Letters to Editor

Rwanda: Where a private conversation can cost you your freedom

The country I still call “home” will next year host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).

Welcoming the leaders of an organisation committed to democracy, good governance, human rights and the rule of law should, in theory, be a proud moment for a small African nation with a haunted history.

However, the country concerned is Rwanda, and CHOGM’s choice of venue betrays the very principles the organisation embraces. Whatever it once pledged, the Commonwealth’s newest member – Rwanda only joined in 2009 – shows little interest in upholding a charter whose articles guarantee freedom of expression and peaceful dialogue.

Nothing better exemplifies President Paul Kagame’s intolerance of open debate than the case due to be heard in Kigali’s Court of Appeal on November 15.

Retired Brigadier General Frank Rusagara and his brother-in-law Colonel Tom Byagabagamba will be appealing prison sentences of 20 and 21 respectively.

These harsh verdicts were handed down not for murder, or their role in spearheading some mass atrocity, but for critical remarks the two men are said to have voiced during purely private conversations. 

Frank is my father, Tom my maternal uncle. My father played a key role in writing the new constitution introduced in the wake of the 1994 genocide: my uncle was among the first 27 young refugees in the Rwandan Patriotic Front armed struggle to make their way to Rwanda in 1989. Idealists to the core, both men have dedicated their lives to serving their nation.

Any one of their former military colleagues can attest to the spirit of self-sacrifice and dedication with which they always carried out their duties. Their biggest misfortune – especially in the case of my father, known for his irreverence and sense of humour – seems to have been their readiness to “tell it like it is”.

At one stage my father, the prosecution says, described Rwanda as a “banana republic” and said, referring to the President, “our guy is finished”.

It seems there is no space in modern Rwanda for honest opinion. If you don’t like what you see happening around you, keep it to yourself. And that applies to conversations with family and close friends, too.

According to the prosecution, their crimes were “inciting insurrection and tarnishing the government’s image, criticising the government, alleging state involvement in assassinations of opponents, and complaining about foreign and economic policy”.

Arrested in August 2014 , they have been held in solitary confinement and between April 2017 and May 2019 were granted no access to lawyers or allowed any visitors.

Under President Paul Kagame, Rwanda has become a strangely silent place, where even private conversation can be policed and personal opinions have been eradicated. The effect is stifling, for freedom of expression, the basis of democracy itself, lies at the core of every human’s being.

There is no better method of stripping away an individual’s humanity than suppressing their freedom to express themselves.

How is this done, in practice? The key lies in Rwanda’s structure of local government. The smallest unit in Rwandan society is “nyumba kumi” – translated as “10 houses”.

Under the late President Juvenal Habyarimana’s rigid system of control, a local official was appointed to monitor every 10 houses, noting what each citizen did, who he or she associated with, and what they were heard saying. Habyarimana’s memory may be reviled by the current government, but his system of surveillance lives on.

President Kagame wins praise abroad and funds from his Western donors for his leadership. But in modern Rwanda, politics is a no-go area outside the privacy of your own home, whether you find yourself in a bus, taxi, restaurant or bar.

The perception – sadly, quite correct – is that everyone is listening and taking silent notes, including the person with whom you might be having a conversation.

Rwandans instinctively know this. When outsiders break the rules, they can come a cropper. Kasha Nabagesera, a prominent gay activist in Uganda, made the mistake of referring to President Kagame as a young dictator following in his big brother President Yoweri Museveni’s footsteps within earshot of a co-pilot on her Rwandair flight.

In her Facebook post she recounts how she found herself being arrested on arrival in Kigali “on suspicion of drunkenness and misconduct”, handcuffed, repeatedly interrogated and eventually deported with instructions never to return. Even non-Rwandans, it seems, are watched and spied upon to ensure they toe the line.

In April 2019, Rwanda’s Supreme Court scrapped Articles 233 and 154 of the old penal code which had criminalised anyone who humiliated, insulted or defamed those in public office, while making an exception for the President of the Republic.

President Kagame took issue, saying there should be no special treatment accorded the head of state.

The continued detention of Frank and Tom – deemed a violation of international law by a UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention – undermines such fine gestures. On November 15, when they both appear before the Court of Appeal, the president will have the chance to demonstrate just how genuine his stance on freedom of expression really is.

In the process, he might also make the Commonwealth’s decision to take up his invitation to meet in Kigali next June a little less excruciatingly embarrassing.

  • Veronica Shandari, who lives in London with her four siblings, has not seen her father since his 2014 arrest. Their mother died of cancer while awaiting his liberation.

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