3 June 2017

Rwanda: 'It's Not Good for a Girl to Go Into Politics'

Photo: Cyril Ndegeya/The East African
Diane Rwigara when she announced her intention to stand for president.
interview

In the scorching afternoon sun, she makes endless phone calls. She appears restless as she fumbles with papers.

"I have many meetings. So let's do the interview quickly, or unless it can wait?" asks Diane Shima Rwigara, the newest voice on Rwanda's political scene.

The 35-year-old accountant and businesswoman recently announced her intention to stand for president against incumbent Paul Kagame in the forthcoming election. The announcement caught many off guard, and elicited a massive debate.

Unlike in neighbouring Uganda or Kenya, elections in Rwanda don't trigger pandemonium and hype. Less than two months to the General Election, there is little on the ground to show that the country is headed for the polls.

However, the May 3 announcement by Diane caused more of a stir than the earlier announcement by Frank Habineza, the president of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, who also revealed his intention to contest.

"I am busy with the initial work to put together my bid," she told The EastAfrican in one of the city's suburbs where she was holding meetings with her support teams.

"There is a lot of work that goes into preparing a bid of such a nature, especially putting together the requirements," she said.

Getting supporters

Among the requirements according to the Rwandan Constitution, each candidate must submit a list of at least 600 people supporting them, with signatures against their ID numbers.

This requirement is one of the most difficult for independent or opposition candidates to fulfil because most Rwandans will not want to associate themselves with the opposition.

Some candidates wishing to take part in the polls say many people fear signing for someone who is going to stand against the incumbent and the ruling party.

But Diane says she is not worried about where she will get the signatures because she believes they are fewer than the support she has.

"My supporters are determined to sign for me because it is their constitutional right," she said. "Twenty people in each district is a small number," she added.

Unbowed

She is seemingly not deterred by a recent incident where 24 hours after making her intentions known, an unknown person leaked nude pictures, allegedly of her. The pictures circulated widely and drew mixed reactions, with some condemning the act of attempting to shame her, while others questioned her integrity.

She doesn't want to talk about the pictures. "I want to move on from that chapter; right now, I am focusing on my plans," she said. Two weeks ago, she had been scheduled to make an announcement about the pictures but she changed her mind at the last minute.

"I don't want the pictures to be the centre of attention," she said. Disowning the pictures, she said the people who shared them were in a better position to answer the questions about the source and authenticity of the photos. She maintains that the intention was to distract people from her presidential bid.

A few days after the pictures surfaced, she went to the National Electoral Commission to collect documents to begin the process of putting together the requirements.

Now, three weeks later, Diane seems to have put the scandal behind her, saying that she knew from the onset that "politics is a dirty game.

"I knew people would come up with something to discredit me," she said.

Politics from childhood

Diane says she was always interested in politics when she was growing up, though she had not anticipated that one day she would vie for the country's top office.

"Some family members used to tell me that it was not good for a girl to have such strong political opinions, or that it was not good for a girl to be so vocal," she says.

"It took me time to make peace with the fact that I am a girl who loves politics. It is who I am, I cannot change it," Diane said, adding; "I decided to go into politics because I felt that there was no politician in the country who was speaking on my behalf, or on behalf of many other Rwandans."

Growing up, she says she was vocal, questioning everything, probing beyond what seemed obvious.

She got along with her apolitical family, and freely expressed her political views.

A fight with the lion

The firstborn of six, she has fond memories of her father, Assinapol Rwigara, who died on February 4, 2015. He was a prominent businessman who owned a number of companies and buildings in Rwanda.

His death was shrouded in controversy. Police said he died when a truck rammed into his car, a Mercedes Benz. The family disputed the police version and said they suspected foul play. Till today they maintain that he was assassinated.

"We were very close, my dad and I. The best memories I have from my childhood are of me with him. He always made me feel special. He would confide in me, tell me things he never told anyone else even though I was young," she recalls.

"Every weekend, he would take us out for tours, to different hotels. Every time he travelled, he would bring gifts for all of us. He told us stories about his childhood," she adds.

Among the stories, she recalls one of how he was once left home alone as a child and a lion attacked him. He fought off the carnivore until he defeated it.

"He had a scar on his neck and he told us it was from that fight with the lion. As a child, it made me look up to him as a hero," Diane said.

She added that he helped them with their homework, especially mathematics.

Withdrawal

In a petition sent to President Paul Kagame signed by four of the children -- Diane, Aristide, Anne and Arioste -- they stated their fears that their father had been assassinated, and the accident used to cover it up.

The family said that they were living in fear after receiving threats to stop talking about their father's death.

The City of Kigali demolished the family's newly completed four-star hotel in the suburb of Kiyovu because it allegedly lacked the necessary permits. A number of properties were confiscated by city authorities, and undeveloped land was repossessed.

After that, most of the family members chose to withdraw from the public eye, a position they still maintain. But, despite pleas from her family, Diane kept speaking out through radio interviews and on social media.

"My father was everything to me. Partly, yes, I am doing this for him, but my concerns are for the whole country, the problems we face as a people. At first my family did not support my cause, but they have come to accept me and respect my decision," she said.

The US-educated accountant says that a lot of injustices have been inflicted on the Rwigara estate. They are still in court battling it out with local government authorities to repossess some of the properties.

No links to RNC

Her political ambitions have been linked to exiled groups such as the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), an opposition group formed by President Kagame's former allies.

"Most people link me to RNC because my maternal uncle Benjamin Rutabana is a known member, but that is a simplistic way of looking at things. I can't belong to a group just because my relative belongs to it," she said.

Her candidature has seemingly elicited support from the exiled groups, which share and circulate her stories, but for her that is not reason enough to label her as one of them.

Recently, a local tabloid, Rushyashya, reported that her campaign is bankrolled by exiled tycoon Tribert Ayabatwa Rujugiro, and the wife of Rwanda's former ambassador to the UN Eugene Gasana.

Diane scoffs at the allegation. "I wish I had the kind of support they allege that I have," she said adding that she finances her plans, albeit with difficultly, from her own pocket.

She said she is in business, but did not specify the kind of business.

Born in 1982, Diane went to Camp Kigali Primary School, and later joined Ecole Belge, an international school in Kigali. She has a Bachelor's degree in Finance from the California State University, Sacramento, and a Master's degree in Accounting from California State University, San Francisco.

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