From refugee in Uganda to leading non-violent opposition: Presidential hopeful Habineza speaks out

By Wycliffe Nyamasege
On 9 May 2024 at 01:02

Democratic Green Party of Rwanda leader Frank Habineza, vying to be Rwanda’s president in the election slated for July this year, believes his difficult upbringing as a refugee in Uganda helped shape his political life.

Born in Uganda in 1977, the 47-year-old Rwandan grew up in Uganda when the National Resistance Army (NRA) prepared to topple Milton Obote’s administration.

Speaking during a recent interview on Sanny Ntayombya’s podcast ’Long Form’, Habineza disclosed that he spent most of his childhood hiding alongside his family due to the political instability in the country at the time.

“I was born when there was war in Uganda. There were NRM rebels fighting Obote government and my region was called the Royal Triangle where the war taking place there. We used to see soldiers coming and taking our cows and we used to run,” he said, adding, “It was a sad moment but finally the war ended.”

Besides the political instability, Habineza also revealed that he and other Rwandan children had to endure constant bullying from local kids in the foreign land.

“It was a very difficult time to be in Uganda. We used to be beaten by other Ugandan kids who used to call us Banyarwanda as if Banyarwanda was a crime. I had this name of Habineza which couldn’t be hidden. Sometimes I felt like I was going to hide my name because every time they would call me Kanyarwanda,” he revealed.

“We used to fetch water from some piped water which would come from some springs in the mountains. So they find you there putting a jerrican there they hit you in the head. I could cry I say what is Munyarwanda. I go back crying. I knew that Munyarwanda was a crime. At first, I thought it was an abuse then I let it was a crime and then I said why don’t I change my name? They could tune my name and turn it into abusive words.”

He changed his name four times. First, he called himself Mugisha but faced opposition from his father. He later called himself Frasco, then Francis, and finally settled on Frank.

“I think Frank was more modern because we had some Congolese musicians like Franco,” he remarked.

When normalcy resumed in Uganda after the coup that saw President Yoweri Museveni of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) assume power, he was able to resume school, but sadly, he was forced to deal with the pain of losing his mother at an early age.

“It was a difficult process, and my mother died in between when I was in Primary 4. So that was a very difficult episode. We were three kids, so my father had a responsibility of taking care of us: three kids, one boy, and two girls. It was very difficult,” he said.

The challenging times forced him to get involved in activities of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) which was then preparing to liberate Rwanda in 1990. He was still in primary school.

"We used to attend youth meetings. The meetings were not public; we used to have them in the bushes. They also used to teach us Kinyarwanda dance. It was good," he revealed.

In 1994 after the RPF took control of Rwanda following the 100 days of the Genocide against the Tutsi he was among Rwandans who returned home. They settled in Kayonza District in the Eastern Province.

“I was here in early October of 1994. We came in a big truck. The trucks that carry coffee,” he said.

However, he could not stay for long as schools were yet to reopen and he had to go back to Uganda to resume his high school studies.

“In March 1995, I had to go back to Uganda. I had left when I was in Form Three, and by the time I was leaving, schools were yet to reopen in Rwanda. I realized I could not find a job because as a Senior Three graduate, you don’t have a diploma or any certificate. There was also pressure to enrol us in either the army or local defence force. I realized going to the army when you don’t have even an O-level certificate would be a waste of much time here because you wouldn’t be much useful,” Habineza noted.

Back in Uganda, he benefitted from the foster care of renowned Ugandan writer John Nagenda’s family, where he developed a passion for politics and media. He was also a member of the Scouts Club, Wild Life Club and Chairman of the Red Cross Club.

“I had a lot of exposure there seeing newspapers every time watching TV and reading newspapers."

It was while at high school that he thought of forming a political party to oppose Museveni’s government. He was about 17 years old.

But as fate would have it, he opted to join the National University of Rwanda in Butare, now the University of Rwanda, for his undergraduate studies after high school in 1999.

“When I went to Butare, knowing the history of the genocide in Rwanda, I thought, ’What can I contribute in Rwanda?’ I said I would put much effort into environmental protection. I also had a passion for media, inspired by my uncle who used to have a column in the New Vision.

“When I came, I got accepted in the New Times. But I wrote like three, four articles, and none of my articles was published. When I went to Butare, they made me a correspondent for the News Line. I wrote for Rwanda News Line, Umuseso, and later the Rwanda Herald, and stopped in 2003."

It’s while at Butare that he revived his idea of forming a political party in 2002.

“My love for the environment and the media pushed me into having another image of Rwanda. Seeing of what I wished new Rwanda to be. Later on that is when I decided to start a political party,” he added.

The path to starting a new party was, however, not smooth, as he was forced to shelve the idea after advice from government officials who thought he was not ready to run a party in just the second year of university.

"The officials heard me and said, ’But you are still a young man and you have not finished university. I think I was in the second year then. You don’t even have money. Political parties are not a small thing. It requires money, it requires commitment.’ They also told me, ’Maybe you are not seeing what is happening in the country. You see, there are these parties like MDR; they are having divisions, they are breaking up. But maybe when you start a new party, some people may misunderstand you and confuse you, or maybe you can become a new home for those people and they may bring trouble to you.’

“So they said, ’Maybe it’s not a good time to start a new party as a young person.’ I thought the advice they gave me was genuine. I went and told my colleagues that this is the advice I got from the people in Kigali. They think that this is a wrong time for us. It’s too risky,” he revealed.

In 2005 he graduated from the university and was immediately appointed as a personal assistant to the minister of environment, forestry, water and mines.

When the minister was dropped from the Cabinet in 2006, he joined the National Coordinator for the Nile Basin Discourse Forum in Rwanda (NBDF), a civil society platform that had over 50 NGOs involved in the conservation of river Nile.

In 2007, he officially quit RPF and opted to form the Democratic Green Movement of Rwanda Party to oppose the government of the day. After six unsuccessful attempts, his party was finally registered in 2010.

He cited the decision to break ranks with President Paul Kagame’s RPF due to ideological differences, although he remained tight-lipped on details about his presidential manifesto and what he would do differently if elected president. He noted that it would be revealed at a later date, once sanctioned by the party delegates.

With two seats in parliament and one in the Senate, the MP insists that he is determined to run a non-violent opposition in the country.

He dismissed other opposition leaders, including former coalition member Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, for lacking the best interest of the country and promoting violent opposition ideologies.

“These people, when you say you want nonviolence, they don’t believe in nonviolence, most of them. They would want you to fight. There is a connotation from East Africa where people see opposition fighting here and there, causing trouble, breaking windows, destabilizing everything. So when we say no, we don’t want to do that. Although I was born in Uganda, I don’t want to copy and paste what I see happening in Uganda to here. We have seen a lot of violence in Rwanda, we have the Genocide against the Tutsi. I was not even born here because of those problems from before,” he stated.

“We want something different to do opposition politics, but not like the ones in Uganda or Kenya. But another one where the people of Rwanda will feel safe with you. I have been in a situation where people felt unsafe with me. They said, ’When you join Franc’s party, you will have trouble and will be put in prison.’ This is what I feel is a better thing than now. People are comfortable being in the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda. People can see a future in the party, people can contribute to the state of the party. We have different ideas and we show them, and we are not killed because we have opposed the government.”