by Olivia Hanks
Content warning: mentions genocide
Frank Habineza is all smiles when I meet him at the Global Greens Congress in Liverpool. It’s hardly surprising: the congress, which he helped organise in his role as president of the African Greens Federation, is running smoothly; and he is one of its star attractions, having just been announced as the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda (DGPR)’s first ever presidential candidate.
Standing for election in Rwanda is not to be done lightly: although opposition is nominally allowed, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have repeatedly raised concerns about torture and imprisonment of dissenters. Opposition party leader Victoire Ingabire is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence, and many other activists have gone missing in recent years. Habineza himself was forced into exile prior to the last presidential elections in 2010, after the DGPR vice-chairman André Kagwa Rwisereka was murdered.
The party is currently the only registered opposition to the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which has ruled virtually unopposed since the end of the 1994 genocide. The three candidates who stood against President Paul Kagame in 2010 had all supported him in 2003, leading to accusations that they were merely a token opposition designed to create the impression of a functioning democracy.
The odds appear heavily stacked against Habineza; but he is confident and upbeat. “I believe I will be president of Rwanda. Maybe in August, maybe next time; but I believe that I will be president and we will be able to implement all the Green policies we have been fighting for. I believe that next year when we have parliamentary elections, we will have a big number of people in parliament. Then my party can propose changes and get them put into law.”
People want political change. So we are carrying that vision of hope.
Although Habineza has a background in conservation – he started a wildlife protection group while at university and went on to work for several environmental NGOs – his party’s principal focus is currently democracy and human rights. “Most of our supporters are associated with the party because of the fight against dictatorship,” he explains. “The fight for democracy, for social justice, against corruption. Against injustices, human rights abuses. Against media restrictions. People want political change. So we are carrying that vision of hope.”
When I ask Habineza how he got involved in politics, it’s fair to say I am not expecting Scarborough to form a part of the answer. It seems political movements can begin in unexpected places, however. “I came to England in 2002 and was staying with friends in Saffron Walden. It was Christmas and they had other visitors too, from Scarborough. It turned out these friends were Greens, on the local council. They talked about Green issues, they showed me documents about the Green Party of England and Wales, and I got so interested, because I was interested in the environmental side but didn’t know about the political side [of the movement]. So that is when I changed to become political.”
On his return to Rwanda in 2003, Habineza floated the idea of a Green Party of Rwanda. “But the situation then was very difficult – the first elections were coming up after the transitional government, and people were saying it was the wrong time to start a party. So we stopped; but the idea did not die.” The party was eventually founded in 2009, by which time Habineza was also heavily involved in the Global Greens and the African Greens Federation, which now has members from 29 countries.
“The Green movement in Africa is very big now,” he says. “We set up the federation in 2010, but there were already Green parties in west Africa, and also in Mauritius – they have been there for 40 years. Some parties have been in government, others have been in parliament. Each country has different local issues: in some areas of west Africa they have problems with desert, there is no water, there’s no food, no nothing, and the government has no capacity to deal with those problems. So you have parties there that are more focused on those ecological issues. Then in other countries where there are more problems with human rights like in Rwanda, we focus more on those human rights and democracy issues – but also on environmental concerns as well. So local issues are always different, but because the international Green ideology covers environment, social justice, democracy, we are all part of the same movement.”
And it truly is a global movement, as the Liverpool congress proved. Habineza’s address to delegates as part of the closing ceremony met with a standing ovation, his speech setting out his party’s vision of hope for Rwanda but also acknowledging the dangers of his position. As well as the murder of Rwisereka, he said, DGPR activists had been beaten and imprisoned. “I hope that even if I go to prison, you will continue to stand with me,” he urged during his speech. “We are family, we are together.”
It did look in 2015 as though the DGPR might score a victory, when the supreme court agreed to hear the party’s challenge to a constitutional change allowing Kagame to continue as president beyond the end of his second term. Although the length of presidential terms will be reduced from seven years to five – as the DGPR had called for – the main challenge was lost, and the change subsequently approved in a referendum, clearing the way for Kagame to potentially remain in office until 2034.
One of the biggest barriers to democracy in Rwanda is that the concept of political opposition is not looked upon favourably by many citizens. Kagame has achieved widespread popularity, thanks in part to his leadership of what is generally seen as an impressively rapid recovery from the genocide; and with memories of 1994 still fresh, it has been easy for him to paint himself as the bringer of stability and opponents as traitors intent on stirring up trouble. The country has strict laws against denial of the genocide, and opposition politicians have been deemed to have fallen foul of these on numerous occasions.
“When you are in opposition, even members of your own family can hate you, your friends run away from you, you are like an outcast,” explains Habineza. “People take you as enemies, so we are saying we are not enemies of the country – we are opposing the government, we are not fighting the government. We love our country, we are patriotic. But we don’t agree with what is going on with policy. When you say you don’t agree with the president, people think you hate the country. So we have to tell people that not agreeing with the president is a normal thing.
“My father died in 2015, and most of my friends didn’t come to the burial. People from school, university, from my church, we had very few. And a burial ceremony, or a wedding, is where you’re supposed to see all your friends. So that was a very big indication of what politics has done to me. They think that if they come, they will have problems with the government, they will lose their jobs…”
we know that politics in Africa is not something you do as a career – it’s something you can die for.
Politics in Rwanda sounds like a grim and thankless experience. What gives Habineza the strength to carry on? “The strength comes from within. If you believe what you are fighting for is a just cause, that gives us strength and makes us sacrifice, maybe even our lives. Because we know that politics in Africa is not something you do as a career – it’s something you can die for. And some of our people have died for it, have been in prison for it, have gone into exile…so if you are not really convinced that what you are doing is the right thing, no one can convince you.
“When I left Rwanda [in 2010] and went to Sweden, I saw there was a better life I could have, maybe where there’s peace, no violence. But two years later I went back to Rwanda. Because I knew that otherwise, what I had started would die. And what we do in Rwanda is not just about being Green – it’s about giving hope to the people, that we can have democracy without fighting, using non-violence. So it’s a big vision we are carrying, which we are willing to sacrifice our lives for.”
Header Image: © James S Davis.