She will be just 43 years old in a few months - precisely on October 3 - but she already possesses a resume literally a mile long! I am speaking of Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, married mother of three children, prodigious author, and accomplished grassroots organizer. Now, why would such a woman of substance resign her high-profile job at a Netherlands-based international accounting firm, where she superintended the accounting departments in 25 branches in Africa, Asia and Europe - thus giving up her comfort zone - and return home in 2009, after spending 16 years in self-exile, to dedicate herself to the rough and tumble of politics?
I mulled this poser over and over in my mind as I keenly studied newspaper photographs of the bespectacled leading Rwandan opposition figure, wearing a simple prison frock, with a bag slung over her right shoulder, as she sat pensively in court - her wrists in handcuffs - during a preliminary hearing of a treasonable felony charge leveled against her by the government. The sorry sight reduced me to tears.
It was English statesman and man of letters John Morley who intoned that "Where it is a duty to worship the sun, it is pretty sure to be a crime to examine the laws of heat." But although few would argue with the proposition that the travails of Umuhoza, an outspoken critic of Paul Kigame, have the imprimatur the Rwandan president scrawled all over, it would be extremely naïve not to take into cognizance the nuances and complexities of a multi-caste society like Rwanda. The Hutu, Tutsi and Twa ethnic nationalities that principally make up Rwanda share a common culture and language - Kinyarwanda - and are classified by anthropologists as social groups rather than separate tribes.
The odyssey of how the Hutus became what can be likened to 'Untouchables' in the Hindi (Indian) caste system - hewers of wood and fetchers of water - or 'Osu' in Igboland, while the Tutsis constitute the nobility (Brahmins in India) and 'Nwafo' ('pure-bred' in Igboland), has its origins in the mid-18th Century, when the Tutsi Nyiginya dynasty straddled the ancient Kingdom of Rwanda. King Kigeli Rwabugiri was undoubtedly the greatest of the Tutsi monarchs. The reforms he introduced included ububake - a cattle clientship that granted privileged status to a limited number of Hutus - and uburetwa - a system of Hutu forced labor. First, Germany and, later, Belgium, as colonial powers, maintained the existing class system by promoting Tutsi supremacy and hegemony.
The Belgians, in particular, lit the fuse of an incendiary discriminatory time bomb with their introduction of identity cards (precursor of apartheid South Africa's obnoxious 'Pass Law') labeling each Rwandan as either Hutu, Tutsi or Twa. Before this time, it was possible for a wealthy Hutu to purchase the higher title of 'honorary Tutsi.' Political correctness might have succeeded in preventing Tutsi politicians from openly baring their minds, but empirical evidence indicates that no member of a privileged class readily gives up the associated perks of power just at the asking.
Umuhoza's story closely mirrors that of Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the beleaguered but irrepressible leader of the Burmese pro-democracy movement. Both of them were barred from contesting the presidential elections in their respective countries. The political parties on whose popular platforms they both wanted to contest elections - the National League for Democracy (NLD) for Suu Kyi, and the United Democratic Forces (FDU), the main coalition of opposition groups, in the case of Umuhoza - were proscribed/denied accreditation by powers-that-be. They are both victims of a serial persecutory abuse of court processes. By the end of today, Umuhoza would have spent her 265th day in solitary confinement at the Kigali Maximum Security Prison.
Kigame, a Tutsi, assumed office under the transitional government arrangements in 2000, after dispensing with the charade of propping up the 'coalition government' led by Pasteur Bizimungu, a Hutu, who was starting to 'irritably' get too big for his breeches! He subsequently won presidential elections in 2003 and 2007. To be fair to Kigame, the Rwandan economy has been on overdrive under his charge. He also introduced novel constitutional changes, such as the one that reserves 24 seats and three seats for women and youths and physically-challenged persons respectively, in the 80-member Chamber of Deputies. Following the 2008 election, there are 45 female deputies in the Lower House, making Rwanda the only country in the world with a female majority in the national parliament.
But these achievements constitute no more than white sepulchers. Those that occupy the reserved seats in the Lower Chamber and all the 26 seats in the Senate are selected by a variety of bodies - not by universal suffrage - rendering the electoral process very susceptible to all kinds of manipulations designed to achieve a predetermined outcome. The Kigame-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which shot its way to power in 1994, remains the dominant political party. It has cornered the presidency and the parliament in national elections, with the party's vote consistently exceeding 70%.
RPF remains a Tutsi-dominated political party, although it claims to receive broad support from across the country. So did late Gen. Sani Abacha with the 'five fingers of a leprous hand' he approved in the name of political parties. And so did the 'new Germany' fashioned by Hitler's fascist Nazi Party. The point being made is that it is relatively easy to record whatever 'positive achievements' a leadership fancies - whether real or phantom - when it controls all the levers of coercive force.
There is ample evidence to prove that the system whereby a privileged minority lords it over a deprived and docile majority - a clear case of the tail wagging the dog, be it white on black or black on black - has a sell-by date, as demonstrated in Angola, Haiti, Jamaica, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, among others. The electoral victories of Barack Obama (in the USA) and Goodluck Jonathan (in Nigeria) clearly show that it is still possible for a candidate from a minority class or ethnic nationality to assume the highest political office in an electoral process devoid of debauchery.
While there should be no let up in the intensity and consistency of pressure being brought to bear on Kigame by the international community to quickly release Umuhoza and provide her a level playing field to fully participate in Rwandan politics, I appeal to those concerned to equally push her candidacy for such eminent international awards as the Nobel Peace Prize, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought and the Olof Palme Prize, among others, for her role as an icon of the struggle for freedom, democracy and justice - both political and social - in Rwanda and Africa.