By: Kingsley Opurum
The Rwandan ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. Joseph Habineza, has indepth knowledge about Nigeria having lived and worked in the country before his appointment as an envoy. In this interview with KINGSLEY OPURUM, he speaks exhaustively about the giant strides of the President Paul Kagame administration and how the country has moved on from its dark days of genocide and ethnic war.
Can you tell us about your diplomatic service and the countries you have worked before coming to Nigeria as an ambassador?
First of all, I want to thank you for making out your time to come to my office for us to discuss our countries. Concerning my diplomatic service, actually, I am new. I was posted to Nigeria here on May, 2011, but I arrived in Nigeria on 24th of August, 2011. So, this is my first diplomatic service. But, before my diplomatic appointment, I was a Minister in the Ministry of Sports, Youth and Culture for seven years. Also, before that, I was not in politics; I was a businessman. I worked for Heineken for about 15 years. I worked for Nigerian Breweries for six years in Lagos as a manager from 1998 to 2004. I also worked for other companies. I have been moving from Rwanda to Nigeria. Thereafter, when I went back to Rwanda, the president then appointed me the Minister and now a Rwandan ambassador to Nigeria.
So far, what is your perception about Nigeria?
Well, my perception was good because of my long stay in Nigeria doing business. I think I knew much about the country, especially in business before coming as an envoy. When you just come for the first time, you would want to leave but when you stay for about a week, you won’t like to go again. I remember when I wanted to go back to Rwanda, I told my boss then (Festus Odumegwu) that I would return to Nigeria as ambassador, and after a few years, I am now an ambassador here.
What is the level of bilateral ties between Nigeria and Rwanda?
Before we opened our diplomatic mission, there were good friendships and ties especially in the army. I was even just coming from the Chief of Defence Staff office now. Many of our officers come here for training either at Defence College or Jaji. There are Nigerians who are workers and businessmen in Rwanda. Now we have diplomatic mission in Nigeria, there is also Nigerian diplomatic mission in Rwanda. So far so good, they have been working on some MoUs (Memorandums of Understanding). Actually, there have been some existing agreements between the two countries, which was why President Jonathan visited Rwanda on October, 2011. There are a lot of opportunities in Rwanda and Nigerians are going to invest in Rwanda. We are even planning to organise Rwandan Day here in Abuja, Nigeria, so that West Africans will come and witness probably between October and December.
Are there some Rwandans who come here in Nigeria to do business as well?
Yes, there are some who come, especially the traders who are coming for trading in Nigeria just like the way some Nigerians go to Rwanda to do business.
Today, Rwanda is usually remembered for its genocide, which claimed about one million lives, how can you explain this?
Actually, the genocide took place from April to July and almost hundred people were dying every day, killed by their neighbours, sometimes by their relatives. Some even killed their own kids. It is a long story, but to cut it short Rwanda is not what people think. They say that we have different ethnic groups but it is not really ethnic groups per se because ethnic is about language, culture and the land, and Rwandans have the same language, culture and land. It is a very small land. It was a much organised country; people living peacefully, respecting one king. When these people saw that they were not happy about how such a small country could be so organised and also be loyal to one king who was very tall and strong, they said they were half-Europeans. The conflict was between the Hutus and the Tutsi but they all speak the same language and the same culture, except in some thinking that some are special and others are not. So, the Hutus came to power, they wanted to revenge.
Tutsi were killed. The survived ones went in exile in different countries. So, those who were in exile for more than 30 years, by 1990, they started asking for their rights under their country (Rwanda). The Rwandan government then refused to allow them in and said they were refugees. How can you refuse your citizens? The Tutsi now said ‘since you don’t want us to come back, then we will come by violence.’ They reinforced and war broke out between the former refugees (Tutsi) and the so-called Rwandans (Hutus) and even Rwandans who were not happy with the government joined in the fight. So, when they started advancing, the government started threatening them that if they advance any further it will start killing their relatives, which was in 1994. The president of that government was shot in his plane and then massive killing started. Killing with different kinds of weapons like machetes, hoes and so on. They even started killing when they check your ID card and discover you don’t belong to them. Foreigners were even killed, thinking they were Tutsi. That was about the genocide.
Who and who played a pivotal role in halting it?
It was stopped by the army being headed by Paul Kagame. So, when the army came to power, the militias ran away.
Is the impact of that genocide still felt on Kagame-led administration?
Since 1994, the government has been first of all rebuilding the country, reconciling the warring parties and re-starting development because the country was completely destroyed. The government now focuses on development, education and so on.
How can you assess Paul Kagame’s administration so far?
Actually, if you visit Rwanda today, you may not know that there was once a genocide or war there, because everything has changed. In fact, there is a total transformation now. The killers now co-exist peacefully with their victims. They have all reconciled. There is free basic education for all Rwandans. On ICT, the whole country is cabled. The government is giving out free laptops to students in school. Each child is entitled to a laptop in school. Currently, Rwanda is second world’s most investment-friendly country. You can open your company and within two hours of registration; you can start operation. President Kagame has done so well and he has continued to change Rwanda every day. There are positive changes in Rwanda everyday. Our growth is over 8 percent and we are trying to make it 11.5 percent. There is accountability. There is zero corruption. Even a policeman on the road can’t accept a dime from you no matter what. If you attempt a bribe, you will be taken to jail. Everybody is disciplined there. White ladies in Rwanda are usually seen jogging on the street in the night; nothing will happen. People walk freely with their belongings safely. Rwanda under President Kagame is very secure and it is the best for tourism. We collect a lot of revenue from tourism.
What system of government does Rwanda practice?
Presidential system of government
What’s your take on Nigerian government’s declaration of state of emergency in the three north-east states and the proscription of Boko Haram in the country?
Let me bring you up to speed. In Rwanda, we grappled with such insurgency in the north after the genocide, when the militias, the former military, were in DR Congo. Some infiltrated back into Rwanda to cause insurgency in the north. So, this kind of thing, you use strategy. Negotiation and violence, if one cannot work. And in any war sometimes, you may be compelled to apply force. What the government is doing is okay but they have to also negotiate before they fight, which I know they have done. The government will also have to understand that, sometimes, some problems of this nature could be caused by poverty and the best way to address such problem is by reducing poverty there. But the problem here is that oppositions in this country will always be looking for something to criticise the president. Even when they understand the real problem, they will still blame the government. They have to understand that if people are dying, they should not blame President Jonathan. How can you support somebody who goes to bomb a church or a mosque, wasting human lives? The life of one Nigerian is the life of all.