Dr Frank Habineza is the President of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, who in September 2018 was elected as one of two Greens MPs in the Rwandan national Parliament. In October 2018, former Australian Greens Senator Scott Ludlam caught up with him in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, to hear his extraordinary story of persecution, exile and electoral success.
SL: Do you want to start with your name and title?
FH: Dr Frank Habineza, President of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, and Member of Parliament as well.
SL: So that’s a new title – that’s quite recent.
FH: Yes – we were elected on the first of September, and were sworn in on the 19th of September.
SL: How long have you been working on that for?
FH: For almost 10 years. The party was started in August 2009, and got registered in August 2013. After we got registered we started preparing for elections. We went into the Presidential elections last year, and I was the presidential candidate. We lost. And this year we went into Parliamentary elections, and got 5% of the national vote. Two seats in Parliament.
SL: Congratulations. But it hasn’t been an easy road has it?
FH: No. It has been a very tough journey. From 2009 we broke away from the ruling party. And they took it as treason. Treachery. They were not happy at all. So we had the first President of the ruling party who joined me, and became the Secretary General of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda. He was a former Prosecutor General in the Government. They were very annoyed – the Government. It was a major defection, and with him, many followed – former ministers, ambassadors, other officials.
We have a real objective of taking over political power through democratic means, but they thought we wanted to use military means, which was not our objective. So we had problems – we were beaten, at our national congress…people with guns would stop in at our meetings, or we’d need permission to meet. The worst was when my deputy president was gruesomely murdered. On the 14th of July 2010 we found his head cut off. That was very, very bad. I had death threats myself, so I left for exile, two or three days before the elections. That was in August 2010. I went to Sweden, where I stayed for two years, and then came back in September 2012 and tried to again register the party. It did not work out until we succeeded in August 2013. It was a difficult process.
SL: In that period of exile, you spent a bit of time traveling.
FH: I did. When I was in exile I didn’t sit down, I tried to get support for different Governments, and also the Greens all over the world were supporting me. While in Sweden the Swedish Greens were very active, supporting me in Parliament and in Government. And then the Australian Greens, with Senator Bob Brown, they were very active supporting me, raising our issues with Government. The Australian Greens also arranged for me to come to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth, in 2011. For the first time we were able to meet with Government officials from Rwanda, in Perth, and there was a confrontation where they were saying “Well you don’t want to come back home, you left your party to die; you’re a coward.” So at that time I could not talk to them, I asked Senator Bob Brown to see how he could move it further. And he asked Senator Scott to talk to them, and we had Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, who was also helping us at the time. Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kevin Rudd, was also very helpful in that process. So there were some talks with them, but nothing was productive until some letters were sent from Canberra to Rwanda, to ask for guarantees, but still no guarantees were given.
SL: Guarantees of safety?
FH: Of safety if I could return, yes. So nothing was given. Instead they did invite Senator Bob Brown to come over. There was another meeting in Tanzania for Governments and some opposition parties. I got invited, from Sweden, where I was able to sit in that meeting, in Tanzania, and again, we tried to ask the Rwandan people: what was my crime; they didn’t have any crime. So we started discussing seriously if I could return because they realised there was no crime. Also, I was able to raise a lot of support, whereby I had an international lawyer, [John Leonards] from Australia, he was willing to come with me – he was with me already in Tanzania. So I was confident that if I come back and if I’m arrested, I’ll have lawyers to fight for me in courts of law. And if I’m killed… I don’t see how I could be killed, I didn’t do anything wrong. So – I took a risk and came. And then, finally we were registered in 2013.
SL: So for people from further away, how would you characterise Rwandan politics? As maybe different from what people may be familiar with elsewhere?
FH: Well Rwandan politics is a bit different because we had something which has not happened in many other countries; except for the Jewish people. We have had a genocide, which happened in just 90 days, and it claimed one million lives. It left the country completely destroyed, devastated, with no manpower, no money, nothing. Just corpses in the street. So the new government that stopped the genocide had a lot of work to rebuild the country. But the army was very involved in all that process. So at the time, nobody thought about democracy - what people wanted was just to survive, to live, and to have the country back: to have water, to have roads or electricity, to have schools, have hospitals.
So as time went by, we started realising that also we need democracy; other things, not just the economic part, but other things taking place. So it was a bit of a hurdle because on one side the Government was scared of opening up free political space because those people who had caused the genocide were very active, with guns, in the Congo, and they are still there. They had international support also. So it was always the fear that if they fully opened up political space here, political parties could be used by rebels or by foreign agents of destabilisation.
This was one of the challenges that we faced ourselves, because they were always not sure whether we are alone, or that maybe we have some foreign agents who are behind us. So that makes politics a little bit difficult for us, that major suspicion that was there. And then the threat of genocide again was there, because the people who did it are still there; and planned it. So they have put a lot of laws in place to control that, and some people have fallen victim to those laws – some politicians. Because there are some laws, but it is also in our constitution, that you have to fight for unity of Rwandans. Not to bring racism and division amongst the people. Some people tried to not respect that; they fell into trouble.
So, you could say that our politics is characterised by prudency, because of what we saw twenty years ago, but you also see now tolerance. Political parties learned to be more tolerant than before. You can see them accepting a registered party like us – that’s one of the milestones. Authority being criticised, that’s not easy for them, because most of them are soldiers and they’re not used to that. But – they’re learning, and it’s good that we’re moving together forward. So you could say that our democracy is still in a young stage. You cannot compare it to other countries. And Rwanda has chosen more consensus in democracy than confrontation in democracy. The parties we had in the 1990s before the genocide were very confrontational; were fighting every time, holding demonstrations every time on the streets, destroying peoples cars, buildings, killing each other, taking people from other parties by force, burning houses. There are so many people who lived in that period who still remember everything. So they say if political parties behave like that then the country can turn into fire again.
It’s better that people talk to each other than fight each other. They like more negotiations than confrontations. And that’s why they established in the 2003 Rwandan constitution, a national consultative forum of political parties and organisations in Rwanda. It was put in the constitution as a body that would bring politicians together, to come and discuss their confrontational views there, between themselves. The people would say you go and fight there, yourselves, but don’t bring your problems to us in the villages. They did that; that body was established and the parties could meet and discuss most of the hot issues there. And they learned; started discussing, sitting with each other even though they don’t like each other, and that’s when the thing of consensus politics was brought in. So people could say: ok we don’t agree on this, but we agree on this. They could choose, what they agree on they work on that; what they don’t agree on, they put it to the side – they discuss another day. So that would characterise our politics of today.
SL: Remarkable. So in September of 2018 you were successfully elected into the Parliament, you and another colleague. What has that been like since then? That’s such a big change.
FH: It is a big change. It’s a big achievement for the Democratic Greens Party of Rwanda. Not just for us in Rwanda, but also for greens in Africa, and also greens from all over the world. Because many greens all over the world struggled with us, for almost ten years. So it was a big achievement, a big victory. But also: it proved that the politics of peace and patience wins.
Because we chose to live the spirit of nonviolence as described in the Green charter. We tried to prove to the people of Rwanda that yes, we have different ideas, but we’re nonviolent. We are not against the people of Rwanda, but we are against some particular ideas. It was difficult to prove that, but slowly people realised that. And that was one of the gains we had this year. It was a big achievement for the country because its the first time since 1994 that an opposition party can reach Parliament. Because after 1994, there was a government of national unity, which included the ruling party that had won the war. Then they brought in parties which had not participated in the genocide. So those are the Social Democrats, and the Liberal Party, and another few parties. So they formed a Government of national unity there in a transitional Parliament – it was called the transitional national assembly. So basically there was no new party formed in all that time up to this year.
SL: So they call themselves different parties, but effectively it’s governed by the one ruling party?
FH: No there were people who had parties before the genocide – some. But those parties were divided into two – there were people who were radicals, and the moderates. The radicals participated in the genocide, and the moderates don’t participate in the genocide. So those parties that did not participate in the genocide were invited into the new government. When they made the national transitional assembly, they were also given seats in the national assembly. So there had been that arrangement, of national unity. In 2003 we had a constitution; in 2008 we had the first elections.
So basically it was a big coalition with two other parties in Parliament, for three terms. This is the fourth Parliament; that’s 20 years on, down the road we have journeyed. So it’s a historical thing that has happened this year.
SL: A few historical things have happened though; because of that consultative forum you were talking about just before; I think maybe you have some good news about that.
FH: Indeed. I think it was the 11th of October 2018, I got elected as the chairperson of the Consultative Forum. It’s a big achievement – a big milestone. And one day before that, or two days before that, the 9th of October, I got elected again as the deputy Chairman of the social affairs committee of the Parliament, which is also a big achievement for a new entrant.
SL: Truly – you’ve been in Parliament for…
FH: One month. Not yet a month.
SL: It’s really something. We’ve been talking so far mostly about what brought you here, and the path. What are your thoughts about what happens now. What are you hoping?
FH: So we have a manifesto that we campaigned for, which is a pro-people manifesto, where we identify a lot of issues that have to be resolved, but also new processes to be made: some laws which we have to put in place. We have a very good environmental program, where we have to do our best to stop climate change, stop flooding and control desertification, soil erosion, many things. Also: give clean water to people because we don’t have a lot of clean water in Rwanda. So we have all that. We have an opportunity to do this now, in Parliament. My colleague is now on the public accounts committee, and I’m on the social affairs committee, so we’ll try to do our best. We had applied for the governmental committee but we didn’t get that. But that’s ok.
SL: You can’t win absolutely everything!
FH: No. But we will try to work with other MPs to see if we can advance our agenda in different ways. So these five years we’re going to work hard, to work with everybody. We have some, what other people call private members bills - here we call them draft laws – that we are going to introduce. And then to see that we can help to advocate for peoples’ welfare.
There are a lot of problems in the villages – my committee, the social affairs committee, is concerned with a lot of peoples’ problems. They’re concerned with peoples’ disabilities, people suffering from HIV/AIDS; people who have no house, or no food; street kids, malnutrition, poor housing. Even going to environment, here, when you see people are living in places where they’re not supposed to stay, like hillsides. So basically we have a lot of work to do to make sure that the people of Rwanda can live better; that’s one of our main imperatives.
SL: One of the things that fascinates me the most is the way you were able to mobilise not just national but international networks. And so I’m wondering what your message is to people you met on the way through.
FH: Well first of all, very grateful to all the people who stood with us. All greens who stood with us, from Australian Greens, Swedish Greens, all international greens… I mean we had people all over the world, from London in the UK, from Belgium, from Germany, from America, even Pakistan, India, all over the world - New Zealand, Canada, Egypt. So people stood with us and we are very grateful. And we promise to continue promoting the Green agenda, and standing for the Green charter.