Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame is, like his country, very pleasant but enigmatic.
I got a chance to talk with him for two hours today, along with a dozen or so other journalists here on a trip sponsored by the International Reporting Project. Before I get into details, let me say that Kagame is quite charming and personable.
He doesn’t act at all like a war criminal or dictator, which are some of the charges his most strident critics throw at him. Kagame comes off more like a professor, making his points at length, with a chuckle here or some slightly irritable admonishment there.
Still, we had a job to do and tried to get at some of the more critical issues swirling around this architect of an “African success story” – beginning with the perception some have that his government is regarded as authoritarian, stifling of critics and free speech.
We acknowledged that in our two weeks touring Rwanda, we had seen some pretty amazing signs of progress made in health, education and the economy. Many Rwandans say they believe things are getting better. But economic growth and democracy, as one student at the University of Rwanda told us, are two different things.
We asked Kagame about the findings from several reports, such as Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders, which rank Rwanda as very poor when it comes to media freedom, free speech and allowing for dissenting voices.
“How do I convince you?” responded Kagame, who cited other reports from World Bank and Transparency International which gave Rwanda high marks for fighting corruption and public confidence in government. Which reports do you believe, he asked.
Here are further excerpts from our conversation with Kagame:
Q: Rwanda is one of the most densely populated countries on Earth. Is curbing population growth critical to its long-term success?
PK: The population growth rate would have been even higher if we had not already taken certain measures. One of the ways we are addressing this is by investing more in the education of women … It takes a long time (to change).
Q: Many Rwandans are still desperately poor and living in isolated communities. How are you trying to reach out and help these people?
PK: Again, that’s why we are investing in education. In Rwanda, 96 percent of children receive primary education. It’s the highest rate in Sub-Saharan Africa…. Our poorest of the poor, where are they? Where were they 10 years ago, and where are they today? (He noted that per capita annual income has tripled, from $200 to $600, in ten years with the goal of reaching $1,000 by 2020.)
Q: Given the history of ethnic clashes in Rwanda which culminated in the 1994 genocide, how can you prevent another such conflict? It appears that most of the powerful positions in Rwanda are now held by Tutsis and that the majority of the population, Hutus, are not as well-represented in government.
PK: The people of Rwanda, their psychology and politics have completely changed. Genocide did not happen by accident, you know…. I don’t want to be misunderstood. Our situation is not a mathematical thing, how many Hutus and how many Tutsis. It took 200 years to get a black president in the United States…. Here, it’s not about black or white, Hutus or Tutsis. That (kind of thinking) is where the problem starts.
Q: Many in Rwanda are speculating about whether you might remain as president for a third term, rather than step down as you have promised. What do you say?
PK: (chuckling) I have to answer this question all the time. I don’t want to spend the rest of my time in office answering this question. But seriously, I did not become president because it was something I was dying to be. I don’t want to be president-for-life. I don’t think I’m that stupid….
Q: What do you think of the Arab Spring and the U.S. intervention in Libya?
PK: I think the Arab Spring has lessons for all of us. For me, I am happy it is happening. People are having their say. You can’t suppress people for too long or it explodes in your face…. (On U.S. intervention in Libya) How could you not get involved? If the U.S. had not gotten involved, people would have turned around and blamed you for that.
Q: Elaborate on how you see Rwanda serving as a financial or economic hub for all of East Africa.
PK: All of what we are trying to do is in the context of East Africa. Rwanda is land-locked with not many natural resources. Our Vision 2020 is about investing in our people with the goal of providing high-value services. We are trying to distinguish ourselves and find a niche.
Q: Rwanda receives a lot of foreign aid. Much of it comes with strings attached, with expectations and requirements from western donors. Is this causing problems?
PK: There will always be strings attached to aid. That is why our goal is to become less dependent upon aid, to be free to be who we are rather than be dictated to…. Aid has made a huge difference in health, education and agriculture here. But we wish to wean ourselves off this.
Q: You have a number of ambitious goals for Rwanda, many of them on track to be achieved. What is the most critical key to success, or the weakest link, in your strategy?
PK: The most important thing is buy-in and ownership by Rwandans. If Rwandans are not owning the process … for me this is almost an obsession. Yes, finally, they must own it. This is key!