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Rwanda Day: What the diaspora expects of President Kagame

Rwandans abroad are summoned to mingle and to meet President Paul Kagame each year. The conference-style Rwanda Day, taking place in Germany on Saturday, is festive but not without an unspoken political undercurrent.

Rwandans living in Europe made their way to Bonn, the one time West German capital, where this year's event is being held. Kigali dispatched its trade representatives, land and property agents and stage performers were booked for the affair. The city that hosts the United Nations and several key German institutions such as DHL, Germany's main phone provider, Deutsche Telekom, is fitting for a presidential visit.

Rwanda Day organizers confirmed the World Conference Center Bonn as the venue for the gathering at the last minute. The program remained unclear to those guests selected to attend upon advance online registration. They were instructed to leave their phones at the door.

"It's the first time that I'll ever see a president. I'm 54 years old and I've never come close to a president," Alphonsine Kayinamura told DW.

The Rwandan-born social worker and chairwoman of the Bonn-based Deutsch-Afrikanisches Zentrum (German Africa Center), which seeks to build ties and change perspectives about Africa in Germany.

"Fellow Africans have been telling me that I'm lucky that Kagame is coming," Kayinamura says. "He, together with the Ghanaian president, is seen as a somebody who stands up for Africa. He is a role model in terms of environmental policies and African self-determination."

Alphonsine Kayinamura (DW/S. Oneko)

Kayinamura lays out the fabric for her umushanana - the traditional Rwandan outfit she is sewing for the day

The organizer

As Rwanda Day guests began checking into hotels around Bonn ahead of the event, Vedaste Musoni, the chairman of the Rwandan community in Germany was tied up delegating tasks and in meetings with the event's organizing committee.

"Rwanda Day is all about meeting our community, our government, but also meeting business people who are based in Rwanda and in Europe. So we're meeting all these people and then we look at what we in Europe can do for Rwanda," he says. The venue has an investment corner and spaces for private meetings.

What the diaspora can do for the country is no small question. Rwandans living abroad sent home $181.9 million (€165.7 million) in 2016/2017 in remittances and investments – an increase of 17% on the previous year, according to Rwanda's central bank. The money is sent to relatives of Rwandans living in other parts of the world. But Rwandans abroad are also closely linked with real estate developments and business at home, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which collaborated with the Rwandan government on a project to map out the diaspora, Since the first Rwanda Day in 2010, the country has recorded a steady increase in the remittances.

Vedaste Musoni (DW/S. Oneko)

Musoni who heads the Rwandan community in Germany hopes Kagame will give the community a political outlook for the country

"What we expect from the president is that he tells us where Rwanda stands today – how the economy is doing, what the plans are for the next five to 10 years," says Musoni.

Kagame is seen as a reliable political, economic and development partner internationally. He is also known for his determined but strong-handed grip on Rwanda's affairs.

The country is preparing to take in up to 500 Africans who were stranded in Libya's notorious migrant detention centers en route to Europe. German car-maker Volkswagen set up an assembly line in Rwanda, and it is testing an Uber-like taxi hailing service. The country's capital Kigali is scrupulously clean and the country has a reputation for IT hubs, start-ups, and a decade-old ban on plastic bags.

Rwanda, however, is still is grappling with legacy of its 1994 genocide, and Kagame's government is accused of oppressing the opposition and the media – within the country and abroad.

Read more: Opinion: Rwanda's Paul Kagame – an enemy of the media parading as a statesman 

In April 2019, Germany recalled its ambassador to Kigali after Rwanda accused him of "abusive" comments about Kagame and the country. It is difficult to speak to the Rwandans living abroad about such matters – especially with a presidential visit pending.

Musoni brushes criticism aside. "Not everything that we read in the press is true. I can only advise people to form their own opinions by going to Rwanda or even Rwanda Day to see the developments in the country," he says. "Some of the people who say these things are maybe not able to do what they want to do in Rwanda – and if somebody wants to do something wrong in Rwanda, they don't have the platform to do this.These people always speak badly about our president."

Read more: Rwanda's opposition rattled by killings and disappearances of members

The Kagame critic

While a chance to see and hear Kagame in Bonn may be a welcome opportunity, not everyone is convinced that event's agenda is purely social and economic. "The Rwanda Day events are very politically charged because they're organized to gather supporters in Europe and North Africa and it's the event which they use to identify who is their supporter and who is not," says Rene Mugenzi, a UK-based Rwandan human rights activist. 

Mugenzi believes the event is as much about Rwandans in the diaspora hearing about developments at home as it is about the Kigali government finding out more about them. Who could be recruit into the ruling party, who is well connected in the country they are living in, or who is active on social media and can perhaps throw in a good word with their friends and followers?

Rene Mugenzi (Privat)

In 2011 Mugenzi needed special protection due to a threat he believes came from the Rwandan government

"The embassies and the government have their network of spies or informers who gather information about, not only other Rwandans, but also the nationals of those countries where they live," Mugenzi told DW. "They try to identify who is not supporting their government, especially journalists and human rights activists – informing them how they live, how they can be approached, how they can change their opinions and how they can influence them."

Read more: Rwandan court acquits government critic Diane Rwigara

In a recent DW interview, Human Rights Watch director for Central Africa, Lewis Mudge spelled out what critics of Rwanda's government appear to be up against. "The fact that Rwanda continues to purport that it's a country of rule and law, a safe country and yet opponents continue to die and there is never meaningful investigations into the killing of these political opponents is very troubling," Mudge said.

On September 23, Sylidio Dusabumuremyi, the national coordinator of the opposition FDU-Inkingi party was stabbed to death at work, in what members of his party believe to be a politically motivated killing. Recently, the South African government requested the extradition of two Rwandans wanted for the 2014 murder Rwanda's former intelligence chief, Patrick Karegeya. Karegeya, who was found strangled in a hotel room in South Africa, had fallen out with the government in Kigali.

Human Rights Watch says South African investigators regard his murder and at least one more in which the victim was Rwandan as having been orchestrated by Kagame's government. 

"Four people have been killed from one political party this year alone and one of them disappeared. I have no doubt that this is politically motivated," Mugenzi told DW. In 2011, he himself was put under special protection in the UK after receiving, what he said was a threat on his life. A country like Germany, he says, could put a lot more pressure on Rwanda, considering the amount of development aid it receives. 

 Read more: The trauma of Rwanda's post-genocide generation

The next generation

Away from the politics and economic interests, however, a younger generation, is looking forward to the cultural aspects of the day. Arlette Munyurarembo looks forward to simply meeting fellow Rwandans, an opportunity that doesn't present itself very often in Germany. "I'm really excited to be in my community, just to be around people, because here I feel like we don't have many people from Rwanda," says the 24-year-old. She's volunteered to show visitors to the event around Bonn.

Munyurarembo has just completed her training as a nurse. She left Rwanda as a baby and grew up in Germany, but still feels Rwandan at heart. "I see myself as a Rwandan, because I was born there, my family lives there and every time I go there, I feel at home. It's hard with the language and you didn't grow up with the culture, but I still see it as my home," she explains.

Arlette Munyurarembo (DW/S. Oneko)

24-year-old Munyurarembo wants to build her own opinion about Kagame

It's her first Rwanda Day and therefore also her first encounter with the president. "I think it's really cool that he's coming," she says. "It's nice, because we can be appreciated from that - it feels like we're not in the country but he 'sees' us."

Her view is refreshing – less influenced by the politics of the past or the present, and open to new experiences. "I'm trying to get my own individual view on Kagame from seeing how he talks to us, what his message is, what he actually says, and what he thinks is important to tell us," Munyurarembo says. "I feel like from our parents you can't really learn anything about him. They have their own view on him and on politics in Rwanda in general and we simply don't understand it – even if we try to understand it, we didn't go through the same things that they went through."

You hear a wide range of opinions about Kagame, she says. "The picture that one person shows you, is a whole different picture of what the next person shows you," she says. Living abroad, she doesn't think she has had the chance to make up her own mind about the president yet, but his visit, she says, might just give her the chance to do so.

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