Kagame challenger Habineza ready to ‘face the worst’ in RwandaFri, 08 Mar 2024 06:13:42 GMT

Frank Habineza has received death threats, been imprisoned, forced into exile and defeated during previous attempts to unseat Rwanda’s veteran President Paul Kagame, but he is determined to try again, even if he deems the contest “unbalanced”.”You cannot change anything when you are just sitting aside doing armchair politics,” he told AFP during an interview in the Rwandan capital Kigali.  “You need to be inside the game, fighting the game.”The East African nation will hold presidential and parliamentary elections on July 15, with Kagame expected to extend his iron-fisted rule over a country he has led for around a quarter of a century.A former rebel chief, the 66-year-old became president in April 2000 but has been the landlocked country’s de facto leader since the end of the 1994 genocide.  He was returned to office — with more than 90 percent of the vote — in elections in 2003, 2010 and 2017.Habineza secured only 0.45 percent of the ballot in the 2017 election, coming third in polls that rights groups criticised over irregularities and voter intimidation. The contest is “unbalanced for us”, the 47-year-old MP conceded, accusing the authorities of failing to provide a “fair” playing field for his party.- Fear of repercussions -Habineza’s Democratic Green party — registered in 2013 — is Rwanda’s only permitted critical opposition party and won two seats in parliament for the first time in 2018. All other registered opposition parties routinely back Kagame.The only other potential challenger to Kagame, Victoire Ingabire, leader of the unregistered Dalfa Umurunzi (Development And Liberty For All) movement, is blocked from the presidential race due to a past conviction.She was arrested in 2010 while campaigning against Kagame.Ingabire was subsequently found guilty of crimes including “divisionism” after publicly questioning the government narrative of the 1994 genocide targeting the Tutsi that killed around 800,000 people.She spent eight years in prison, before the remainder of her 15-year sentence was commuted by Kagame, who also presided over controversial constitution amendments enabling him to stay in power until 2034. A court decision on whether she will be allowed to contest the presidency is set for March 13. The “land of a thousand hills” lays claim to being one of the most stable countries in the region and bills itself as “Africa’s Singapore”.But systematic repression of the opposition, free speech and the media remains rife in the country of 13 million people, said Habineza,who is also an environmental activist.”People are not free to express themselves as they would wish to because they fear repercussions.”- ‘Gone through fire’ -Kagame initially won praise for bringing order and stability to the shattered nation but his rights record has come under fire. Habineza himself was a member of Kagame’s ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front before defecting in 2009 to introduce “genuine and authentic political opposition”, according to his party’s website.”We still have issues with poverty reduction. Many people have no jobs with nothing to eat.”He is also a vocal critic of the controversial deal between Kigali and London to send UK-bound migrants to Rwanda.His commitment to unseating Kagame has led him into rough waters.The body of his party’s vice president Andre Rwisereka was found nearly decapitated before the 2010 polls. Kigali has denied involvement in the gruesome killing, which remains unsolved to date. Habineza fled to Sweden a month later, but decided to return to Rwanda in 2012 “for the sake of democracy”, leaving his young family behind.He gave up his Swedish citizenship in order to run in the 2017 election. “I just decided to come back to face the worst.”Habineza is hoping to woo voters with a plan to stop the backsliding of human rights, promising to boost free speech and the media.”We also want to foster good and lasting relationships with our immediate neighbouring countries,” he said of his manifesto, which also promises subsidies for agriculture, a key plank of the Rwandan economy. Relations have been frosty for years between Rwanda and its neighbours, especially the Democratic Republic of Congo over Kigali’s alleged support of M23 rebels in the region, claims backed by the UN and several Western nations.But he must first shake off accusations from some observers that his candidacy means little and is a front to appease Western donors.”We have fought for what we have,” he said, pointing out that some members of his party are “still living in exile”.”We have gone through fire and have survived.”