Diane Rwigara was Rwandan President Paul Kagame's only female challenger
She accuses his government of foul play
Rwanda may have the highest number of female lawmakers in the world, but one disqualified presidential candidate says it’s not so easy for women to make it to the top job in the land.
Diane Rwigara was the only female challenger to the incumbent President Paul Kagame in Friday’s elections.
She told CNN that when she announced her campaign to run, she was immediately targeted by the country’s ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) led by Kagame, who has been the country’s leader since 2000.
Days after Rwigara’s announcement, nude photos of her were posted online, but the 35-year-old entrepreneur said the images had been doctored and were intended to discredit her.
“They are fake nudes, altered in Photoshop, and it is one of many tactics that has been used to silence me,” she told CNN, also claiming her supporters were harassed and detained, while she faced trolling and abuse online.
A spokesman for RPF denied the party had anything to do with the release of pictures of Rwigara or detaining her supporters.
Several weeks after the photo incident, Rwigara was disqualified by the country’s electoral commission, which accused her of committing electoral fraud by submitting the names of dead people as supporters.
Rwigara said the claims were “fabricated lies,” adding that the ID numbers the commission said were of dead people were “different from the ID numbers we submitted.”
“I did double the work but the RPF and the national electoral commission cheated me. I do not feel defeated, I feel cheated,” she said.
Female candidates struggle
Charles Munyaneza, executive secretary of the Rwandan electoral commission, told CNN that Rwigara gathered more than 900 signatures, but most were “forged,” leading to her disqualification.
An RPF spokesman, Wellars Gasamagera, said Rwigara was “frustrated,” adding “RPF has never been involved in what happened to her.”
“She had requirements to fulfill and the National Electoral Commission is the one in charge of that,” he said. “RPF has always been in favor of our political space being open to everybody.”
Rwanda currently leads the world in terms of share of female legislators – 61% of the country’s parliament are women – but female presidential candidates haven’t been as successful.
In 2003, Alvera Mukabaramba made a bid for the presidency but later withdrew and joined forces with Kagame. She ran again in 2010 alongside another woman, Victoire Ingabire, a Netherlands-based Hutu lawyer who returned to Rwanda to stand in the elections.
Ingabire ran into trouble over comments she made about the country’s 1994 genocide and was later sentenced to 15 years in prison for treason and “denying genocide.”
As Rwandans cast their votes Friday, incumbent Kagame is expected to win by a landslide.
A former military strongman praised for turning around the country’s fortune, Kagame enjoys huge popularity in the country, which has seen strong economic growth in recent years and improved standards of living.
‘Living in fear is not life’
Critics argue the successes of Kagame’s tenure have come at a high cost for civil society.
“Two decades of attacks on the political opposition, independent media and human rights groups have created a climate of fear,” according to a recent Amnesty International report.
Rwigara remains defiant. “When a hyena runs after you long enough you end up losing fear,” she said, quoting a Rwandan proverb. “Living in fear is not life.”
But she admitted to feeling frustrated by “the way things are in this country – we are not allowed to talk about the many challenges.”
A week after her disqualification, Rwigara turned to human rights activism with her newly formed activist group, the People Salvation Movement.
At a launch event, Rwigara told reporters: “I should be out there campaigning today as a presidential candidate, but the electoral commission chose to disqualify me simply because they are not as independent as they say.”
This article was modified to correct an error in the picture caption.