Facing life in jail, the woman who dared to take on Paul Kagame

Stability in Rwanda is based on political repression, opposition leader Victoire Ingabire tells Daniel Howden

Victoire Ingabire had expected to spend this weekend campaigning.

Instead, she will spend it under house arrest in Kigali, preparing her defence for a trial that could end with a life sentence. Ms Ingabire returned to Rwanda in February to contest Monday's presidential election. She had not expected to win against Paul Kagame, the soldier who has run Rwanda since 1994, but she did think she would at least be able to stand against him.

"When I came back the plan was to register my party and participate," she told The Independent in a telephone interview from the Rwandan capital.

But the authorities have stopped that from happening. "I have no freedom, the police follow me wherever I go. I cannot leave Kigali, they have taken away my passport," she said.

As Rwanda goes to the polls on Monday the international community is being asked to look again at a country fêted for its miraculous recovery from a genocide remembered as one of humanity's great collective failures. Sixteen years ago, the world stood by while 800,000 people were butchered in 100 days in what the United Nations says was a planned extermination campaign of one ethnic group, the Tutsis, by ethnic Hutu extremists.

Mr Kagame's Tutsi-led Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) has controlled the country since it invaded and ended the genocide. It has missed few opportunities to remind the rest of the world of their failure to act in 1994.

Ms Ingabire and other dissidents are now warning that the international community is in danger of failing Rwanda once again, with its unquestioning support of a president she says has become a dictator. "I don't understand the attitude of Rwanda's allies and donors," said Ms Ingabire.

"They see the growing tension and they do nothing. We have a big crisis brewing inside the country and this sham election won't resolve it."

The election campaign has been marred by murders, kidnappings, media closures, unexplained grenade attacks and a series of assassinations of Rwandan dissidents and their supporters abroad. Opposition parties without links to the ruling RPF party have been refused registration, their members have been harassed, intimidated and, in several cases, jailed.

There is little doubt Mr Kagame, who has spent £2m during a one-sided campaign, will win by a landslide. The only candidates standing against him are ruling party "stooges", according to critics. Foreign donors – who provide more than half of Rwanda's budget – have been wrongfooted by the apparently sudden instability in what is held up as an African model.

In a region hobbled by endemic graft, Rwanda is the exception. It has far less corruption than its neighbours, according to the recent East Africa corruption index from Transparency International. Its gross domestic product has doubled since 1994 and the president is hailed by outsiders for his "vision" and "dynamism".

However, a report by independent experts on Rwanda's bid to join the Commonwealth said that Mr Kagame had become an expert at manipulating Western guilt over the genocide and was running "an army with a state".

"People say there's stability in Rwanda but this stability is based on repression," said Ms Ingabire. "We need stability based on freedom.

"I don't understand how democratic countries can remain friends with a government that doesn't allow democracy. The democratic UK is supporting a dictatorship."

The President's would-be rival has been charged with genocide denial under a law criminalising those who spread genocide ideology. The law has been condemned by independent experts as a tool for silencing anyone who disagrees with the official account of what happened 16 years ago.

A Hutu, Ms Ingabire lived outside the country for 16 years and worked as an accountant in The Netherlands, where she set up the United Democratic Forces party. She is accused of channelling funds during that time to the FDLR, an armed Hutu group operating in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). She is said to have met FDLR officials in Spain in 2006.

She doesn't deny this, but says the meeting was attended by many groups from the Rwandan diaspora, including officials from the governing RPF.

"This doesn't mean that we collaborate with the FDLR," she said. She's also accused of twice meeting Hutu genocidaires in the DRC capital – this she does deny, insisting she was in Kinshasa to meet government officials.

The Rwandan government has cited a UN report last year that found diaspora members of Ms Ingabire's party had been in phone contact with FDLR military leaders. But it didn't specify the nature of this contact or suggest she herself had made contact.

"I don't have any links to the FDLR," she insisted. "I don't believe in violence and war is not the solution to the problems that face this country."

Her first speeches upon her return were controversial because she asked for an investigation into Tutsi reprisal killings during and after the genocide.

"I agree that there was a genocide by Hutu extremists against the Tutsis, that is the reality. The people who did this need to be jailed. But there were also other crimes against humanity, including the killing of Hutus." The mother of three does not expect a fair trial. A US attorney who came to Kigali to lead her defence was also jailed briefly and accused of genocide denial. She has appealed for an international inquiry into the murder of a journalist critical of the government and the assassination of the deputy leader of Rwanda's Green Party – killings the government now says were carried out by disaffected members of the diaspora. "Rwanda's history is a cycle of violence," said Ms Ingabire. "I understand the [Tutsis'] fear of the Hutus but not all Hutus were killers.

"We have to stop fear among Rwandan people, to make sure no one can lose their life because of their ethnicity or their political beliefs."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Jerry Seinfeld Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee
peopleSitcom star urges men to be more supportive of women than ever
Life and Style
Living for the moment: Julianne Moore playing Alzheimer’s sufferer Alice
health
News
Jay Z
businessJay-Z's bid for Spotify rival could be blocked
Sport
Louis van Gaal is watching a different Manchester United and Wenger can still spring a surprise
News
The spider makes its break for freedom
VIDEO
Voices
A propaganda video shows Isis forces near Tikrit
voicesAdam Walker: The Koran has violent passages, but it also has others that explicitly tells us how to interpret them
Arts and Entertainment
books
News
people
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle v United player ratings
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Mechanical and Electrical Engineer

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of refrig...

Recruitment Genius: Concierge and Porter

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a customer focused, pro...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer / Front-End Designer - City of London

£27000 - £33000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End Devel...

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Customer Support Technician

£15000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Waterlooville based softwa...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot