Luc Rugamba, “A Rosa Parks in Rwanda” Jambonews, February 5, 2021
translated by Dennis Riches
Her name is Yvonne Idamange Irya Mugwiza, a thirty-year-old resident of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, who made a sensational entrance on the Rwandan political scene on January 31, 2021, following the publication of a video on YouTube. In just a few days, she has become the new sensation of the Rwandan online community with her video which has already had almost 100,000 views, with more than a thousand fiery comments in just five days.
In this hour-long video, this mother of four recounts the frustration of Rwandans in general and the people of Kigali in particular, following the erratic decisions of the authorities in their fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
What is surprising in this speech is not only the criticism of government measures but above all the manner in which she speaks. Usually, those who dare to criticize government actions from inside the country do so in a very measured tone that has become one of the specialties of Rwandans after a long years of dictatorship… It is necessary to speak with reservation and that it is better to silence an inconvenient truth, unless it allows one to attract the favor of the powerful.
In this video that went viral, Madame Idamange speaks frankly, going over four important issues.
1. The Right to Live with Dignity
Through their daily brutality and rhetoric of war, the Rwandan authorities have managed to get the population to accept that it is perfectly normal for the government to dispose of the life of the citizen as it sees fit. The mere fact of being alive makes the citizen indebted to the government, especially if he is a survivor of the genocide. In these circumstances, talking about living with dignity or enjoying one’s public rights is already a crime of lèse majesté.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, thoughtless measures, totally disconnected from the reality that the majority of Rwandans are experiencing, have been successively imposed on the population in imitation of measures taken in the West. These have turned what was originally a health crisis into a social crisis, and because of the attitude of the government, which stubbornly continues to harden measures instead of hearing the plight of its population, the social crisis is turning into a political crisis.
What makes Mrs. Idamange’s point more striking is her unrestrained tone. It was unimaginable in Rwanda just a few months ago. But today, Rwandans and especially the youngest of them, are exhausted. Authorities who have made a habit of imposing ever harsher decisions without explanation are faced with citizens who no longer agree to obey contradictory orders without asking questions.
As Mrs. Idamange states in her plea, “Yes, we are alive, but being alive is not enough, the individual also has the right to live with dignity.”
2. On Education in Rwanda
On national education, Mrs. Idamange makes a severe diagnosis about education policy. She refers to the sudden change in the language of instruction [in 2008], from French to English, which destroyed national education. Since the beginning of the pandemic, things have gotten worse as schools have been virtually closed for a year. Meanwhile, the children of leaders are sent to study abroad or attend international schools in Rwanda that continue to provide online education.
She criticized the decision to close all schools, which was announced on the evening of January 17th, when in the previous days the government had seemed to come to its senses by deciding to open all schools on January 18th, following growing protests by parents.
Ms. Idamange said, “National education has become like a playground where every new minister changes the rules as he sees fit… Basically the reason for all this is that the children of our leaders do not study here in these schools. The children of those who are supposed to represent us study abroad or in international schools that are not subject to the same conditions… but I must tell you, our leaders, that this is a sign of a lack of patriotism. But the most serious thing right now is that our children are missing two school years while those who attend international schools continue their education.”
Ms. Idamange concluded by wondering how our Ministry of National Education will manage this school year that has been run at varying speeds, especially the final classes of the academic year.
She concluded the matter by addressing the First Lady, Mrs. Jeannette Kagame: “Recently, it was announced that the number of girls facing unwanted pregnancies increased sharply during the period of confinement. I wonder if Mrs. Jeannette Kagame is aware of these figures because I have heard her say that she is concerned about the plight of young girls, especially those who face these kinds of difficulties, whom her foundation helps. I hope that you are sincere in your approach and that you are not doing all this for your foreign donors. I hope that you are going to do something to help these girls.”
3. The Right to Hope
Ms. Idamange has repeatedly said that she speaks this way because she has come to the end of her tether. This general lack of perspective is very dangerous and if the authorities do not pay the necessary attention and propose a real project for the future of the country, all these unemployed young people, without hope, risk falling into crime or drugs.
Before 2020, a Rwandan who wanted to offer himself a moment of escape in order to forget the harsh reality of daily life had the choice between two options: sport or religion.
With the pandemic, cultural activities and various sports championships, as well as bars, where people gathered to watch the games of the foreign championships very popular in Rwanda, were the first victims of confinement.
But here Mrs. Idamange, a good Christian, is especially concerned about the closure of places of worship. She recalls that Rwandans have the right of conscience and belief and wonders why places of worship were the first places to be closed: “If we can observe preventive measures at the market, why do they become impossible in a church? … Our authorities must remember that a population without beliefs or hope can become ungovernable.”
“It is true that God helps us, but he will not do anything if we do not ask for anything, so it is up to us to ask for his help. Let us pray for peace, for joy. We too have the right to happiness, and no one was created to suffer. Sometimes I feel like we are in a kind of permanent mourning, as if everything was done to make Rwandans unhappy. I don’t see why we can’t be happy. This is our right. We were created to be happy, but it seems impossible to know joy in Rwanda.”
4. Absentee Leadership
Mrs. Idamange deplored the absence of national leadership or any words of comfort and hope from the authorities throughout the crisis. Indeed, since the emergence of the coronavirus, all measures have been announced by press releases, sometimes signed by the Prime Minister or even without a signature.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have not yet seen the President of the Republic come to address the nation. I wish I had heard him say to Rwandans: “Don’t be afraid. The pandemic is here. The situation is difficult, but we have taken preventive measures. We will confine you to your home, but know that no Rwandans will run out of food or medical care. Don’t be afraid. As your leader, I will stay with you.” I don’t know if the others have heard such words, but personally I haven’t.”
President Kagame’s long absence from the public arena has even led some to believe that the president is dead, and apparently the issue of the absence of national leadership in this time of crisis is beginning to interest even the population inside the country.
A New Heroine
The release of the video propelled Yvonne Idamange Irya Mugwiza to the forefront and reactions were not long in coming.
For some, a new Rosa Parks is born while others advise the authorities to listen to a mother’s pain instead of feeling personally targeted. Still others see in her action the beginning of a change that will come from women. In Rwanda, it never bodes well when you get to the point where women have to take matters into their own hands against injustice.
And to conclude, let us leave the last word to Yvonne Idamange Irya Mugwiza in her appeal to the authorities:
“I’m not an enemy of the country nor suicidal. You can’t be suicidal when you’re a mother of four. I have known the life of an orphan myself, and I know that there are people who depend on me, but I could not remain in my corner, silent in the face of so much distress and injustice that my fellow citizens are experiencing. I had to say this and say it now. Take what I say any way you want. Put me in jail if you like. Blame me, and even if you kill me, I’m ready for all this. I am at peace with my conscience that prompted me to speak on behalf of Rwandans, to cry out their pain, to tell you that behind our smiles lies an immense pain, and that behind our silence, we are not at all satisfied with our situation…. It is time that you free Rwandans so that they can enjoy rights in their own country, that they know peace and joy …. My fellow Rwandans, it is time that you free yourself from fear and speak out, remove your distress, claim your rights and stop pretending to be happy when you are not happy at all… It is time for everyone to do what they have to do to ensure that Rwandans have peace… My name is Idamange Irya Mugwiza Yvonne, and I must tell you that I am not crazy. Do not pretend that I am mentally ill. I am not here to beg for food. I am not hungry. Also, I have not planned to commit suicide. Let no one say tomorrow that I committed suicide. My only ‘suicidal action’ is having made this video. I am a mother and my children need me… I am confined to my home. I do not risk being the victim of a road accident, and I am on good terms with my servants. They will not strangle me. If something happened to me, it would only be because of what I have said… And even if something bad happens to me, someone else will speak like me. There will always be people to denounce injustice. Today Rwanda no longer needs a leader guided by appeals to ethnic identity, whether it is a Hutu who claims to be defender of Hutus, a Tutsi defending Tutsis or a Twa defending Twa… Rwanda today needs a leader who loves Rwandans and Rwanda, who has a patriotic spirit and would be willing to sacrifice himself for his fellow citizens.”
Since the video was published, several members of the regime have been on social media calling for action against her, including the young woman’s imprisonment. There are widespread concerns about the authorities’ response.
Yvonne Idamange Irya Mugwiza was arrested on February 15, 2021 for inciting public disorder. The police report described her as having exhibited behavior that mixes “politics, criminality and madness on different media platforms.”
Before her arrest, Le Réseau international des femmes pour la Démocratie et la Paix (RifDP) made a press release with some extra information not covered in the report from Jambonews translated above. It mentions that Mrs. Idamange brought up an issue that has seldom (or perhaps never) been addressed by international media and academics who have covered the genocide memorials in Rwanda. It is the fact that the display of human remains in the memorial centers is considered by many Rwandans to be grotesque and disrespectful of the dead and of traditional Rwandan customs. The press release also relates that before her arrest, one of Mrs. Idamange’s children had been mysteriously abducted for several hours before being returned to his home. A translation of the press release follows…
The International Network of Women for Democracy and Peace (Le Réseau international des femmes pour la Démocratie et la Paix: RifDP)
February 15, 2021
Women’s Empowerment in Rwanda: A Smoke Screen
On January 31, 2021, Mrs. Yvonne Idamange Iryamugwiza, hitherto unknown in the public sphere, awakened all Rwandans with a video [posted on social media], making a distress call, calling on the Rwandan authorities to act for the good of the people, for survival, in the basic sense of the word, of the population that has become completely destitute.
This appeal is made, not for her, as she points out, but for people who are literally starving. It criticizes the authorities for the mismanagement of the country, especially the measures taken to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. These measures taken by the government to confine the entire population, she says, without solutions to the minimum nutrition needs of the population, are beginning to show serious negative effects that are leading to a humanitarian catastrophe. A country as poor as Rwanda cannot afford to confine the entire population because the vast majority live off what they produce on a day-to-day basis.
Her appeal criticizes the authorities over the mismanagement of the country in general and the non-respect of human rights, starting with the right to a decent life for the population. It stresses that the fate of genocide survivors is in many respects unfair.
She also took the opportunity to call on the Rwandan authorities to remove human bones from the genocide memorials, where the display of the bones shows a lack of decency. These deceased, who are our parents, deserve a burial that conforms with Rwandan culture. That’s how they should be honored, she concludes.
It should be remembered that popular singer Kizito Mihigo had also challenged the Rwandan authorities in a song, which led to his imprisonment and then torture and death last year. He sang about the serious breach of respect for the rights and freedoms of the Rwandan people, especially in relation to freedom of expression.
Mrs. Yvonne Idamange Iryamugwiza did not receive a response from the government to which she was addressing herself. Instead, the CNLG (National Centre for the Fight against Genocide) improvised as a government spokesman by calling Mrs. Idamange a genocide denier, even though she is a survivor of the genocide. After making her protest, her residence was besieged and one of her children was kidnapped. Her child was returned to her the next day after an alert she issued via social media. The 16-year-old, traumatized by the abduction, refuses to speak and reveal the circumstances of the abduction. The name of his attacker remains unknown.
The International Network of Women for Democracy and Peace (RifDP) expected that Rwandan women parliamentarians, the majority in parliament, would be able to defend one of their own in the name of women’s empowerment. Instead, we witnessed an unprecedented media lynching, rather than a provision of lasting solutions to the problems raised by Mrs. Iryamugwiza. When the European Parliament voted [February 10, 2021] on a resolution in favor of Mr. Paul Rusesabagina, [protesting his abduction by Rwandan authorities outside Rwanda, and detention in Rwanda] the Rwandan parliament went missing under the pretext of Covid-19 measures. However, it later came out in force to accuse the European Parliament of genocide denial.