You have probably heard the news. A few weeks ago, President Paul Kagame sanctioned the release of 2,140 prisoners in an apparent act of kindness.
There has been no official communication as to the disaggregation but a cursory look at the story so far points to a multitude of petty thieves, innocent folk – who should never have been in prison in the first place, and of course, the often-cited two political prisoners in Ms Victoire Ingabire and Kizito Mihigo.
As expected, Rwanda insists that none of those released is a political prisoner. How can they be, they say! To Kagame and his government, these are wrongdoers who deserved to be in jail and were inside legally. In fact, as far as the government is concerned, the freed prisoners should count their blessings for being out. It followed a suggestion earlier by one of the released that they had not sought pardon. The other day, whilst presiding over the swearing ceremony of Rwanda’s newest Members of Parliament, Mr. Kagame warned the government would not hesitate to return to jail, anyone who is perceived to not be towing the line. “If you keep acting like that, you may find yourself back there,” he said. It would appear that unknown to most, their release came with some strict rules against speaking out on how and why they were released. Incredible!
To Kagame: “In Rwanda, it is not pressure we respond to, it is our own thoughts. Where this country came from, we have learned that we must refuse to be a submissive people.” Contradictory, right? In one sense, Mr Kagame appeared to be appealing to Rwandans to not be submissive whilst asking them to submit to him at the same time. Independent thought is great and it must be promoted he seemed to say, but not when it is questioning my actions.
There is of course a reason for this. Mr. Kagame and his government would have preferred the story to focus on him and his act of compassion. He did not expect the headlines to be dominated by the story that Rwanda had released thousands of prisoners including two political prisoners. More than twenty years on, Kagame still sees himself as the only hero worth of praise when it comes to anything Rwandan. After all, he is the president. Not only that, he is the man whose forces stopped the genocide as the entire world looked on complicit or unwilling to help. That the international media chose to lead with the political prisoners angle instead of his act of compassion infuriated him. He had to make himself clear. You may be free but you all remain free because I so wish. Either you tow the line or you will be back to jail.
In Kagame’s Rwanda, prison has become a powerful symbol of power. A hammer with which to settle scores, against enemies real or perceived. A tool for clipping the heads of those with grand ambitions, be it in politics or in business. Those who have dared to challenge Kagame have either found themselves in jail or threatened with a trip there. Those less fortunate have been murdered or disappeared. Of course, like any country, Rwanda has criminals and wrongdoers and given its most recent history, it has people who deserve to be in jail. It is however a matter of fact, that post-genocide Rwanda continues to excellently use prison as a political tool.
I was there on Friday 6 April 2007, when Pasteur Bizimungu, Rwanda’s first post-genocide president was released midway through his 15-year sentence for inciting ethnic hatred. As with, Ingabire and Kizito, his release was communicated to a section of the media before hand. Having turned up to see him released, we were hoping he would share his thoughts with us. But a frail and visibly shaken Bizimungu only had a few words to say ” I want to thank the president for the pardon he has given”. Before adding: “It has taken me by surprise”. With that, Mr Bizimungu who said he felt very tired, was whisked away in a waiting Landrover Defender to an unknown location in Kigali and we have not heard from him since. Incredible, right?
As with Bizimungu, Ingabire’s statement upon coming out of prison was quite similar: “I thank the president who gave me this liberation,” she said as she spoke to the press after leaving Mageragere Prison in Kigali. The haste was apparent as journalists prepared to ask further questions. Before she could be ushered away, she was allowed one more question to which she answered: “This is the beginning of the opening of political space in Rwanda, I hope so.” That second question and Ingabire’s subsequent answer are crucial. Crucial in the sense that they revealed exactly how she felt. She may have been hoping, but the fact that she was willing to say something political immediately after her release says a lot about the type of politician she is.
In 2007, I was fortunate to interview Ms Ingabire shortly after I fled Rwanda. At the time, she was still in the Netherlands preparing to travel to Rwanda. Like many, I thought this was a dangerous endeavour but she was adamant she would go. She came through as an intelligent young mother, well aware of the dangers but prepared nonetheless to make the trip for a cause she believed in. I have interviewed a few politicians in Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda and very few have shown the kind of charisma I saw in Ingabire. It remains to be seen whether Kagame will let Ingabire be. Unlike most African politicians, she is no career politician. She genuinely believes that Rwanda and Rwandans can do even better. While I am glad she is finally out of prison, I hope that Kagame can find a way of working with her as she definitely has a role to play in Rwanda’s political dispensation.
It would of course be disingenuous to dismiss the importance of a presidential pardon, especially in the context of Rwanda’s recent history. As president Kagame himself rightly said, “if we did not give clemency, how many people would still be in prison?”. Without such schemes, thousands of Rwandans will be languishing in jail. The prerogative to pardon has seen many people reunited with their loved ones, improved community relations, and is ultimately helping with the healing process. Mr. Kagame must now learn to accept that he does not have to be the hero every time. Neither does he have to hog the headlines. As president, he must find it within himself to let people be. Dissent is healthy as long as it is conducted within the confines of the law. He must resist the temptation of using prison and the threat of prison as instruments for submission. As a bonafide christian, he would do well learning from Jesus’s sermon on the mount: not letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing. It is one thing extending a pardon, but the true measure of forgiveness is how the forgiving part gets on with the forgiven.
How many people must Rwanda lose? Bizimungu currently lives in a sorry state. As a former head of state, there is much he could be offering to support the development of this country. Freeing 2140 is fantastic, it would be even great if all political prisoners, currently serving time in Rwandan prisons across the country, were freed. Diane Rwigara, Adeline Rwigara, Théophile Ntirutwa, Léonille Gasengayire and others come to mind.
Over to you Mr President!