President Paul Kagame’s decision to pardon Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza of FDU-Inkingi and Singer Kizito Mihigo last week has generated a debate in both the mainstream and social media.
The two are part of 20,140 convicts who have been released following a Cabinet decision last week.
Ms Ingabire was convicted in 2012 was charged of three crimes including minimising the genocide while Mihigo was convicted in 2014 of conspiracy to murder the head of state, among other counts.
Of the two high profile presidential pardon recipients, it’s Ms Ingabire’s that generated a debate and controversy. In part, this is due to what she told the media after her release as well as what she is politically known to stand for.
For example, while both Mr Mihigo and Ms Ingabire thanked President Paul Kagame for the mercy, the latter reportedly added: “I didn’t plead for mercy for crimes I didn’t commit but I requested to be released based on the laws of the Republic for presidential clemency, mainly because there had been court rulings, which indicated that I had not committed any crimes.”
This claim contradicted the government position and prompted the State Minister for Justice to later emphasise to the media that Ms Ingabire was pardoned for expressing remorse for her crimes and requesting for mercy.
Beyond this controversy, the release tell us far more than what has been articulated so far.
For proponents of the decision, there are two explanations for the release: The first is that the decision reflects a merciful and caring president.
For some opposition politicians, the decision shows that the “pressure” on the government to release “political prisoners” is working. Those who claim “pressure is working” cite recent hashtags calling for the release of prisoners including Diane Rwigara, her mother and Ms Ingabire.
This postulation was summarily dismissed by President Kagame at the swearing in ceremony of the new parliament on Wednesday.
President Kagame told MPs: “When we recently released these stars, some said that maybe they were released due to pressure. Pressure here?
For other opposition politicians, including Ms Ingabire, the pardon shows opening of political space. She told the media after her release: “If you see the direction of our country today, you see that it is taking a direction where there is hope that there is opening of political space. We know that the Democratic Green Party entered parliament, now I am released, which is very good. I hope it is the beginning of the opening of political space in Rwanda.”
For those who opposed Ms Ingabire release, including yours truly, the release undermines politics of ideas by acquitting someone known to promote ethnic politics and the idea of double genocide.
The president said the need for continued “nation-building” and lessons of the past informed his decision, and rhetorically asked: “If it weren’t for nation-building, how many would be in prison [today for crimes they committed]?”
Whatever the cause of the release, what is undeniable is that the release came on the heels of a parliamentary vote in which two opposition political parties won parliamentary seats for the first time.
Since, as we have argued, this electoral outcome earned the ruling RPF party marks by helping to undermine opposition politicians outside the country who always claim that there is no democracy in the country.
We can say that regardless of its cause, the release of Ms Ingabire reflects growing confidence among Kigali’s leaders since the election. Like the entry of the Green Party and PS-Imberakuri in parliament then, the release undermines the narrative of “a dictatorship that imprisons the opposition” advanced by some opposition supporters outside the country.
We could thus aver that Ms Ingabire and Mr Mihigo release was taken more out of strength than weakness.
Considering that it’s on the democracy side of the development process that Rwanda has persistently scored low for the past two decades, we can state that both the September 2018 electoral outcome and presidential pardon have made the country smell good!
Whether the smell lasts will depend not only on what government does or doesn’t do, but also on the willingness of those still in opposition like Ms Ingabire to abandon politics of ethnicity and buy into politics of ideas based on “consensual power-sharing political settlement.”
Christopher Kayumba, PhD Senior Lecturer, School of Journalism and Communication, UR, Lead Consultant, MGC Consult International Ltd, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter account: @Ckayumba Website: www.mgcconsult.com.