A Sad Day for Democracy – Government interferes with establishment of Green Party in Rwanda

October 30, 2009 in 2009 Winter/Spring World

worldby Mike Feinstein, member, International Committee of the Green Party of the United States

In a day marked by chaos and, possibly, sabotage, the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda (DGPR) was prevented for the fourth time in as many attempts from holding a legally organized meeting to become an officially recognized political party.

In Rwanda, a new party must collect at least 200 notarized nomination signatures nationwide to register as an official party, including at least five from each of the 30 districts of Rwanda. On October 30th over 600 Green supporters had come to the capital city of Kigali to give their signatures, which would form part of the Greensí registration dossier with the Ministry of Local Government. Instead they were driven away by police after the meeting was disrupted by unidentified men, who forcefully penetrated the packed-to-capacity hall and threw a chair at the seated crowd — hitting a woman, while shouting repeatedly ìFPR oyeeî in French in support of the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF in English). People began to flee while others tried to fight-off the assailants. According to the Rwanda News Service ìpeople could be seen falling as they ran out and away from the St. Paul hall premises, owned by the Kigali Catholic Diocese. Deafening shouting could be heard as people scattered to different directions. Party leaders could be seen running up and down – seeming to have lost control of events.î

Curiously, the six police officers present began dispersing those who were trying to restrain the attacker, rather than the attacker himself. Within ten minutes, several dozen more appeared, some wielding guns and batons. Backed by this armada, the Police Superintendent told the hundreds of delegates that the meeting would not be allowed to continue because the ìsituation could get out of hand.î ìDue to security reasons, we are asking the organizers of this meeting to postpone it,î he said, as people inside and outside the hall shouted back in protest.

With the crowd dispersed, the party could not get signatures from the hundreds waiting inside and outside the hall. To DGPR founder and interim president Frank Habineza, the disruptions that began just before the meeting commenced at 10 A.M. are no accident. ìWe have established the man who started the shouting and threw chairs is an ex-soldier in the Rwandan army and a former employee of Military Intelligence,î said Habineza. ìAnother one was from the Local Defense Forces. This was a well-planned sabotage done by security operatives. One of them even had something like a gun-pistol, and this was seen by the US and Netherlands Envoys and many others.î

ìThe police were not helpful at all. It looked like they were compromising us,î added Habineza. ìThey released the ones who caused the trouble and instead arrested our members, one of them a mother. Thankfully our members have been released but were forced to make statements to the police. They were asked why they decided to be members of our party.î Several people are injured, and woman went to intensive care with back injuries. Others complained bitterly that they had lost property including phones, handbags, wallets and money.

logo_smallThis was the second time in less than a month that a DGPR meeting was broken up before signatures could be submitted. On October 2nd, more than 900 people from all 30 of the countryís districts had traveled from across Rwanda to a similar meeting in Kigali, only to be told at that time by the Nyarugenge District Mayor that, even though the Greens had secured a location and a notary, it had to resubmit their request for permission to hold the meeting.

On October 1 the Notaire (Notary Public) had called Habineza at 5 P.M. to tell him that the Notaire would not be available the next day to verify the DGPR signatures, because the Minister of Justice had not granted him permission to do so. “When I called the Minister of Justice,î recalls Habineza, ìhe told me the Notaire does not need his permission to conduct such a function. Who can we believe? What are we supposed to do?” Twice earlier the DGPR had to postpone their delegate conferences because the Notaire claimed he is not in position to notify the party’s nomination signatures. This time they found another notary, but then were told they had to reapply anyway.

The continual delays have cost the DGPR great financial expense, something the fledgling party can ill afford. But perhaps the human cost its members have had to incur has been even greater. In a country where 84% of the people live on less than $2 a day, many supporters traveled long distances at great personal cost and sacrifice to be in Kigali, some bringing babies and others abandoning their jobs to be at the event that did not happen. ìI donít know how I will get back to Rusizi district [in western province] – a five hour journey, moreover without accomplishing what had brought me here,î said Annonciata Nyirakanyana while breast-feeding her son, after the October 2nd event was cancelled

Party Founded in August 2009

The Democratic Green Party of Rwanda (DGPR) was officially launched on August 14th, 2009, at a press conference at the Hotel Laico Kigali, with an audience including representatives from the Embassies of the US, Sweden and the Netherlands, as well as the BBC, SABC, Newvison-Uganda, Africa Press Agency and Umuseso Newspaper. Perhaps unknowingly foreshadowing the challenges the new party would soon face, Habineza said:

handìToday is a great day for Rwanda. Time has finally come where Rwandans can boldly stand for their democratic rights and values, where Rwandans can live without fear of being arrested or reported to the secret police and be charged for imaginary cases. Time has reached when Rwandans can ask the political leaders to answer for their bad governance and corruption cases. Today is the day, when Rwandans are standing up to say NO and publicly demand for their rights. This is the day, when all the people of Rwanda who are not in accordance to the ideology of the ruling party can speak out their mind and sleep without fear of any kind. Today we ban negative words, used to undermine humanity in Rwanda, such as, ëIGIPINGAí (not in line with the current regime), ëUMWANZI WíIGIHUGUí (enemy of the state) and many other bad words being propagated.î

At the same time, Habineza laid blame at the hand of the RPF led government. ìWe would also wish to express our serious disappointment with its failures in various sectors, such as: unfair distribution of resources (land distribution in Eastern Province) the parliament that defends only political interests and not peoplesí interests-sic! (full of women and passed a law against mothers), mal-functioning government institutions (such as corruption in local government structures and ministries), non-government organizations that are closing offices due to lack of funds and others much favored and with big budgets because they are considered pro-government, the private media (which has been denied advertisements from government institutions and thus limping) and many more other failures. It is due to these failures and despite the visible progress in terms of infrastructures development, health, education, ITC and others. The majority of Rwandans continue to suffer from extreme cases of poverty, hunger, diseases, injustices, illegal arrests, extra-judicial imprisonment, political persecutions, lack of good governance and non-respect for human rights.î

The partyís strategy was to quickly gather its nomination signatures and then hold a platform convention with the idea of challenging the 2010 elections, but only if the constitution and electoral laws were changed. DGPR Secretary General Andrew Muganwa said that there had been lack of democracy in Rwanda since monarchical time and the RPF was ìblind-folding the world with imaginary multi-party politics, when in reality it was a single party taking decisions and others follow.î

With the DGPR, Rwanda has eleven political parties, with six of them recently forming a coalition with the ruling RPF. Only two can be regarded as real opposition while the others are not yet allowed to operate. At the same time Habineza argues that the entire electoral process is faulty from registration to vote counting, leading to obvious vote rigging.

ìWhy hold expensive electoral processes when the winner is known before elections? Its only months to the presidential elections, but no one has declared their candidature, no one is allowed to campaign because the constitution was manipulated. Our party would not be involved in such an exercise that deprives our members of their democratic rights,î Habineza noted.

ìEverything in Rwanda needs to change for the sake of democracy. The institutions need to work independent of the government and political parties need to have sound voices like other democracies,î said Habineza. ìThe RPF has manipulated all the laws to its advantage. The constitution is changed without any consultations. There is no functioning civil society, no press freedom, not even freedom of association.

The DRGP thought they had just that on October 2nd, when they gathered 900 strong in Kigali to collect nomination signatures. Then despite prior permission, their meeting was abruptly cancelled by the district mayor. Immediately afterwards the DGPR issued a call for international Green support. Signed by Habineza, Toussaint Hinvi of the Green Party of Benin and Coordinator for West African Greens Network, and Board member of Burundi Green Movement Anne Marie Bikirabake, the appeal generated response from Green Parties in Europe, North America and Africa, petitioning Rwandan President Paul Kagame to remove all obstacles that are hindering the registration of the DGPR.

In its letter, President Sylvio Michel of Vertes-Fraternels of Mauritius demanded that Kagame use his powers to ìfacilitate the party in formation by instructing and or advising the relevant officialsî who are dealing with the registration process ìto do whatever they are required to doî. Edmond Edouard Gouan, president of the Parti Ecologique Ivoirien in the Ivory Coast wrote that ìthis is not the first time such tactics are being used to delay and or deny true and long lasting evolvement of democracy in Rwandaî, and Rwanda needs to ìobserve and respect all legal provisions relating to the formation and establishment of political parties.î

The Green Party of Canadaís (GPC) Leader Elizabeth May linked the DGPRís status to Kagameís professed claim to support action on climate change, stating ìRwandan society can and should be among the leading societies on the African continent in the efforts to combat climate change and environmental degradationî and that the GPC ìstands in solidarity with the aspirations of the peoples of the continent of Africa to have their nations and communities embrace and build democratic societies democratic, inclusive and peaceful society.

With the events of October 30th, the international Green response has only begun to grow. The Green Party of the United States issued a statement on November 2nd, “We protest all violence and obstruction aimed at peacefully organizing political parties throughout the world. We especially deplore actions taken to prevent our fellow Green Parties in other nations from participating in the political process. The Rwandans who’ve been blocked, intimidated, and injured by provocateurs are heroes in the struggle for democracy.

Next Steps

For the 32 year old Habineza, who is also one three African Greens on the Global Green Coordination ñ the coordinating body of the Global Greens, this international support is very timely and welcome. Since his days as a student at National University of Rwanda in Butare, the intellectual capital of the country, Habineza has been working on issues of democracy, justice and the environment in his country. While a student in 2000, he challenged Rwandan Brigadier General Richard Rutatina with controversial questioning: demanding to know why the General denied that Uganda never assisted Rwanda in the struggle during the Generalís visit to the university and threatening the General with incarceration.

An advocate for a free press in a country where most of the media is controlled overtly or covertly by the government, in 2002 Habineza worked for the now defunct Rwanda Herald newspaper whose publisher was declared ëpersona non grataí after the paper published an editorial calling for the release of former President Pasteur Bizimungu, after which the paper was shut down by local police. In 1999 Habineza started the Rwanda Wildlife Clubs (RWC) on campus to promote preservation and expansion of trees around campus. Its now called Rwanda Environmental Conservation Organisation. After graduating he served as Principal Secretary to the former Minister for Lands, Environment, Forestry, Water and Mines, Drocella Mugorewera, who is now in political exile. Ultimately it was ongoing violation of human rights, combined with environmental destruction and the lack of the basic tenets of a civil society that led Habineza and others to found the DGPR.

Neither human rights nor environmental health can be achieved in a non-democratic, un-free, dictatorial and tyrannical regime, according to Habineza, who calls for the privatization of government media organs to allow for their independence to report on these and others of his countryís ills.

In a radio interview with the BBC after the October 30th meeting was disrupted, he said that the DGPR would not be deterred. Habineza said the disruption was clearly planned and he suspected ties to the governing RPF. Accusing them of hiding behind such actions, he said ìIf they want to want to prevent us from going to the elections [in 2010] and receive 99% of the vote, let them say it.î Vowing to fight on, Habineza added ìEnough is enough. We can never go backward. We are only going forward.î

The DGPR plans to hold another delegates congress soon, but only after assurances from the government to provide security for its members. They are also calling for the international solidarity and action. Referring to the Rwandan genocide that left between one-half million and a million Rwandans dead, Habineza said ìThe International community can not commit the same mistake like it did in 1994, when genocide was happening and it just kept quiet. We need international support now.î

For more information: www.rwandagreendemocrats.org