Commentary

In defence of Rwanda’s political freedoms and human rights

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By Asuman Bisiika

Posted  Saturday, February 8   2014 at  02:00

In Summary

Whereas the president’s handlers say he speaks his mind, the framed portrayal by accusers is that of a brazen insensitive ruler.

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At the end of January, the United Nations Special Rapporteur published a report of his findings on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in Rwanda. It carried a Kigali dateline. After the banal entreaties about the good governance practices by the government of Rwanda, the report went into particular incidents manifesting a tight political system.

Like most national constitutions, the Rwandan Constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, political plurality and other aspects of civil liberties.

The law, however, demands that prior to holding a demonstration, the organisers of the demonstration must notify (and obtain authorisation from) the state. The UN raportuer says “this creates an inherent contradiction in requiring both prior notification and authorisation, paving the way for arbitrary decisions by the concerned authorities”.

The raportuer observed that peaceful protests, voicing dissent and criticising government policies are not allowed. But “peaceful assemblies which authorities favour are allowed to take place; such as the commemoration marches organised by Ibuka, which are also facilitated by the authorities”. He adds: “For instance, students who presented a petition to the Prime Minister protesting against the reduction of scholarships were arrested for illegal demonstration.

In addition, Mr Sylvain Sibomana, Secretary General of the Unified Democratic Forces FDU-Inkingi, was arrested with a fellow party member outside a courtroom while attending the trial of Ms Victoire Ingabire, Chair of the same party. They both wore T-shirts with the inscription “democracy and justice”. Mr Sibomana was injured by law enforcement officials in the course of his arrest.

But we have heard and seen all that on the African continent; even as nearer home as in our fair East African Community. So, we ask, why the obsession with Rwanda when most African countries are not any different from Rwanda in the area of political freedoms?

In fact if one read this report without knowing that it is about Rwanda, one could as well think it was written about Uganda. Let us face it, in East Africa, the only country in which the political opposition is enjoying a respectable level of political freedoms is Kenya.

Even in Tanzania, the so-called kisiwa kya amaani (the island of peace), the state still treats the opposition in a manner that contradicts provisions of the Constitution. Then you ask yourself, why is this obsession with Rwanda?

In my narrow assessment, I think Rwanda attracts scrutiny because in most cases, the state responds to these reports (in the thinking that these people would appreciate the Rwandan explanations). Rwandan government officials are very passionate about defending their government.

The president almost always responds to accusations that Rwanda has a bad record of human rights and political freedoms. And when he responds, he speaks with so much candour and frankness that it borders on the undiplomatic. And the media enjoys that. Whereas the president’s handlers say he speaks his mind, the framed portrayal by accusers is that of a brazen insensitive ruler.

Anecdote Ms Victoire Ingabire, Mr Sylvain Sibomana and Mr Anselme Mutuyimana are senior members of FDU-Inkingi political party (not registered yet). Mr Bernard Ntaganda is from PS Imberakuri. They are all serving sentences ranging from 4 to 15 years. But the law governing political parties says that a sentence of five years and above in prison comes with a ban from holding any leadership position in any political party.

With a ban from holding any political office, the centre of gravity for the above cases has shifted from legal arguments to morality. But Rwandan government officials still argue the law…; disregarding the morality of the sentences.

Mr Bisiika is the executive editor of East Africa Flagpost.