3 October 2012

Uganda: I'm Back to Challenge


Green party's Frank Habineza vows to register the party and win a parliamentary seat

Having failed to register his party in 2009, which meant that he could not run for President in 2010, Frank Habineza, President of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, is back from a sojourn in Sweden. In an exclusive interview with The Independent's Ostine Arinaitwe, he talks at length about democracy in Rwanda, his views on President Kagame's first two years of his second term in office, and how the Green Party plans to challenge the ruling party- Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) and take up seats in parliament next year. Follow the interview

Briefly tell us about your background?

I was born on Feb 22, 1977 in a place called Namutamba-Mityana in Uganda. My parents were refugees there. I studied at Namutamba primary school, then Progressive secondary school and in 1999; I joined Butare University [National University of Rwanda] where I studied Political and Administrative sciences till 2004.

I worked as a journalist while at the university with Umuseso and Rwanda newsline newspapers and later with Rwanda Herald with a man called Asuman Bisiika but our paper was closed down and he was later declared Persona non grata.

When I was at the University, we formed a students' association for environment protection which later turned into Rwanda environment conservation association which is now legally registered. Since then I have been heavily involved in environment conservation activities both at national, regional and continental level.

How did you join Politics?

It all started through the Rwanda environment conservation association. I was a representative of the East African environment network and then later a board member of the African network on water and sanitation and later I became a focal point of the United Nations environment programme, where we produced books for children and planted many trees in Butare [southern Rwanda].

Because of that I was appointed Personal Assistant to the [then] Minister of Environment, Forestry and Mines [Drocella Mugrewera]. I worked there for six months but there was a cabinet reshuffle and the minister was dropped.

I was offered other opportunities to work in Government but I got a lucrative job from an International NGO-Nile Basin. I was made the country director of the Nile Basin Discourse; it was a good job which was paying me 3 or 4 times more than I would get in a Government Job.

I worked there for three years from 2006-2009 and I resigned to join Politics.

You left a well paying job to join Politics?

Yes. At that time, because of my background in journalism, I had developed a critical mind trying to analyse issues and that contributed a lot to my political career. Then as an environmentalist already, I had experience in environmental issues, so I decided to start a Green Party but we realised that the biggest problem we had was not environment but democracy, so that is why we named our party Democratic Green Party of Rwanda.

We launched our party on August 14 in 2009 and I have also been involved in African Greens Politics; I was elected as the Africa Greens President and represent the African greens in the Global Greens Council.

What was lacking in Rwanda's democracy to motivate you to start a Political Party?

As people who had been part of RPF, when we were young in Uganda, we understood that RPF was going to bring vibrancy democracy in Rwanda but when we reached here, because of the war and genocide, things did not go as expected. Basically one of the things that prompted us to start a political party was issues of freedoms, freedom of press, because I was working in the media, I had seen what was happening to journalists, freedom of association, it was very hard to start an opposition political party then, and up to now it is not easy yet. And we also wanted to play a role in national building by contributing in programmes like poverty alleviation. We issued a press release then which details everything and it can be found on our website.

What structures do you have in your Political Party and how many members do you have countrywide?

In 2009, when we were trying to have the party registered, the last congress that we had at St.Paul, we had 1500 delegates, we had structures reaching all districts and local levels, so basically our membership was bigger than the delegates. Right now after what happened to us as you have heard, our congress was disrupted. My Vice president, you know what happened to him and I had to go for official duties out of the country, so after this period of two years, our membership base has gone down. So now my duty is to reconstruct our party again, we have national structures, executive committee which we showed recently but other structures will be set up after registering our party. Basically we now have three structures-National committee, district coordinators and local coordinators. Our main objective is to have people in every district.

Because the law says that you must have at least 5 people from every district and we have 30 districts, so by the time we have a congress we will have at last 5 people in every district.

Where do you hope to get money to run the party?

As I told you I had a very big job sometime back with a salary 4 times more than what people in Government get and we had our members, some from the business community contributing from their salaries. So basically we have kept our party offices running for two years even when I was abroad.

Usually Opposition political parties in Africa get funding from sources outside their countries-either from European countries or other groups, does your political party receive such money?

In Rwanda, there is a law that says parties should not receive funds from out of the country. But we want to ask Parliament to revise that law, we will propose that the state should allow parties to receive money from out of the country on condition that people reveal the source of funding and also justify how they spend that money by giving reports to authorities concerned.

Maybe they can also put a maximum of let's say Rwf1billion a year, those are some of the things we will be contesting in parliament.

How difficult is it to be an opposition politician in Rwanda?

I think the problem we have in Rwanda is that the country is still fresh from genocide and war.18 years is a very short period, so the state institutions are always on high alert of anything, because of that tension, they always think that anything can bring back problems.

So some of us understand that this process has to be gradual, we don't expect them to open up quickly but they need to open up even slowly and we exchange ideas.

Why was your Political party not registered in 2009?

One time we got permission to hold a congress but unfortunately we were told that we have to get permission when the meeting was in progress. There were about 900 delegates meeting. The other time we had a congress meeting of 1500 delegates and all of a sudden some people stood up and started throwing chairs and caused a stampede.

Were those people not party delegates?

We did not know those people and they were not on our list of members. So from that time when we asked for permission to hold a congress, the district asked us to produce evidence that we shall not fight again amongst ourselves but the Police would not give us a certificate to convince the district authorities so that went on for four months and when we petitioned the Ministry of local government to assist but there was no help.

Do you think that there was fear that your Political party would challenge the ruling party?

Yeah but I think you should ask them. But they have told us that there are some conditions we did not fulfill.

What are those conditions?

We are going to discuss with them next week to find out exactly what we should fulfill properly so that this time our party is registered.

They have not told you those conditions?

I am going to discuss with them next week but what I know is that I have the will to continue and if there are conditions to fulfill, I will do that.

Did you learn from opposition parties in Sweden and get a feel of how they operate and mobilize funds to run your party?

I was able to understand how the state of Sweden works and was also able to have a closer contact with other political parties in Sweden, not only the Green party, which is the third strongest in that country, we also established the friends of Rwandan Greens in Australia, we have a network of friends around the world. So I did a lot of work there and understand how Government works, so I believe I have better experience than before. The party members produce funds so there was no need to mobilize, and that is not our problem.

What kind of work exactly did you do in Sweden because you said recently that you went there for work?

I never said I went to Sweden to work because our party was not able to register, so we were not able to participate in 2010 elections, so I had to find other duties, so as President of African Greens, I had the duty of organizing a congress for the Greens in the world, which is called the 3rd Global Greens Congress which was held this year in Dakar-Senegal. It was a very big task because it necessitated traveling frequently between Sweden and Senegal and I also had an equally big task of registering the federation of Africa Green Parties in Burkina Faso, it was difficult because they said you are the chairman but your own party is not registered, I told them that I did not fail to register the party, I have the will and I will go back and register it.

I also had to attend meetings like CHOGM [Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) and others.

So that means you were doing Political work and not a salaried job?

You understand that very well.

In 2010 you were elected the Executive President of the African Greens Federation, what do you think got you elected? And how do you plan to use that to develop your party?

Maybe you should ask them, they must have seen something in me. I have also delivered. I have registered the federation, I organised the world congress and 80 countries attended.

I helped unite all African green parties in over 30 countries; there were alot divisions for over 20 years. We still have challenges but we move forward. So I decided to return back to make contribution in my country.

Three senior members from your party that include Secretary General Charles Kabanda, Secretary for Information, Vincent Nshimiyimana and the Deputy Treasurer, Jeanne Marie Vianney Kantengwa defected from Party accusing you of lying about the government, what do you have to say about that?

You can ask them. We finished that program; issued a press release and we closed that chapter. If they want to join, they are free to come.

Why do you think they accused you of lying about the government?

Ask them.

In any political party, there is sometimes infighting, jostling for power. Wasnt that the case?

I think you have read some stories about these things. What I can tell you is that what they were saying is not true.

Let me take you back to your Vice President Andre Rwisereka who was murdered in 2010, have you made any follow up on the case?

The Prosecutor General has promised to conduct more inquires in the case, I have also talked to Police authorities and they are working on it. We are waiting for the results.

Do you think the case was not given due diligence?

Let us wait and see. Since the dossier is under the prosecution and also in the hands of the Police, it is not good to speculate.

What would you say to people who say that opposition political parties in Rwanda are weak and don't have alternative policies to Government programmes?

I don't know about that it but our party has alternative policies, for example, we support Agaciro, but we have an alternative policy, we also have alternative policies in education, agriculture and so on.

We are an opposition party but we want to give constructive criticism, we will not give critique policies but will also give alternatives. Our party will also concentrate on research and give tangible alternatives.

What is your take on the trial of Victoire Ingabire and her challenge of the genocide ideology laws?

I have been away for two years but since the issue is still in court, let us wait for it to conclude before commenting.

What are the plans of your party ahead of the 2013 parliamentary elections?

We need to first get our party registered and then have a post registration congress which could be early next year and after that we shall establish structures and open offices throughout the districts.

Are you going to run for Parliament next year?

I will definitely run.

Shouldn't you be aiming at the highest office in the country?

We cannot have two presidents at the same time, so I will first seek ways of joining parliament. If the President's term of office expires, we will definitely think about that.

Rwanda has been accused of supporting Congolese rebel group M23 and this has seen some donor countries defer aid to Rwanda. What's your opinion on these allegations?

I have been very busy, by the time the reports came out I was preparing to come back, so I cannot comment on them now.

What do you think of the President's first two years of his second term in office?

one thing I can say is that there is improved security in the country because by the time I left there was a lot of tension, with soldiers on the streets patrolling everywhere. I remember I made a complainant about it. Some people think it is a sign of good security but to me it is a sign of insecurity. I think our country has capacity to ensure security and does not need to put soldiers on the streets. Am happy now because I don't see many soldiers on foot patrol.

Has the President failed in anything he promised Rwandans?

Am yet to evaluate, because as I have told you, I have been busy with a lot of issues and also had to make a good plan to come back but if he makes a report and assesses his performance, then I will look at that and see whether it is true or not.I understand they make performance reports, so I will wait to see his performance report.

The Government has proposed amendments in the law that allows the state security organs to tap phone conversations and read email correspondences and correspondences through the national post office and other courier service providers in the interests of the national security. However, the conversations and correspondences of the Head of State will be spared. What's your opinion on this law? Do you think the state is encroaching on individual rights of the citizen using the national security interests as a justification? How dangerous will this be both to the state, businesses and citizens?

This law is in place in many countries, actually it is even tougher in the U.S.so basically am not concerned with law, as long as I know that am not involved in any criminal activities and am told the security services will be seeking permission from judiciary to investigate or tap phones, so as long as the law is followed, am not concerned.

If the ruling party asked your party to join it in a coalition government in the nearby future, would you consider it?

Our party does not have any intention of joining the ruling party whether now or in the near future. We will strive to provide alternative policies as a constructive opposition party.

What is your last word to Rwandans?

I would like to tell them the Democratic Green Party stands for Peace because this country has seen a lot of violence, we also stand for democracy. We oppose the government in some policies and we have alternatives but we shall do that non-violently, with respect and we expect others to respect us.

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