By Parselelo Kantai and Patrick Smith
Rwanda’s president says that leaders need to understand the pressures each society experiences, or risk ending up on the wrong side of history
It was an affable President Paul Kagame in open-necked shirt and slacks who greeted the Africa Report team at his lakeside lodge some 50km from Kigali. The president had been taking a mini-vacation, prior to returning to the diplomatic circuit in mid-September with a state visit to France, followed by a round of meetings at the UN General Assembly in New York.
This had been a vacation Kagame- style, punctuated by meetings with clusters of state and party officials seeking access to a relaxed president, as well as some lengthy discussions with Mexican multi-billionaire Carlos Slim, who was visiting Rwanda for the first time, and who prompted a minor panic when it was discovered that his mobile phone didn’t work in Kigali.
Kagame’s ascent to the ranks of international summitry and the still- strong enthusiasm for his brand of disciplined development among countries such as Britain testifies to his personal diplomatic skills, and to the achievements of his central bank governor and ministers of finance, health and education.
The dramatic rebuilding of Rwanda’s economy after the 1994 genocide, in which a million Tutsi and their Hutu friends were killed in about 100 days, is hard to debate: unlike many other African states, Rwanda is due to achieve most of the Millennium Development Goals and is rapidly wiring up the country for the fastest possible broadband internet connections.
What is much easier to debate – and which is discussed at length in the following interview – is the political direction of Rwanda’s system. Is it feasible to imagine, as its authors say they do, that, in the wake of genocide, they can overwhelm ethnic identity and distrust with a determined and well policed programme of decentralised development? Is Rwanda heading for a future as a stable middle-income country that will see a gradual opening up of political and social debate?
Or are the critics who point to the example of Yugoslavia as a failed at- tempt to abolish ethnicity in an authoritarian state closer to the truth? Such critics include political science professors, indiscreet Western diplomats and aid workers, as well as members of Rwanda’s heterogenous and largely clandestine opposition.
THE AFRICA REPORT: Why the dramatic improvement in France-Rwanda relations after breaking diplomatic ties?
PRESIDENT PAUL KAGAME: Over the years, things have not been very good. So when President [Nicolas] Sarkozy came in, I think maybe he had a different opinion as to how \[his government] would deal with Africa and, in particular, Rwanda.
We met a couple of times with the president and some of his officials. They seemed to be open to a new engagement with Rwanda. So we kept meeting … a couple of times at the UN General Assembly in New York. I was invited to go to the France/Africa summit. We kept talking, the aim being to improve our relationship. Beyond the relationship between the president and I, we want to open up for business.
France’s foreign minister Alain Juppé, whom a Rwandan commission accuses of complicity in the 1994 genocide, says he will not meet you and shake your hand. Does that limit the rapprochement?
I really don’t think so because we don’t want to tie our relationship to any particular individual. We are looking at a relationship between France and Rwanda, not between Rwanda and Juppé. Especially when the head of state and others in the whole system in France are open to this sort of relationship, we think we can forge ahead irrespective of Juppé. We leave it to him to manage his own position on this relationship, so we are really not in any way bothered by his opinions.
What does each side gain from the rapprochement?
France is a player in Europe, and we think having a good relationship with [the French] is value added. France wants to relate with Africa. Given the history of Rwanda and how we have overcome all these difficulties and our contributions to many things in the region, I’m sure they find some value in having a good relationship with Rwanda.
Are you seeking an apology from France?
I don’t need to ask anybody to apologise. Our government’s position generally is not to keep on asking people to apologise or to do this or that. We don’t think it’s a good thing to spend so much time on. We are not going to be held back in our past, we are more focused on what we will achieve for the future.
You have supported military operations in Ivory Coast and Libya this year. Isn’t that a major U-turn?
We know our continent’s weaknesses as well, and we know what is right. In some cases, while the UN, France or the big powers might be wrong and do wrong things, we also know that situations sometimes invite it. There is nothing I can do about it other than saying the intervention of either the UN or France might be wrong but is better than having the situation in Ivory Coast where people are constantly killing each other. You have to choose between two wrong things and make do with the one that’s less evil than the other.
In your view, which countries in Africa are making progress?
You see it in Ethiopia – the prime minister there [Meles Zenawi] has been playing a big part in the continent. Hopefully, we can have this kind of leadership in Nigeria … Nigeria is a big country that, if it happened to make an impact for itself, would make an impact for the whole continent…
But if you have these countries struggling or leading in the wrong direction, then it affects the continent. You have a country like Kenya, which has a relatively strong economy and has good human resources. If properly managed, it can make a huge contribution to the continent. You can talk about many countries, the worst you had was Senegal. My worry has been when you have countries doing fine with good leadership, and somehow in the middle of the process things start happening and you start wondering what is going wrong.
Is the West guilty of double standards in Libya?
Actually [Muammar] Gaddafi and the way the West has been behaving are similar in a way. For example, Gaddafi was the pariah, with the whole West against him. Later, they make a deal and Gaddafi was brought back into the limelight. The whole world starts praising him, saying he’s the man to do business with, he has given up the weapons of mass destruction. So they bring him in.
I think the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was seeing the situation as ‘OK, Gaddafi’s back, we can do business with him etc.’, but at the same time this is a person who has been there for 42 years. How much longer is he bound to be there? Nobody knows, and they’re trying to know which way to go. They are helped by some voices rumbling in Libya.
So the citizen power now comes, they really take on this monster. In a way, it’s a lesson for those overlooking ordinary people. You do it at your own peril. They confronted tanks and guns. Again, this was a godsend for the West. Not only are they going to safeguard their interests, they are going to be seen as the saviours, as people on the side of human rights, so it was a gift.
The lessons I am talking about for the Africans, for the Libyans, for the leaders especially, it’s better to watch out. You need to have a barometer that keeps measuring the pressures in your society. You can ignore it … you can be there for 10 years, you can be there for 20 years, but it will blow up in your face.
What is the political barometer in Rwanda?
Every December we have the national dialogue, it’s held over two days in parliament. There are over 1,000 people from different backgrounds – villager people, different groups, civil society, people from Europe, from America, from all over Africa. They send in SMSs and call in, there is no censorship. People are asking questions, they are making contributions, they are raising issues, and that gives us an opportunity to measure. That’s the barometer I was talking about, it keeps giving an indicator of where we are and where everybody is, so that’s how we’re doing it.
How competitive are your elections? You won 93% in an election, doesn’t that put you up there with Gaddafi and Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine Ben Ali? Wouldn’t you rather have won a really close-fought election?
In any country, if you divorce the con- duct of elections from the context, you get it wrong. You know France, you remember when [Jacques] Chirac got 82%? Why did he get 82%? Why not 40%?
Because he was fighting a Front National candidate and the French couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a fascist president.
That is the context.
Are you going to respect the constitution that limits you to two terms?
Let me tell you, hypothetically, if I made the wrong decision of saying ‘I’m not going to respect the term limits, I am going to go for elections for a third time,’ I could still win – fairly and squarely. But the good thing is this person who could continue winning elections is now limited by the constitution. That’s the beauty of it, so that is democracy.
Is there a succession mechanism in Rwanda? I heard one political analyst speculating about future leaders, but he concluded that he hadn’t got a clue who it would be.
He said there’s no clue … that’s the way I like it. In the party we have a very democratic process of electing our leaders, grassroots structures. People can, through their campaigning, become whatever they want. People are aware that I am stepping down in the government, so the party will be thinking of who represents the party, who becomes its presidential candidate.
What is your response to your former allies, Patrick Karegeya and Kayumba Nyamwasa, who say you’re running a dictatorship?
They don’t represent Rwanda so I don’t care about them. They are none of my business. You ask Rwandans – ask them what they think. But for me, these fellows who failed to play by the rules created by the people, they don’t represent these Rwandans that I lead, so I don’t give a damn about them. I don’t even think about them.
A leaked cable from the US Embassy in Kigali dated August 2008 analyses the cabinet and 118 senior posts in the government and concludes that you are running an unrepresentative minority government that cannot achieve stability in the long run. What’s your reaction?
First of all, I don’t think the ambassador could represent the picture of Rwanda better than the Rwandans themselves. Are we better off today in our country than we have ever been? I would say 100% yes. Today, this government, these ministers and various others are the best thing Rwanda has had in its centuries of history. This is the number one.
Number two, have we inherited problems and are we winning with these problems? Are we making progress? Yes. Rwanda has problems – actually it is all problems … Is making good economic progress a bad thing in itself? I don’t think so, so at least we have got one good thing. Then we go to the political progress, whether it is there or not?
The fact is that we came to a genocide in 1994, with a government with the systems that were always being praised by the West. Even up to the point when it was taking place, they supported a genocidal government. So that’s why I was saying sometimes I don’t even know what the West means really. Ambassador [David] Rawson, who was here, the American ambassador during the genocide, was the one who was praising the government and making a wrong reading. Now give me a break with these fellows.
If everybody’s having access to education, having access to information and the means to communicate, how closed is the political space or how do you say this and that?
The US Embassy assessment is that there is dissatisfaction and people remain keenly committed to their ethnic identities.
And I am saying precisely that’s what makes it wrong – you would not have that situation and have the progress we are having. The results on the ground prove that what he is saying is wrong. You cannot have a vast majority of people dissatisfied and complaining about not being represented and then you have these results I’m talking about that actually are derived from representation. You would not have the kind of stability that we have today without this happening.
Does it make any sense to talk about a Rwandan model, and would it work elsewhere?
We are not so much interested in talking about it as we are in doing it. We let the results speak for themselves. After 1994, very few people were giving us a chance that we would survive. It was like we were a failed state, nothing would work.
Do you know that there are still people saying the same thing? They still don’t believe what we are doing will work, even when they have seen results. And I keep asking myself two things. First of all, they don’t provide an alternative to our situation that we’re in, and some of them actually want to keep giving an impression that it won’t work.
Where are we in Africa’s history, now with the growing interest of Asia on the continent? A time of economic transformation or another scramble for Africa’s riches?
Why is Africa a place to keep scrambling about? Why are we a place where people come and fight over us? When do we join the fight for ourselves?
There are now many powers that are competing … that is a good thing for Africa. If we changed our approach a little bit, this should be an opportunity. What the West can’t offer, the Chinese, the Indians, the Brazilians can offer. So why not leverage this?
At the same time, we must strengthen ourselves to be able to compete at that level – and that’s the relevance of integration in Africa, with the regional economic communities or at a continental level, so that we leverage the size, the volume and the strength that comes with it. The answers are there, we just need the right people to do the right things for ourselves.