Rwanda’s opposition ‘lone ranger’ cleared to face off with Kagame

Tuesday July 11 2017

Rwanda Democratic Green Party president Frank Habineza at the National Electoral Commission on June 12, 2017. PHOTO | CYRIL NDEGEYA | NMG


In his quest to lead Rwanda, Frank Habineza has been through many challenges: His Democratic Green Party was denied registration in the 2010 election; he had a stint in exile after his party deputy was killed in July 2010; and weathered a split in the party ranks in 2013.

But he seems to have emerged stronger, this year earning a place on the roll of candidates in the August 4 presidential election. While few expect him to win the election against the incumbent Paul Kagame, the 40-year-old says his main agenda covers the thorny issues of land ownership and agricultural policy.

His clearance by the electoral commission on June 3 sealed his status as one of Rwanda’s most durable opposition politicians.

“It is not the first time I have tried to run for president. I was nominated in 2010 but the party had not been officially registered, so we were locked administratively,” he said.

READ: Green Party man to face President Kagame in 2017 poll

'Lone opposition crusader'


Where the leaders of the older political parties recoil at being described as “opposition”, Habineza is comfortable in his skin, referring to himself as the “lone opposition crusader” — credentials cemented by his opposition of the 2015 referendum that lifted presidential term limits.

When the other 10 political parties backed the constitutional amendment and told media houses not to refer to them as the opposition but rather allies in the ruling coalition under Rwanda’s consensual democracy, Habineza and the Green Party stood as the sole opponents of the review.

Born of Yokana Habakurama and Josephine Murorunkwere in 1977 in Namutamba in Uganda, Habineza was left motherless at the tender age of nine. After his mother’s death, he was raised by Stephen Nagenda, the younger brother to Ugandan politician John Nagenda.

“It was difficult after my parents died. When I was 13, I was taken in by the Nagendas. Steven Nagenda made me one of his children. John Nagenda, also took me as one of his own and I would stay in his houses both in Namutamba and in Kampala,” he recalled.

The Nagendas paid his tuition until he returned to Rwanda in 1999. In 2005, he got a job as a personal assistant to the Minister of Lands and Environment, a position he relinquished after a year to become the national co-ordinator of the Nile Basin Discourse Forum in Rwanda. He also briefly worked as a journalist for the now defunct Rwanda Newsline, The Rwanda Herald and Umuseso.

Not a walk in the park

In 2009, together with friends, he started the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda.

“I joined politics because I had a burning desire to bring about democratic change and have freedoms of expression and political assembly in Rwanda. I also had a passion for environmental issues and wanted to make my contribution there as well,” he said.

His strategy was to mobilise like-minded people and disgruntled members of President Kagame’s Rwanda Patriotic Front RPF. Indeed, the RPF’s founding chairman Charles Kabanda, became the Green Party’s Secretary General, which to Habineza, represented a major coup.

“Several former high ranking dignitaries in RPF still support us but prefer not to be politically active. We also had some former officials from other political parties joining us,” he said.

Habineza who says opposition politics in Rwanda is not a walk in the park, manages an international democracy project for the African Greens Federation. “That helps me to pay my bills,” he said.

It has not been an easy ride to get on to the presidential ballot. “After forming the party, things became very difficult. We were beaten by police in one of our party congress, another was also disrupted,” he recalled.

He tried to have his party registered on more than eight occasions unsuccessfully. He said he faced death threats, party members were jailed while others fled into exile. He was briefly arrested in June 2010 after organising a demonstration against the Electoral Commission without authorisation.

“We had not received the permission to demonstrate from Gasabo District. However, they had not responded to our letter and we thought silence meant consent,” he said.

'Horrible death'

The most trying moment was in July 2010, when the party’s vice-president Andre Kagwa Rwisereka was found butchered near the border with Burundi. Habineza fled the country.

“It was a horrible death. I continued receiving threats and then decided to flee. The Swedish government granted me political asylum in March 2011,” he recalled.

“While in Sweden I met several organisations and governments who helped to raise my issues with the Rwandan government. But the government always responded that I was just a coward who abandoned his party,” he said.

He added: “That hurt me so much. I also had pressure from the party members who I had left in Rwanda. They had called saying that if I did not return or help them flee to Sweden, they would abandon the party.”

In September 2012, he returned to Rwanda and continued with his opposition politics. But even before he could get the party registered, it was rocked by a major dispute when its then treasurer, Alex Mugisha tried to register himself as its president.

The dispute was resolved through mediation by the former mayor of Gasabo District Willy Rukundo, where a power-sharing agreement was hammered out.

Habineza would retain leadership of the party and Mugisha would be promoted from treasurer to commissioner-general. The party was officially registered in August 2013.

House evictions

Despite the struggle his party has endured, he “feels bad” that it has failed to have meaningful impact on the political arena of Rwanda and continues be shunned by the mainstream society. For example, Habineza has had to move house frequently over the years because landlords fear to be associated with him.

“After taking the government to court over the constitutional amendment in 2015, I was evicted from my house. Because it was difficult to find a place to stay, I bought a house,” he said.

Last year the party was evicted from its offices in Kimironko.

“We had been tenants there since 2009 but without compelling reasons the landlord wanted us out. We learnt he had been threatened.”

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Greens agenda

Now that he is on the ballot paper Habineza plans to put some difficult subjects on the public agenda. First, is a repeal the crop intensification policy, which he blames for jeopardising food security.

“I will replace it with a friendly policy that allows people to plant and grow different crops in their gardens then set up state land for commercial farming,” he said.

“We shall also remove land tax especially on ancestral land; we shall revise the land ownership law, because no one owns land in Rwanda anymore and rent it from the state for 25 years, 49 years or 99 years,” he said.

He wants to abolish all “unofficial” detention centres and prisons and ensure that police detentions don’t take longer than 72 hours. He also intends to remove “all unnecessary taxes” by revising the VAT regime and introducing a progressive taxation model “where people and businesses pay according to their capacity.”

He also accuses the RPF government of failure to establish good relations with its neighbours Burundi and DRC — a priority for his government if he emerges victor.

Yet he still faces many obstacles; like the lack of sufficient funds to conduct a successful campaign.

The party could not fundraise for campaigns until last week after he was confirmed as a presidential candidate. Even then, he said, individuals and companies they approach for money inform them that they have already funded RPF and cannot fund two parties.