WASHINGTON – The conflict in Rwanda unfolded on a smaller stage as Rwandan Ambassador to the U.S. James Kimonyo entered a room where activists were criticizing Monday's elections for being undemocratic.
The briefing Tuesday,hosted by the Institute for Policy Studies,turned into a heated and at times chaotic debate after speakers called the election process a “sham.”
“It would be a shame if the U.S. government actually recognizes this election as legitimate,given everything that has taken place prior to this election,” said Claude Gatebuke,a Rwandan human rights activist based in the U.S. “We want to make sure the U.S. recognizes the Rwandan election for what it is.”
Gatebuke,a survivor of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda in which 800,000 people were killed in ethnic clashes,said the government has suspended independent media and is persecuting journalists and opponents of the establishment.
Opposition candidates have been blocked from mounting a proper challenge to Rwandan President Paul Kagame,who has been in office since 2000,Gatebuke said.
Kagame won a seven-year term in 2003,capturing 95 percent of the vote. He has been among the leadership of the ruling party,the Rwandan Patriotic Front,after its forces intervened and effectively ended the genocide. The party has held power since.
Kimonyo defended Kagame for helping stop the genocide and giving Rwandans a common identity.
Rwandan society has been confronted by ethnic differences since its independence in 1962. This eventually led to the genocide in which extremist Hutu ethnic tribes attacked minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Under Kagame,the old policy of carrying identity cards stating ethnicity was done away with.
Kimonyo said Rwanda's current leadership has taken strides to rebuild the country and meet the United Nations Africa Millennium Development Goals.
“When you talk about education and health,Rwanda has already met some of the AMDG goals,” he said,after being given an opportunity to respond to the allegations made against his government. “This conspiracy is being mounted to create a different narrative about Rwanda.”
Some strong opposition candidates have not been allowed to register,but three other candidates will be on the presidential ballot.
The campaign has been moving smoothly,Kimonoyo said.
“The elections are conducted within the limits of our constitution,” he said. “Trust me,after the 9th,Rwandans will be celebrating.”
The State Department has not commented on the election process yet. The U.S. government provides development aid to Rwanda,but a State Department website says that democratization remains a problem.
Paul Rusesabagina,a Rwandan humanitarian worker who saved the lives of about 1,200 refugees during the genocide and whose story was the basis for the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” said in a written statement that there is no democracy in Rwanda.
Rusesabagina was scheduled to appear at the briefing,but sponsors said he was ill.
He said Kagame uses the threat of another genocide as an excuse to maintain control and that the election results are “preordained.” Rwandan citizens who oppose the official line are outcast or brutally punished.
“It is imperative that the international community not turn a blind eye to this repression and outright violence,” he said. “The people of Rwanda deserve a future of freedom and growth,not the continuation of fear and poverty.”