Banned at home, pursued abroad: The cost of opposition politics

Friday July 25 2014

By Frank Kagabo

Towards the end of last month, a sizeable number of Rwandan youth came together to boldly form an opposition youth league. They belong to the Rwanda National Congress (RNC).

The youth came up with a liberation struggle kind of music and took a symbolic militant posture wearing black and red berets. However, the issue is that they were doing this in faraway South Africa.

The formation of RNC, an opposition political organisation, generated a lot of excitement on Rwanda’s political terrain four years ago, partly because it was a bold public declaration of a schism within the ruling elite in Kigali.

Earlier on, Kayumba Nyamwasa, then ambassador to India and former army chief, had made a dramatic dash for the Ugandan border, “swimming across a river” to escape to his final destination, South Africa. His flight was the climax of a well-known, but unspoken, long “cold war” between him and his former boss and comrade, President Paul Kagame.

That was more than four years ago. Others had fled before him. Though formerly well positioned, they were considered of lesser clout in comparison and did not generate a lot of backlash from the regime. They had quietly settled in academic, business and other professional lives abroad.

Efforts have yielded little

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Some of these people had joined the exiles, many of them affiliated with the former government before 1994, to form what is considered the “real opposition.”

However, their efforts seem to have yielded little. For example, when they planned to field a candidate in the last elections, she returned home only to be jailed for a number of crimes.

Kayumba’s arrival in South Africa jolted his colleagues to action. A couple of months later, they launched a manifesto, contained in a pamphlet dubbed Rwanda Briefing. It would be the first bold move by erstwhile Kagame loyalists to publicly commit to end his reign.

At the moment, we see a convergence of opinion but divergence on the means and methods of the campaign by the opposition abroad.

Seemingly, there is not much unity and each group continues to operate on its own. Where unity had been achieved, we see break-ups a little later.

Today, the RNC has held leadership elections and appointments. The political organisation is largely visible in South Africa, where a sizeable number of Rwandan refugees live.

With new developments in the RNC, it is worth taking a look at this organisation that had generated some excitement in the political opposition that refuses to be co-opted in the RPF-led political coalition of sorts that governs the country.

Banned in Rwanda

The RNC remains a banned political organisation in Rwanda. All its operations in the country are covert in nature. The government considers it a terrorist organisation alongside the DR Congo-based FDLR and its leaders are on top of the “Most Wanted” list. The trial of former presidential guard Joel Mutabazi has illustrated the extent to which Kigali thinks this organisation is a terrorist group.

Kayumba and Rudasingwa were sentenced three years ago to a 24-year jail term each for crimes against the state and deserting the Rwanda Defence Forces.

The late Karegeya and Gahima were sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison each. An online publication, whose publishers are not publicly known, is exclusively dedicated to slandering some of the leaders in this organisation.

The government has, over the past years, blamed a series of grenade attacks in the capital Kigali to the RNC. However, RNC denies these allegations.

Kigali dismisses the real impact of RNC. Several months ago, a Ugandan advisor to Kigali dismissed RNC as a group of four or five Tutsis claiming to liberate Hutus — implying that it is a “Mission Impossible.”

The leadership in Kigali says most of them are thieves and corrupt people running away from justice.

Above that, one of RNC’s principal leaders, Karegeya, was murdered in circumstances that are yet to be established while Kayumba claims to have survived several attempts on his life. The blame has been directed at Kigali, an allegation that is vehemently denied by the government.

It is apparent that the task the exiles dedicated themselves to is not an easy one and is bound to take quite a long time to realise, if they can, while its outcome cannot be predicted. But then, that’s the price to pay for being an opposition group, and worse, an exiled one.

Frank Kagabo is a journalist based in London, the United Kingdom. E-mail: [email protected]; Twitter: @kagabo

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