Rwanda’s 2017 presidential election: Frank Habineza8 min read

“I believe things are getting better for Rwanda”

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As told to >> Steffen Stubager  Photos >> Steffen Stubager

I played football until one bad day.

I was 12 and I played with bigger boys and they hit a ball into my stomach and I fainted. I could not breathe for about five minutes. So, no more football. I have matured since that day. That is what this is about: maturity.

I like jogging and I jogged when I lived in Sweden. It was safe. Here I don’t feel safe. I can jog a street once but I cannot come back and jog the same street a second time. Sometimes I walk around the office because I try to be normal. I am not a prisoner, being in the office or the car all the time. But in a society like this you never know. We wanted to host a meeting last week and we normally have our meetings in hotels around the city, but this time we could not find any.

“Sorry, we cannot host you at our hotels because you are fighting the old man,” they said, openly, so we had our meeting at our office.

In spite of this, I believe things are getting better for Rwanda. Better, not worse. It was worse seven years ago. I was sitting in a hotel, on a couch just like we are sitting on right now, and a man came towards me. He wound me up and warned me that people wanted to kill me. He told me a whole list of things I had been doing the past days and what I had planned for next.

“You be very careful. We are watching you and we know everything,” he said.

This stuff began happening not long after some of our members were beaten up at our party’s congress before the last election. We were hosting around 1500 people when gunmen came in, broke everything and beat people. I was lucky, unbeaten. We identified them through photos and gave their names to the police. Some of them were former intelligence officers, others former security officials, and others military. Also, 20 of my people were arrested and I went to the police station to look for them. Some got out of prison. Some went into exile in different countries like our first vice president.

It happened because we challenged the leadership. People fear challenging leadership, or even challenging their own parents or elders; out of respect, they fear challenging anyone above them. But when it comes to leadership it stops being out of respect and just becomes fear. No one used to challenge the king. The king was always right. He would say, “Everyone should destroy these trees.” Those who agreed would go ahead without any problems but if you said, “No, we need those trees,” he would punish you heavily. He would take your cows, your land, any position of leadership if you had that, even your wife, and you would be taken into prison.

This culture went on as the country was transformed from monarchy into republic. Every time I went out I thought I was going to die. The newspaper wrote that I was going to die in 19 days. And then, after living with death threats for four or five months they came and cut the head off of my vice president. That was very, very terrible. Sometimes you need to know when you need to lay down because you just cannot stand up all the time. One day before the election, I left to Sweden for political asylum.

I lived in a refugee camp with too much snow. I thought I would come back after two months, when the election was over and it had calmed down, so I had not brought anything other than my passport. My wife and two children followed me and we saw I was wrong – completely wrong: I could not go back after two months. But after two years I asked my colleagues, “Can you continue without me?” and they answered, “If you don’t come back we will have to abandon everything. No one is willing to take up the leadership. The party will go into oblivion.”

I wanted to go back but everyone I consulted all around the world, in Sweden, in Australia, in the United States and in Belgium, said the same, “Don’t go back.”

I thought I had not committed any crime.

My wife was always against my move and meanwhile we had a third child and that was the most difficult. We had been beaten, imprisoned, some had died, some were in exile (myself included), and then I thought: have we sacrificed all this to be in the political scene and just throw it away? It haunted me. If I did not own up and come back I would regret it for the rest of my life. So I broke down. I cried. I did not know what was going to happen. My conviction was strong but my conscience was guilty. I thought, I am the one who started this party and if I had not started it, the people around me would not have joined me. They would not have ended up in exile. They would not have died.

So many times I nearly gave up. So many times people discouraged me. What do you hope to achieve? Do you think you can move the president? Look at him; he is very strong. He is very powerful. You are just talking. You will die for nothing. And I thought: maybe it is true. A good friend said, “Why don’t you just get a good life in Sweden and a good job at the UN and a good salary? Why do you continue to suffer? Why don’t you get a normal life and work in the international community and you have your Ph.D.?” Sweden is a nice country to live happily in. And there was my baby girl and in Sweden we shared the responsibility and I had a half-year with her and I felt so close to her, taking her to the school while she was not even speaking. How wrong was it to leave my kids, my baby? She was only one year old. I felt I failed as a father and a husband, and most importantly, I was not sure if I would achieve what I wanted.

My heart and soul were broken. I was fighting myself on the inside and people were fighting me from the outside. I went to Spain with some special friends from America. I needed them and they helped me realize the hardships my colleagues went through were not my fault. My American friends broke me down and helped me reconstruct, unite, and strengthen myself inside so I could face the fights around me.

And so, in September 2012 I left my family to go back to Rwanda.

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I always tried to spend two months in Sweden with them, two months here. It is an expensive lifestyle. It was a difficult decision, but with the elections, my family will come. It is very simple. They are Rwandan citizens, they have the right to come home, and as I am a candidate, people expect my wife to stand by me in the campaigns. If she is not there, people will ask many questions. We all know the government is responsible for our security. I trust the police will protect me. Earlier on, we thought the police were part of the problem, but now I think they understand the importance of having an opposition party. Things have changed. Our party was officially registered. We are members of the political parties forum. We are participating in the political process. And I am a presidential candidate. So things are changing. Not fast, but within the government people can see it is possible to have an opposition. But our national organizing secretary went missing. No one has seen him for two years. Someone called him on the phone, “Come and meet me,” and he never came back. Is he dead? Is he alive? It is a matter of time for the police to declare him completely dead. I do not know who took him and what happened so I am not accusing the government. We have asked the government to look for him. They should find him.

I had Swedish citizenship but I gave it up it in February because you cannot have two citizenships and be a presidential candidate. They also canceled my residence permit. It means I have no right to stay or work there. You know, you work for five years to get Swedish citizenship and when you get it you can go anywhere and work anywhere: in Europe, in America. You can work in the military, in the intelligence, in the police, you can vote or be voted for. People lose their houses and drown in the Mediterranean Sea to go to Europe, so to lose my Swedish citizenship is a big loss. But I accept it. I have paid many sacrifices. This is one of them.

We are nonviolent, non-rebels. We are opposing but not fighting the government. If you fight, you are fighting with guns. Some use armed rebellion but we use democratic means. We hold press conferences and go to elections. This is what we wish to have and we will have it. It will take time but what matters is to begin. An election itself is not democracy but my presence in the country since I came back shows things are getting better. I can speak out.

This will be the first democratic election. Of course people say the president is going to win. Okay, but at least there is a chance for people to give their ideas.

People do not understand; you know, they look at me and they do not know how much we have sacrificed to be where we are. They think it is easy, but I have been transformed by all I have been through. That is what I call maturity.