council – which he described as a “political tool” of the government – for violating its own media law in dealing with the two maverick newspapers.
“When a newspaper in Rwanda, according to the new media law, writes anything inciting or anything bad, the Media High Council summons them and forces them to make correction of that. When they refused, they are at least suspended for two months. Then if they repeat that, you suspend them for six months. Neither Umuseso nor Umuvugizi have never been summoned by the Media High Council officially nor suspended for two months which shows that this was politically motivated. They just want to eliminate us before the election campaign,” Gasasira said.
The ever-reliable texas in africa, noting that Rwanda’s High Media Council had suspended the two papers on the grounds of “erroneous content,” observed that “if “erroneous content” is now grounds for shutting down Rwandan media outlets, [she] look[s] forward to the closure of the government daily, the New Times.” That august paper, meanwhile, in reporting on Canadian Governor General Michaëlle Jean’s recent comments that “journalism is an ultimate tool that strengthens democracy and helps establish a society that respects the rights of all,” took a self-congratulatory tone that mistakenly assumed she was referring to it.
Ms. Ingabire, meanwhile, who has been ruffling feathers in Kigali since she arrived in January, seems to have finally gotten what we all knew was coming. The public campaign against her has been on a rolling bubble these past three months; two weeks ago, her fate seemed sealed when the president publicly took her to task during the annual genocide commemoration week.
“Some people just come from nowhere … useless people,” said Mr. Kagame. “I see every time in pictures some lady who had her deputy – a genocide criminal, talking about ‘there is genocide, but there is another’… that is politics. To that we say a big ‘no.’ And if anybody wants a fight, then we will give them a fight.”
The charges against her, one judicial official told the AFP, include “collaborating with a terrorist organisation, dividing the population, denying and downplaying the genocide.” Chief prosecutor Martin Ngoga told the Christian Science Monitor that “the prosecution’s case against Ms Ingabire is based on facts and evidence.”
“The actions that led to these charges against Ms. Ingabire are extremely serious and cannot go unpunished,” he added.
Augustin Nkusi, Mr. Ngoga’s spokesman, recently told Radio Netherlands that Ingabire was collaborating with the FDLR in eastern Congo.
“There is also evidence that she is busy creating an irregular armed force parallel to the regular national forces to come destabilize the country,” Nkusi added. He also accused her of “throwing about statements of an ideology of genocide.”
On an unrelated note, Rwanda’s electoral commission announced this week that it was preemptively announcing the results of this August’s presidential election in May.
“We just thought we’d save Rwandans the trouble of waiting on long queues this election day,” an official told This Is Africa. “Go out, enjoy the weather – it’s always spring in Kigali.”
The official added, “Have you seen our gorillas?”