Opposition candidates face intimidation and disqualification in lead-up to election

Rwandan President Paul Kagame has been in power since 1994 and is now seeking a third term in the August 2017 election. A controversial constitutional amendment approved in December 2015 could potentially allow Kagame to stay in power until 2034. Kagame was unanimously nominated by the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) to seek a third term in office, and nine of Rwanda’s 11 registered political parties have already chosen to support him, rather than field their own candidates for president. 

Though Kagama has taken steps to improve the economy and public services for citizens, it has come at the cost of curtailing fundamental civic freedoms and any form of dissent. Simon Allison, journalist and Africa Editor at Mail & Guardian, observed in his recent article on Rwanda:

"The result is that not many are brave enough to take on the regime or to challenge its narrative. August’s upcoming presidential vote is less election and more coronation, and will guarantee Kagame power for another seven years in office".

The following update by the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project also shows that the current climate in the country ahead of the election remains very concerning, as opposition candidates are harassed, freedom of expression suppressed and an opposition leader assassinated. 

Association

On 7th July 2017, the National Electoral Commission disqualified three opposition candidates from participating in the presidential election, namely Fred Sekikubo Barafinda, Gilbert Mwenedata and Diane Sima Rwigara, the sole female candidate. The Commission disqualified these candidates on the grounds that they failed to meet certain requirements, such as collecting 600 signatures in support of their candidacy. 

Prior to the Commission's decision, the opposition candidates had been harassed and intimidated. Two days after declaring her presidential bid, nude photos of Diane Sima Rwigara, a businesswoman and women’s rights activist, were leaked on social media. Many of Rwigara’s campaign representatives have been arrested and threatened with charges of treason, then later released without charge. Rwigara has also spoken out about the intimidation her supporters have faced while they collected signatures for her campaign.

Rwigara has been outspoken about the silencing of dissent and any opposition in Rwanda, stating:

“What the ruling party has failed to deliver in 23 years, they can’t do it in the next term. Everybody is scared to express themselves because they are too scared of the ruling party. There is no freedom of expression in Rwanda”.

Another candidate, Frank Habineza of Rwanda’s Green party, was verbally harassed with phone calls mocking his attempt to run against Kagame. Members of his staff and his supporters have also been targeted, some having animals or other property seized.

Representatives of independent candidate and former journalist, Phillipe Mpayimana, have faced intimidation and harassment, forcing some to end their support for his candidacy. Mpayimana also alleged that several lists of signatures he had collected were stolen in Rusizi and Kamonyi districts.

Despite the harassment and intimidation, Mpayimana and Habineza still plan to run against Kagame when Rwandans go to polls on 4th August. 

The video below in French details the violations of Rwandans' civic rights during the 2010 presidential election, and many of those issues still persist in the lead-up to this year's elections. 

Expression

In May 2017, the National Electoral Commission (NEC) introduced a mandatory vetting process for social media messages posted by candidates in the presidential election that would require all candidates to seek prior approval before posting messages online. On 31st May, however, the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (RURA) dismissed the process after receiving widespread criticism from within the country as well as from the US, UK and the EU. 

As Anthony Kulamba, spokesperson for RURA, stated in regards to the process:

“Following the recent statement by NEC regarding handling of social media during elections in Rwanda, RURA would like to inform the public that in accordance with the ICT Law and Media Law, the NEC has no mandate to regulate or interrupt the use of social media by citizens”.

On 12th May 2017, the body of Jean Damascene Habarugira, a member of the United Democratic Forces opposition party (FDU), was discovered 60 km from where he had disappeared on 9th May. According to FDU Vice President Boniface Twagirimana, the assassination was connected to Habarugira’s opposition to the government's agricultural planning policies in the eastern province of Ngoma.