Ever since Diane Shima Rwigara came out to express her political views — and later declared her intention to run for president of Rwanda in the August 4 elections — the 35-year-old has attracted praise and criticism in equal measure.
One week after nude photographs — which she has disowned — were circulated on social media a day after she announced her presidential bid, Ms Rwigara says she will not be deterred: “I will not stop. I am going to continue with my preparations. The incident made me stronger, more resilient and determined to continue with this cause,” she told The EastAfrican.
The photographs were released through an email titled “the shameless acts of Diane Shima Rwigara who wants to contest for presidency”, with the sender adding “look at our presidential candidate”. The sender identified himself/herself as Emmy Twahirwa and claimed to be a journalist.
Robert Mugabe, a journalist who has reportedly been associated with Ms Rwigara, later stated on Facebook that the photos were doctored and were the work of her detractors.
Following that, Ms Rwigara took a few days off the public scene and later told The EastAfrican that the photographs were manipulated.
The incident elicited sympathy for the US-educated activist-turned politician, with many condemning the act of shaming her and others called for investigation.
No government agency has commented on the nudes scandal nor has any official come out to publicly condemn the sharing of the photos or denounce the presidential hopeful over her supposed “questionable integrity”.
But Ms Rwigara, who on Wednesday May 10 went to the National Electoral Commission to present the list of people who will sign for her and pick documents needed for the purpose, attracted wide coverage.
As an independent candidate, she must raise 600 signatures, at least 20 from each of the 30 districts. She believes that once she makes it to the ballot, she would make a good case and race against President Paul Kagame, who is widely expected to win the August 4 polls with a landslide.
Ms Rwigara, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in finance from the California State University, Sacramento and a master’s degree in accounting from California State University, San Francisco, has surprised many with her boldness.
On February 23, she held a press conference where she described herself as a “concerned Rwandan and activist” but denied intending to engage in politics. She highlighted several issues the country was facing that she said needed to be addressed urgently. Among these, she said, were the growing levels of poverty and hunger, which she said the government did not want to recognise, let alone address.
“I am neither a politician nor a member of any political party,” Ms Rwigara told The EastAfrican shortly after the press conference, adding that she decided to speak out about the issues “because no one else appeared willing to speak about them.”
On May 3, she called another press conference, during which she announced her intention to pit candidature against President Kagame.
No freedom of press
“The reason I am contesting is because our country has a stained past. The RPF government has achieved a number of things, attempted to deliver on others but completely failed on several aspects. Rwandans still face many challenges including poverty, hunger and injustices in all sections of the society,” she said.
Ms Rwigara also said there was no freedom of press and expression in Rwanda, pointing out that none of the media were critical while those who tried to criticise the government often ended up in trouble, pointing out that she was ready to raise those concerns on behalf of the people.
“We have cases of insecurity as people disappear without trace, some are killed while others flee the country. Most Rwandans know these but won’t speak out because of fear,” she said.
Indeed, her move caught many off-guard, in a country where many people prefer silence rather than point out issues affecting them. A lot of talk followed her press conference, with many wondering where she got the guts to run for the country’s highest office.
Several other prospective candidates have announced similar intentions for the top job in Rwanda, among them Frank Habineza of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, former journalist Philippe Mpayimana and Gilbert Mwenedata, who will contest as independent candidates.
The daughter of Assinapol Rwigara, a prominent businessman and RPF member, who died in February 2015 in an accident, Ms Rwigara maintains that her political ambitions were her personal decision and should not be in any way connected to her family.
The embattled family has been in the limelight since the passing on of the tycoon after it contested the police version of the circumstances under which Mr Rwigara died. They went as far as petitioning President Kagame to call for an inquiry into the death.
Since then, the family found itself in trouble when Kigali city authorities demolished a hotel of the deceased businessman because “it did not have the necessary permits”. Several of Mr Rwigara’s properties were also repossessed by the City of Kigali administration.
Ms Rwigara maintains that she is not driven by anger or disgruntled by events surrounding her family, but says the manner in which her father died are some of the injustices she is willing to fight to correct.
Her bid has not been helped by support from ‘renowned enemies’ of Kigali, including members of the Rwanda National Congress, an exiled group which Rwanda refers to as a criminal organisation, and of which one of her exiled uncles Benjamin Rutabana is a member.
Ms Rwigara denies being a member of the group or any other political party, existing inside or outside the country.