As campaigns to elect a new president for Rwanda gather pace, the role of local government officials who also double as agents of the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front is once again coming into focus with opposition candidates alleging harassment.
This has attracted the attention of President Paul Kagame, who last week called for investigations into the allegations.
Reacting to the accusations, first raised by aspirant Diane Rwigara, Kagame said on June 23 that the law should take its own course.
“We want to create a country where the rule of law comes first. If anybody was denied their rights, herself directly or her supporters, it is absolutely wrong and should be addressed,” Kagame told the media.
The electoral commission recently released a provisional list of candidates for the August 4 presidential elections with the Rwanda Patriotic Front’s Paul Kagame and the Green Party’s Frank Habineza confirmed as the only provisional candidates so far.
However, some aspirants have in the past few weeks cited cases of arrests, harassment and threats to their supporters by purported security agents and local authorities.
The claims shared by the Green Party’s flag bearer Frank Habineza and independents Philippe Mpayimana, Gilbert Mwenedata and Diane Rwigara, were described as amounting to human rights violations likely to lead to unfair competition during the August 4th elections.
Rwanda Human Rights Commission chairperson Madeleine Nirere said there is a need to educate citizens, political parties and candidates on electoral rights, laws and regulations alongside monitoring possible rights violation.
Commission officials could not say much about the validity of the claims, saying they they were not brought to the institution’s attention.
The commission chairperson said only the case involving pictures purported to be Diane Rwigara’s was closely examined though no conclusion has been arrived at. The pictures were leaked online shortly after she announced her intention to run for presidency,
“We have not kept quiet; we picked up the issue because the act constitutes a punishable crime. We found out that the police was doing an investigation into the matter, so we expect that when the investigations are done with the prosecution will take to court the person behind the leakage of the pictures,” said Nirere.
Ms Rwigara, like fellow presidential aspirants, cited illegal arrest, threats and intimidation of supporters by local leaders who often double as the ruling party chairpersons in their respective jurisdictions.
She claimed more than 10 of her representatives had been arrested or threatened while Habineza said his supporters in Gicumbi, Gisagara and Nyamasheke suffered the same fate and some were forced to abandon the party.
Mpayimana and Mwenedata also claimed intimidation and threats were used by the local leaders to make their job difficult as they tried to raise the mandatory 600 signatures across 30 districts in the country.
Dr Habineza said, if not addressed, the harassment will be a challenge that is likely to complicate the race for presidency going forward when aspirants approved by the electoral commission start campaigning on July 7th.
“There is no guarantee for free and fair elections if the local authorities don’t become neutral and separate conflicting roles as public servants and RPF chairpersons at district and grassroots levels,” he said.
Concerned candidates said they filed complaints with the Ministry of Local Government, the Police and the electoral commission.
Asked about the issue, incumbent and ruling party Chairman and flag bearer Paul Kagame, condemned the acts as wrong, adding that should individuals who were involved be known, they should be held accountable whether they are RPF members or not.
Monitoring respect for human rights during elections was on the agenda of a meeting last week of over 40 local civil society organisations.
Human Rights Commission chairperson Madeleine Nirere said a joint public awareness-raising and training exercise that starts in July would enable the commission to address existing gaps and ensure there is appropriate intervention in case of rights violation.
However, some civil society organisations could find it difficult to fully engage in monitoring elections due to lack of funding.
Alexis Nkurunziza, the Executive Secretary of Rwanda religious leaders’ forum, one of the civil society organisations that requested for accreditation to observe elections, said they were yet to mobilise the more than Rwf160 million ($189,283) needed for carrying out the exercise.