Lost in the flurry of reports from Rwanda last weekend commemorating the 1994 genocide was the news that President Paul Kagame pardoned former President Pasteur Bizimungu and released him from prison. Bizimungu had served five years of a fifteen year sentence for treason. Bizimungu was reportedly delighted (who would not be?) with the news. He was cautioned by officials to become a law abiding citizen.
Bizimungu’s initial arrest and conviction were contentious. Although there was probably some corruption mud on him, his troubles really arose from political reasons. As a Hutu, President during the early RPF era (1994 to 2000) and untainted by genocide, Bizimungu was apparently deemed to pose a credible threat to continued insider dominance by Kagame and the clique around him. After falling out with the inner leadership and resigning in 2000, Bizimungu announced his intention to contest for the top post in the upcoming election with his own new party on his own platform. However, fearing a possible return to ethnic politics, the Tutsi element was determined to prevail. Accordingly, a number of measures were adopted to make it impossible (as in Bizimungu’s case) or very difficult as regarding the effort by former Prime Minister Twagiramungu or other Hutus to run. Naturally, little of this was couched overtly in ethnic terms, even though the code was known by all.
I judged at the time that President Kagame had little to fear from an electoral challenger. He had the name recognition, the power of the military and the power of incumbency. He was the savior of Rwanda and its true leader. Given the way that Rwandan society works, his election would almost be automatic. Yet, electoral success was assured by arrest of Bizimungu and intimidation of other candidates. The message as (correctly) read by voters was continuation of Kagame’s rule.
Once won, however, the question arose of what to do with Bizimungu? Charges (even partially trumped up ones) could not be dropped as that would fly in the face of Rwanda’s very determined efforts to institute a rule-of-law regime nationwide, especially in dealing with genocidaires (which Bizimungu was not, but resolving his case prematurely would smack of favoritism). Also, failure to move forward on the Bizimungu case would indicate that the charges against him were more political than real. Finally, stubbornly proud Rwanda did not want to be perceived as caving to international pressure to free the former president. Thus, the legal process had to run its course. This involved a trial, conviction, sentencing and appeals. Only when all the legal maneuverings were complete could exercise of the presidential power of commutation be considered.
To his credit, when the time was propitious President Kagame exercised his power and had his former colleague released. I judge the decision to have been overdue, but it certainly was a mark of political maturity. Pasteur Bizimungu poses no political threat to the regime, yet his release does indicate that old animosities must pass on and that all Rwandans can and ought to live together harmoniously. That is good news. Rhetoric and reality should always match.