No lawyer will take up case against Rwanda’s Kagame

A Rwandan opposition political party does not want President Paul Kagame to stand for an unconstitutional third term. To prevent him and the supportive legislature from changing the national constitution, the Green Party took the case to court.

Well, it at least tried. The Supreme Court opened and dismissed the case on Wednesday because the plaintiffs cannot produce a lawyer. Nobody wants to take up the case against Kagame, a man accused of curtailing civil rights, funding rebels in neighboring countries and assassinating critics.

“Five lawyers have refused to take the case. One said he was threatened, another said God was against it, others said they were afraid or did not want to go to court against millions of Rwandans,” Green Party President Frank Habineza told Agence France-Presse.

The fact that no Rwandan lawyer will take up the case gives credence to some of Kagame’s sharpest critics, including the opposition Green Party. Numerous reports over the past few years juxtapose the human rights abuses under Kagame’s purview while he manages to attract glowing praise from the likes of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. The president continues to cast aside such claims.

“I don’t think anybody out there in the media, U.N., human rights organizations, has any moral right whatsoever to level any accusations against me or against Rwanda,” said Kagame to the Financial Times in 2011.

Those comments sparked a Twitter debate between him and British journalist Ian Birrell. The most vocal critics of Kagame tend to come from outside the country, proving to be a double edged sword. It allows Kagame to claim that he enjoys broad support at home and his critics are outsiders seeking to set back a country that experienced a genocide two decades ago.

Further complicating the story is the fact that Rwanda is a shining star in sub-Saharan Africa when it comes to improving health and well-being of its citizens. A lot of the credit goes to Kagame. For example, he made universal access to health care a main goal and his health ministry is delivering on advancing towards that promise.

On the other hand, Rwanda lacks a free press and vibrant opposition party. Kagame won his second term with more than 90 percent of the vote, a margin watchers say proves the lack of free speech in the country. And then there are the attacks. Last year, exiled Rwandan dissident Kayumba Nyamwasa was attacked in his home in Johannesburg, South Africa. Diplomats from Rwanda were expelled from South Africa shortly after for being linked to ‘illegal activities,” reported the BBC.

For years, Kagame said he would only stay in office for the constitutional limit of two terms. In the past year or so, he started to tell people he would stay in office if it was the will of the people. The legislature took that to mean that the constitution should be amended to extend the term limits for the president. And the first legal attempt to stop Kagame from staying in power failed.

“The court should consider that Green Party is not represented in court and therefore the case be canceled,” said Rwandan government lawyer Theoneste Mbonera to the court.

The Green party has until July 29 when the next hearing will take place. The odds of a lawyer joining the case against Rwanda’s powerful president appear slim.

“We have tried many lawyers who have refused because of fear,” said Green Party Secretary-General Jean Claude Ntezimana to Reuters.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.