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