Ingabire was not a po­lit­i­cal pris­oner; now she needs to prove it

The East African - - OPIN­ION -

Just over a week ago, some­thing quite dra­matic hap­pened in Rwanda. For most peo­ple it came as a bolt out of the blue. Pres­i­dent Paul Kagame, it was an­nounced, had com­muted the prison sen­tence of one of Rwanda’s bet­ter known pris­on­ers.

Vic­toire Ingabire Umuhoza is the leader of Fdu-inkingi, a po­lit­i­cal or­gan­i­sa­tion domi­ciled in Europe, which some, in the for­eign me­dia es­pe­cially, in­sist on calling a “po­lit­i­cal party.” In Rwanda, how­ever, it does not ex­ist. It is not one of the 11 po­lit­i­cal par­ties that have ful­filled the re­quire­ments for reg­is­tra­tion and been cleared to op­er­ate in the coun­try.

She had been in prison for about eight years now, hav­ing been in­car­cer­ated in 2010 af­ter a failed at­tempt to con­test as a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date in that year’s polls.

That she was a would-be pres­i­den­tial can­di­date is the one thing peo­ple who do not pay at­ten­tion to the de­tails of any story, es­pe­cially one that touches on pol­i­tics in a coun­try such as Rwanda about which there is an es­tab­lished narrative, know. And so they jumped to a con­clu­sion, a fal­la­cious one, but to which they have held tena­ciously all these years: That she was a “po­lit­i­cal pris­oner.”

Well, if by po­lit­i­cal pris­oner one means a politi­cian who is in prison, she was in­deed one. If, on the other hand, one means some­body who is in prison for no rea­son other than that they are a politi­cian, then she was noth­ing of the sort.

Ingabire re­turned to Rwanda in the run-up to the 2010 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, af­ter 16 years of liv­ing in the Nether­lands where she had been a stu­dent at the time of the 1994 geno­cide. By 2010, she was a per­ma­nent res­i­dent, not a cit­i­zen of the Nether­lands.

Re­li­able sources say that, be­fore she re­turned, Dutch of­fi­cials cau­tioned her against re­turn­ing ac­cused not only of frater­nising with the Dr­cbased FDLR in­sur­gents, rem­nants of the army and mili­tia that com­mit­ted geno­cide in Rwanda, but of fundrais­ing and chan­nelling money to them. De­tails of all this can be found in a well-re­searched paper by a former Amer­i­can diplo­mat, Richard Johnson, ti­tled

and a re­cent book, by Alain B. Muku­ralinda, a former ju­di­cial of­fi­cer who pros­e­cuted the Ingabire case.

And so Ingabire was pros­e­cuted in an open court, its ses­sions at­tended re­li­giously by diplo­mats and other con­cerned ob­servers, and then jailed. She ap­pealed, lost the ap­peal, and had her sen­tence in­creased by sev­eral years.

She sub­se­quently wrote to Pres­i­dent Kagame a few times to ask for cle­mency. A copy of one hand­writ­ten let­ter has re­cently been cir­cu­lat­ing on so­cial me­dia. But all this is now wa­ter un­der the bridge, to bor­row a well-worn cliché.

Her re­lease has trig­gered mixed re­ac­tions from Rwan­dans. Some ar­gue it is good for the coun­try and its pol­i­tics over­all. Oth­ers beg to dif­fer, wish­ing she had been kept in prison for many more years. From a purely po­lit­i­cal point of view, Pres­i­dent Kagame has once again bit­ten the bul­let and given a chance to some­one con­sid­ered by many to be be­yond the pale, to step up and em­brace the new way of work­ing with po­ten­tial ad­ver­saries to build a new Rwanda shorn of the sec­tar­i­anisms of old.

The po­lit­i­cal arena in to­day’s Rwanda has a fair num­ber of ac­tors with re­port­edly worse back­grounds in sec­tar­i­an­ism than Ingabire is ac­cused of. They, too, were given a chance for a fresh start, not with­out mis­giv­ings in cer­tain quar­ters, in­clud­ing within the RPF’S own in­ner sanc­tums. Ac­cord­ing to re­ports, not all have re­formed com­pletely, but many have and are play­ing crit­i­cal roles in build­ing and re­in­forc­ing so­ci­ety-wide co­he­sion.

It is dif­fi­cult to say what will happen with Ms Ingabire. There were good early signs when she ac­knowl­edged Rwanda’s trans­for­ma­tion in the past two decades and ex­pressed the hope that Rwan­dans will con­tinue to work to­gether to achieve even more for their coun­try.

And then she seemed to veer off in di­rec­tions that have so far served to strengthen the scep­tics’ view that all she can do is stir up trou­ble. She has an op­por­tu­nity to prove them wrong.

Vic­toire Ingabire steps out of the Supreme court in March 2012. She was re­cently par­doned.

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