If there was ever a question of whether or not young people are the hope for change in our world then they should simply look to the brave and courageous example of Alice Muhirwa. Her determination and focus are admirable in a country where oppression of dissenting views is part of daily life.
JF: What are your full name and your position as a political oppositional figure?
AM: Alice Muhirwa, FDU-INKINGI Treasurer.
JF: What challenges do you face being a part of an opposition group or do you have to keep that position quiet?
AM: There is no way you would keep your position quiet when you are a member of the FDU-INKINGI interim Executive committee, based in Rwanda, and engaging directly the dictatorship here on a daily basis.
Members of the opposition inside the country have suffered serious incidents of intimidation by individuals and institutions close to the government and the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front. The national and pro-governmental media are diabolizing us any time they mention the word ‘opposition.’ Our political party is not registered but we don’t hide that we are here to stay. Most of my colleagues have been imprisoned, tortured and/or blackmailed. Our family members have been intimidated as well. We keep on going, as long as we breathe, because we know there are millions of Rwandans who share this dream. This is the shared dream of one day having democracy, freedom, justice and equal opportunity for all citizens of Rwanda.
JF: How many imprisoned oppositional leaders are there currently in Rwanda and where are they housed?
AM: There are currently at least 8 opposition leaders in prison here. But political prisoners in Rwanda are in the hundreds if we consider the definition as “a person who has been imprisoned for holding or advocating dissenting political views.” Some names on the top list of key leaders in Kigali maximum prison are Madame Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, Chair of FDU-INKINGI; Mr. Bernard Ntaganda, founding President of the Parti Social Imberakuri; Mr. Deo Mushayidi, President of PDP Imanzi; Mr. Charles Ntakirutinka, founding leader of PDR Ubuyanja and others are scattered in different prisons. For example Mr. Sylvère Mwizerwa (Parti Social Imberakuri) is detained in Kimironko detention facility; Dr. Théoneste Niyitegeka, one of the challengers of President Kagame in the 2003 presidential elections, was arrested after the exercise and sentenced to a 15 year term, he is in Mpanga prison. Mr. Eric Nshimyumuremyi, PS Imberakuri local leader in Kicukiro, survived a police gun shot on 15 September 2011, but was since imprisoned in Kigali Central prison.
Mr. Rusangwa Sibomana Aimable, private secretary of Bernard Ntaganda was arrested in Nyamirambo on 13 June 2010 and his whereabouts are unknown.
Mr. Nshimiyimana JMV, an opposition leader in Rutsiro district disappeared and has been missing since 21 March 2010.
JF: What are their conditions medically and emotionally? Do they have any regular family or friend visitors?
AM: Their medical conditions are very poor. They don’t have access to regular medical treatment. Most of them are accused of terrorism, genocide ideology, and divisionism. If their lawyers are arrested what would happen to their doctors? You are aware of the case of the US Professor Peter Erlinder who was arrested and detained when he came to Kigali to defend Madame Victoire Ingabire in 2010.
Emotionally, the political prisoners have been very strong because they see that the seeds of change they planted are growing. Inside and outside Rwanda, waves are taking shape, and the change is now a near-dream. They triggered a paradigm shift. Even very strong empires in the world have collapsed when people stopped to believe in their powers. We are living the last days of the RPF regime.
The visits by family members have been very restricted. For example Victoire Ingabire has spent many months in isolation.
JF: I understand it is not safe to express ones political views that are in opposition to the current ruling regime but do the people who support oppositional parties still express this openly or do they hide it for their own protection?
AM: The majority of Rwandans are still scared. Their fears are founded. They witnessed the genocide and other humanitarian crimes committed in Rwanda in the last two decades. Nevertheless, the fear factor has breaking points and we are getting closer and closer. Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen are talking examples. Citizens of those countries have been oppressed until; they said “enough is enough”.
Those hiding their dissenting views today will be on our streets tomorrow.
JF: In your opinion what must occur in Rwanda in order for political space to be opened up?
AM: The liberation of political prisoners and the registration of opposition party will be a turning point. The partners of Rwanda need to put some pressure and talk openly and firmly to the current leadership. This country’s economy and development have been much depending on the international donors.
JF: Are there any groups that are outspoken despite the risks? What happens? Do they hold any public rallies?
AM: No public rallies are allowed here. The current criminal law is clear on that. An attempt to organize a public rally, meeting, demonstration is seriously repressed. Organizers and participants are charged acts of terrorism, genocide ideology, divisionism, illegal meeting or attempt to plot against a sitting government, threats to national institutions, etc. Those are serious crimes that would send people to prison for tens of years if not life.
The government has even denied all our parties the right to convene. How about public meetings in Stalin’s regime? Were they allowed? No. That looks like the model in place here.
JF: What are the major groups that have a presence in Rwanda and what kind of following do these groups have in numbers?
AM: As a member of the opposition myself, it’s not wise to rank sister political groups operating here. They are all here. Every other person you meet silently belongs to the opposition. Wait until we snatch the right to register our parties. The joint platform FDU-INKINGI and RNC seems to give hope to many Rwandans. Our collaboration with other key partners such as the Parti Social Imberakuri, PDP Imanzi, Arena and PDR Ihumure gives to our joint voices a very powerful reach.
JF: I understand the groups are being infiltrated in many ways. How does the presence of these infiltrators change the way people behave?
AM: Of course the ruling regime is using all means to split, divide, or destroy any opposition group. The role of infiltrators helps actually to entertain bubbles, factions. In the case of Rwanda, the biggest problem is that there have been so many cases of assassinations of opposition leaders and journalists inside and outside the country.
But I strongly believe that when people are determined, it’s not a few infiltrated spooks and pickets who will derail their march to democracy. All dictatorships have used those tactics and they finally failed. The true nonviolent leaders are not afraid of infiltrators. The power of their ideas, their political programs, and their dedication is the secret of their victory.
JF: How are the infiltrators identified and hired?
AM: In the context of Rwanda there are different techniques used ranging from corruption, to blackmail and threats. Most of the known cases are managed by intelligence services.
JF: In the case of Victoire Ingabire is there hope among her followers that she will be released? How does she keep her hope alive?
AM: Of course we believe that she will be released because she is innocent. We cannot believe that the international community will continue to keep a blind eye on this political circus. Consequences are disastrous and we trust that real friends of Rwanda will try every means to avoid the country to slide back to the brink.
Madame Victoire Ingabire is a very strong believer of the democratic change. She knows the change is around the next corner, she knows she is not alone. Whenever we have a chance to see her, she says: “don’t be afraid, he will never jail a whole nation” or “time is nothing when there is determination”. She has what it takes. She is my inspiration and hero.
JF: And what about Bernard Ntaganda? Are his followers still faithful to him?
AM: Supporters of Bernard Ntaganda have been actually growing. The massive intimidation they have been subjected too did not deter their struggle.
JF: What do you want to see happen in the political climate of Rwanda and, in your opinion, what will it take for that to happen?
AM: We expect to have free political space, free media, fair justice, rule of law and democratic values. What it takes is a sound cause and the leadership. Within the Rwandese community, there are true democratic leaders. They have understood that their time has arrived. The international community has a share in a peaceful change in Rwanda as well.
JF: Do you have hope for political and social change in Rwanda?
AM: Yes, I do.
It’s the reason why we do what we are doing against all odds. It’s because we know at the end of this tunnel, there is light.
The current leadership has failed to deliver on those key aspects. As a result of the government’s failure to address the root causes of conflict in our society, we have reached the edge. Signs for the eruption of the volcanoes are here. We can’t just wait; we have the responsibility to shape the change we need.
By: Jennifer Fierberg, MSW