Rwanda’s Kagame Eligible for Third Term Despite Civil Society Crackdowns

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Rwanda genocide survivor Claude Gatebuke says the U.S., which spends $200 million a year on the Rwandan government, is starting to see president Paul Kagame more as a liability than an asset

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Story Transcript

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

Voters in Rwanda have given Rwanda’s president the green light to seek a third term. If President Paul Kagame decides to run for reelection, the change would allow him to stay in power until 2034. Kagame has been president since 2000, but he has effectively been in control since his rebel forces marched into Rwanda’s capital, ending the 1994 genocide. Now joining us to discuss what this constitutional change could mean for the future of Rwanda and its neighboring countries is Claude Gatebuke. He is a civil war survivor and Rwandan genocide survivor, and he executive director of the African Great Lakes Action Network. Thanks for joining us, Claude.

CLAUDE GATEBUKE: Thank you for having me.

DESVARIEUX: So for those wanting to promote democracy and a strong civil society in Rwanda, should they be concerned with this change in the constitution?

GATEBUKE: Yes. Anyone that is concerned with human rights, civil society, a thriving civil society, and respect of human rights should be extremely concerned with this vote and extending President Kagame to rule Rwanda effectively for a total of 40 years. The reasons are Rwanda has stifled any dissenting voices in the country. Civil society is not operational in the country, because everyone has been either jailed, exiled, or killed that has pushed to hold the government of Rwanda accountable. So that will continue to be that way, because part of it is the Rwanda government is very sensitive to not only any criticism but because they are aware of their long history of atrocities within the country and outside of the country. So civil society is nonexistent in the country.

DESVARIEUX: Can you be specific? Who have they been targeting?

GATEBUKE: Civil rights, human rights activists. Both internal and external. So for example, there was the organization that promoted human rights, LIPRODHOR, everyone, just about everyone that was part of that organization has been exiled. And not only that, but they–that organization has also been defunded by our foreign donors because they realize that the government have taken it over. This is in recent years. We’ve also seen Rwanda eject out of the country representatives of Human Rights Watch. Carina Tertsakian was removed from Rwanda in 2010, I believe.

The person who’s known to have written the story of the Rwandan genocide, Alison Des Forges, the leading researcher on Rwanda prior to the genocide, was banned from entering the country even though she had been very favorable to the RPF government, or the Rwandan Patriotic Front government, that is running the country. She had provided extensive testimony in the court in Arusha against genocide suspects. She was banned from entering the country because the Rwandan government did [inaud.].

Professors Alan [Stam] and Davenport were asked to leave the country when their research showed atrocities that were being committed by the government of Rwanda. And there’s a long list of Rwandans who have either been killed or exiled out of the country for speaking out against, or for highlighting any human rights abuses. Journalist Leonard Rugambage, I think he was assassinated for writing a report on assassinations of exiled Rwandans.

DESVARIEUX: But Claude, hold on one second. But what about those who say at the end of the day, Rwandans ultimately decided to allow Kagame to seek another term? Shouldn’t we respect their voices? Shouldn’t we respect this election?

GATEBUKE: You know, if it was an election, it would be no question that anyone who supports free speech, democracy, and freedom would want, would respect, what happened in this vote. A couple of things about this vote. One, it was rushed. It was announced a week prior to it taking place. That’s one. So voters do not even know what they’re voting about in interviews and reports of Rwandan, ordinary Rwandans, reporting that, oh, who is this referendum person running against Kagame? You know, maybe I’ll vote for that referendum person. People don’t even know what they’re voting about.

And number two, it’s totally controlled by the government. There is no independent observers to the vote. Even when there are independent observers to the vote, people are forced to vote. It’s not a free vote. And when it’s not a free vote it’s, it’s, it was an article that was titled Undemocratic Democracies. It’s an undemocratic process that is pretending to be democratic. And so it’s not a real vote. It is a show, it’s something that they’re putting on display, to a show of support. But when you have a soldier and a policeman, and members of the government pushing you to go and vote, and they’re watching and observing how you vote, it’s obvious, you know, how any smart person is going to vote. They’re going to vote for it.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Let’s switch gears and talk about America’s role in all of this. Because they’ve been big supporters of Kagame in the past, at least. What has been the State Department’s statement about Kagame, and him potentially running for a third term?

GATEBUKE: So the, there was a statement actually released by the United States State Department, the White House. And it says the United States is disappointed that a referendum was called on short notice to amend the constitution. And also that the United States continues to be concerned by longstanding restrictions on peaceful assembly, association, and free expression in Rwanda. And they are pushing the Rwanda government to allow full and unfettered exercise of the fundamental freedoms as the country moves toward the elections in 2017. And it also says that they will continue to stand with the Rwandans. The specific, with the Rwandans, not with the government of Rwanda or the President Kagame, but with Rwandans as they continue to pursue the, their, a democratic society.

DESVARIEUX: Yeah. But why the change of heart, Claude?

GATEBUKE: I think part of it is because, you know, it’s becoming more and more embarrassing to support Kagame, and the media has played a major role in showing that hypocrisy in supporting Kagame. And as you say, it is a change of heart because the United States spends nearly $200 million a year on the Rwandan government. And that’s a lot of taxpayer’s money going to someone who has a long record of assassinating his own nationals outside of the country and inside of the country.

Someone who has jailed–for example, Rwanda’s known as one of the most progressive countries with the highest percentage of women in government. But the only woman who ever challenged President Kagame to a free and fair election, Ms. Victoire Ingabire, is languishing in prison in Rwanda. She’s been sentenced to 15 years, and her crime was to challenge the government of Rwanda to free up its society.

So it’s becoming an international embarrassment to support Kagame. He’s also invaded the Congo multiple times, the most recent and most blatant being, or one of the most blatant, being the support of the M-23 where his minister of defense, military, chief of staff, and his own advisers, you know, generals, James Kabarebe, Charles Kayonga, and Jack Nziza were the leaders of the rebellion.

The other thing is that international organizations, but also the international community, is watching what’s happening in Burundi, in Congo, in all these other countries where presidents are trying to stay in power forever. And it’s caused a lot of instability. And now with what’s happening in neighboring Burundi, Rwanda’s sister country, all the unrest that is taking place there, and Rwanda’s role that’s been exposed by international humanitarian organizations as the Rwandan government going into Burundi and refugee camps to form rebels to go and attack Burundi, all of that are, is becoming a concern.

The flow of information, I think, has been the big reason why the United States has been [inaud.] to disowning Kagame. He’s becoming less of an asset and becoming more of a liability.

DESVARIEUX: Liability. Yeah, it’s sort of like created this monster and now he’s out of their control in a lot of ways. All right, Claude, thank you so much for joining us.

GATEBUKE: Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

End

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