Rwandan President Paul Kagame may think he has a clear shot at winning the upcoming poll Aug. 4. But he wasn’t counting on a resilient 35-year-old who also had her eyes on the presidency and is bruising for a fight.
Diane Shima Rwigara could have given Kagame some real competition, but the country’s election committee disqualified her for not having enough verifiable signatures for her candidacy.
So Rwigara, an accountant from the capital Kigali, redirected her focus to rights activism with the creation of the People Salvation Movement.
The movement was formed to “call out the divisive politics of Rwandan Patriotic Front [Kagame’s party] and help sensitize Rwandans about their rights, regardless of what party they belong to,” she explained.
“I should be out there campaigning today as a presidential candidate, but the electoral commission chose to disqualify me simply because they are not as independent as they say,” she said during the launch of her new movement in Kigali.
Rwandan election campaigning kicked off last week with three presidential candidates rallying in different parts of the country.
Frank Habineza, an opposition leader of the Rwanda Green Party, won his spot on the ballot after years of struggling to register the party he founded in 2009. He has openly criticized government policies such as an agricultural system that requires farmers to mono-crop and grow specific crops to sell to local cooperatives, rather than choose what to grow for themselves.
The policy has been criticized for hurting poorer farmers and doing little to help food insecurity in parts of the country facing extreme drought.
Former journalist Philippe Mpayimana, the president’s other opponent, declared, “This is the beginning of freedom in Rwanda…It’s the first time that an opponent can speak freely.”
In May, a member of a banned political party, the United Democratic Forces, was found dead with his head nearly severed. The party claims the killing was a political assassination.
Kagame is widely credited with restoring peace and steering the country to rapid economic growth in recent years. His intolerance for corruption has also won him admirers. He has improved the country’s infrastructure over the years and has turned the country into a regional business hub.
But critics say the calm Rwanda enjoys is that of a “repressive peace,” at the cost of civil liberties and truly competitive elections. Critics and rivals of the RPF have been known to disappear or wind up dead.
“You can go to prison for saying the wrong thing. You can be disappeared. You can lose your job, your business,” said Rwigara. “Foreigners say how they feel safe in Rwanda. We as Rwandans, we do not feel safe.”