Paul Kagame Interview in Jeune Afrique: “Rwanda is a democracy not a monarchy”

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Constitutional reform, succession, lack of opposition, DR Congo, Burundi… The Head of State candidly responds to all the difficult questions.

It is the begging of the rainy season in Kigali, a few days to the commemoration of the Genocide that happened in April 1994, the atmosphere is quite heavy in the city. Under a chaotic sky where the showers alternate with a sunny weather, the Rwandan hive is still buzzing at full speed.

Buoyed by a 7% average growth rate over ten years, the whole country is continually under construction on an economic, social, political and psychological level. In front of the hotels in the capital, mushrooming in the sun, you find investors alongside amateur gorilla tourists and young enthusiastic members of American and European NGOs.

In this country where development is palpable, where foreign aid benefits the poorest, where corruption is invisible and security assured, the environment is scrupulously respected, everyone feels like they are being useful, moral, environmentalists and businessmen feel like they are conducting sustainable business.

The simple fact of having created this foreign legion of ambassadors of Rwanda is a miracle is probably one of the biggest hits of one who, for sixteen years, has been holding the destiny of this nation under the sign of perpetual urgency: Paul Kagame.

Indeed this is also what makes it rather serene in the face of criticism from London, Brussels, but especially in Washington about the global democratic deficit, in terms of freedoms of expression and association, of his leadership.
Rightly so perhaps, the Rwandan President believes that donors will not dare to cut off aid (which Rwanda largely depends on) of one of the few developing countries where it is not wasted or misused.

Change of Power

Not even Paul Kagame’s worst enemies have accused him of illicit enrichment, nepotism or bribery.  And even the most severe reports from organizations of human rights recognize that he enjoys considerable support across the country. The approximately 2.5 million Rwandans that his economic policy has delivered from extreme poverty during the last decade are mostly, we often forget, Hutu peasants. All you have to do to understand it is travel through the thousand hills.

For Kagame, good governance, proper functioning of institutions and the interactive dialogue that he tirelessly leads across the country are more than prerequisites for the establishment of a Western democracy. Increasingly, it is becoming an endogenous substitute for the latter, and the same applies to change of power.

Is his decision to reform the Constitution and to represent himself in 2017 a prelude to a presidency for life? Unlike other heads of state consumed by the indispensable leader of the syndrome, Kagame enjoys an undisputed record and the vast majority of Rwandans is clearly not ready to face the void of his absence. But who will tell when his presence will become counter-productive?
Interview – in English, obviously – with a head of state, who has more and more fans and “followers” (in the Twitter language of which he is an avid practitioner) in Francophone Africa from Faure Gnassingbe to Alpha Condé to Ali Bongo Ondimba and Ismail Omar Guelleh.

Jeune Afrique: A few years ago, you and I had a discussion about the delicate subject of the limitation of presidential terms and about some of the heads of state who tried to keep themselves in power by all means. You had responded that, on that point like on many others, you would be a different kind of President. However, the Rwandan constitution has now been revised and you are a candidate to your own succession in 2017. What changed you mind?

Paul Kagame: When I said that last time, I also added that politics is not only about personal choice. That one also needs to take into consideration what the people want because in the end, they are the ones who decide.

Term limits are one thing. In the current constitution, they have been reduced from 7 years to 5 years. But before we move to that new system, the vast majority of the people of Rwanda decided that I would do 7 more years. I am not the one who decided that, the people of Rwanda wanted it that way, due to the exceptional historic situation of Rwanda, from where we are from and the inherent risks associated with that type of change. In other words, when 98% of Rwandans voted yes to the change of constitution, they were letting the world know that they are not ready for a change of leadership.  Which is different from what I personally wanted for myself.

Jeune Afrique: But we can safely say that it was very predictable right?

Paul Kagame: Not at all! We held debates about it at subject for almost 3 years. And until the last minute I was asking my political party, the Rwanda Patriotic Front, to think of alternative solutions taking into consideration the three following requirements: the pursuit of socio-economic progress, continued stability, and the inevitable change of power. Their answer was clear: Yes change of leadership is inevitable in the long term, but it’s not time yet.  Kagame has to stay for a transition period of seven years; he needs to stay in order to strengthen what has been done towards making Rwanda a modern economy and democracy.

Jeune Afrique: The new constitution allows you to run for President for two more 5 years terms. Are you intending to hang on to power until 2034?

Paul Kagame: The answer is no. The purpose of this reform is to allow us to prepare for alternation of power in the best conditions possible. But it is also important that you understand the following: I know that the fact that I am candidate to my own succession in 2017 can be perceived to be a bad thing by some part of the public opinion outside Rwanda and I don’t mind because I know that I am doing it for a good cause. It really doesn’t matter to me that my name is associated to those critics as long as I know that I am doing the will of the people.

Jeune Afrique : When people say that you have become like other African Presidents who cling to power, does it hurt your feelings?

Paul Kagame: It really doesn’t affect me in any way. But it would be useful, for the sake of intellectual debate, that we make the difference between those who hang on to power for their personal interest and those who do because their people asked them to.

Jeune Afrique : Apparently you haven’t been able to groom a successful. Isn’t that a failure on your part?

Paul Kagame: No because it is not my duty to do so. Rwanda is a monarchy not a democracy. The people of Rwanda will choose their own leader, it’s not my duty to do it for me. Those who use that fact to criticize me in the name of democracy are in contradiction with themselves. I hope they realize that fact. My purpose is to develop a country, to empower its population. It’s from that same population that will emerge the man or woman who will succeed me.  And they will be chosen based on the consensus that they have the capacity to lead the country. Do not ask me who that person is, I don’t know.

Jeune Afrique : It is often said that the longer a President stays in power the less efficient they become. I suppose you don’t agree with that saying…

Paul Kagame: I am usually skeptical when people say that type of oversimplifications. First because the same standards do not apply to the private sector: many CEOs lead their companies for years without it impending the performance of the said companies. In fact, often when they leave the companies suffer. Also, it all depends on how you define “efficient”. The efficiency of a President at the beginning of his term depends on their capacity to get everything under control. That was my case. But once the institutions have been put in place, and the responsibilities delegated, the leader becomes a reference, a referee, a symbol and unifying figure for the nation. The issue is how and when to recognize the moment when staying in power becomes counterproductive. Even in case the leader fails to recognize that moment, sure enough the population will let him know. It is the population which decides when it’s time for a leader to leave, not foreign powers.

Jeune Afrique: Last year in Addis Ababa, Barack Obama said: “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions”. Do you share his point of view?

Paul Kagame: When he said strong men, I assume that Barack Obama was talking about dictators not strong leaders. A strong leader is not necessarily a bad leader. And it is better for a country to have a strong leader, this applies to the United States as well as to Rwanda. In our particular case, I don’t know what we would have become if a weak leadership had taken over the power in this country, twenty two years ago. Chaos would have been followed by oblivion.

Jeune Afrique: According to official figures, 98.4% of Rwandan voters voted yes in the December 2015 referendum of. How do you explain such a politically incorrect result?

Paul Kagame: Contrary to what was said by the media and certain foreign NGOs, absolutely no one was forced to vote yes. It is indeed a unique rate but that is because our situation is unique. A genocide -where neighbour kill neighbour, uncle kill nephews, husband kills his wife- is impossible to explain, it’s exceptional. The negative force, that pushed Rwanda to the brinks of annihilation, has been transformed into a positive force, a uniting force that is equally exceptional.  You would have to have lived what we went through to properly understand it. When you survive such a tragedy, you only have one thing in mind: never to go back to that place again. And for that, you need to have a level of unity that the world cannot begin to phantom.

Jeune Afrique: There is practically no opposition that is allowed to emerge in Rwanda today. Is that healthy for a democracy?

Paul Kagame: I am not responsible for creating an opposition, neither am I responsible for appointing my own successor. My job is to allow for the opposition to exist within what the realms of the law. There is space in Rwanda for political parties – if fact we have about a dozen of them – as long as their objective is not to take us back twenty two years. On that point, we are and will always be very vigilant.

Jeune Afrique: Let’s discuss the case of the Green Party: Its leaders say that your government views the opposition as foreigners or enemies of the state. Shouldn’t we have an open debate about it?

Paul Kagame: You should conduct your investigation and see if that’s indeed true or false. Once that’s done, please ask me that question again – unless you find out along the way that the claim is baseless. I do not have the time or the will to answer to all the gossips that are being said in the media.

Jeune Afrique: For the past year now, your neighbour, Burundi, has been going through a major crisis. It all started with the decision of President Nkurunziza to seek a third term. Why would it be okay for you to do so and not for him?

Paul Kagame: The answer is very simple. He took that decision in spite of his fellow freedom fighters, the majority of his political party, ignoring the opinion of his parliament, the constitutional court, as well as warnings from all the high ranking generals, ambassadors, members of civil society who wrote to him expressing their opposition to the pursuit of a third term. He forced elections and took all the wrong decisions that led to what we are witnessing today. The difference between me and him lays there. All of this, without even going into our respective achievements on the social and political level.

Jeune Afrique: Between you and Burundi, a war of words is raging. According to Pierre Nkurunziza’s entourage, you want to export genocide and remove Burundian leaders from power- nothing less. What is your answer to those allegations?

Paul Kagame: Nothing. We do not take part of that war of words. They are just trying to provoke us.

Jeune Afrique: Why does the Burundian regime keep saying that Rwanda is the source of all its problems?

Paul Kagame: That’s what they think or at least that what certain people are encouraging them to believe. And I am sure it enables them to hide themselves from the reality. The problems of Burundi are internal: the fact that they don’t recognise that is a problem in itself. In fact I think it’s their main problem.

Jeune Afrique: Nkurunziza is not the only one who accuses you of secretly helping the rebellion. A report of UN experts and US officials says the same thing…

Paul Kagame: Much could be said about these so-called reports of UN experts in the region. We have had so many over the years, which were oftentimes equally unfounded and irresponsible. Rwanda has its own problems and never sought to blame others or cause others trouble. I advise Burundi to do the same.

Jeune Afrique: But isn’t it right that you used to have a good relationship with Nkurunziza?

Paul Kagame: Absolutely.

Jeune Afrique: When was the last time you talked?

Paul Kagame: Our last meeting took place a few weeks before the attempted coup in Bujumbura in May 2015. We met near the border.

Jeune Afrique:If the situation in Burundi keeps getting worse, will you stand by and do nothing?

Paul Kagame: There is still room for negotiation and mediation in Burundi. But this would only happen if its leaders recognize that they need help. If it gets worse, as you say, it will be up to the UN to do the job.

Jeune Afrique: Is the UN capable of achieving that task?

Paul Kagame: It’s up to them to show there are up the task.

Jeune Afrique: Do you still stand by your threat, however difficult it is to implement, of transferring the Burundian refugees in Rwanda to other countries?

Paul Kagame: Absolutely. If those you mentioned earlier, who write reports or make statements, continue to make false claims that Rwanda arms and trains Burundian refugees… Well they should also be ready to take their responsibilities! We those refugees out of duty, but we did not invite them to come to us. They are fleeing a crisis and it is that situation that must be dealt with, not Rwanda.

Jeune Afrique: The Kinshasa government has just completed the extradition to Rwanda of a genocide suspect Ladislas Ntaganzwa. Does this mean to you that DR Congo no longer supports Hutu rebels of the FDLR?

Paul Kagame: I do not know about that. This extradition does not mean that the FDLR has ceased to exist in Congo or that these rebels have given up trying to cross the Rwandan border – in fact they tried to do so recently, three days after the Congolese Minister of Foreign Affairs had told the UN that they had almost disappeared. On one hand the extradition, on the other an attempted raid. Difficult in this case to get to the same conclusion as you.

Jeune Afrique : Do you maintain the accusation that the FDLR is fighting alongside the Burundian army?

Paul Kagame: It is not an accusation, it’s a fact. They developed close ties, prior to the outbreak of the Burundi crisis, and those ties have since been reinforced.

Jeune Afrique: For the past six months, there hasn’t been a French ambassador in Kigali. Paris has yet offered a name, the diplomat Fred Constant. But obviously, you’re not interested. Why?

Paul Kagame: First of all, I think France must clarify its position in regards to Rwanda. There are Genocidaires who have found asylum there, they are arrested and then released, their cases are dismissed, their judgment process is incredibly slow and there is a systematic objection to their extradition. There is also the Judge Trévidic report that we still do not know the way forward. Its findings were expected to unveil the truth about the attack against Habyarimana’s plane. Now, for inexplicable reasons, nothing comes of it, as if the truth does not suit France, as if a door should always be left open to perpetuate discord. That was the same with the declassification of archives announced a year ago by President Hollande: What got out of it? To what end? Playing the game of apparent normalization with one side an ambassador who works as if nothing had happened and the other side political manipulations that do not go in the direction of reconciliation… we are not interested. Let’s review all of our relations, put everything on the table, discuss and then the approval may be given to an ambassador.

Jeune Afrique: In your opinion, is France ready to open up and do some introspection?

Paul Kagame: I am not sure they are.

Jeune Afrique: So reconciliation is not for any time soon?

Paul Kagame: Maybe it’s not after all! Even though, a lot has been done over the years to make it otherwise. We even allowed French judges to come and investigate here while Rwanda has rather more to blame on France than the other way round.

Jeune Afrique: Do you at least acknowledge that so far Paris has not criticized your decision to represent yourself in 2017, unlike Washington and London…

Paul Kagame: Yes. But I am not sure exactly what it means. Do you France is doing us a favor? If it is so, we haven’t asked for it.

Jeune Afrique: Over a third of revenues and a tenth of the Rwandan GNP still come from external assistance. Isn’t it a factor of fragility for your regime, especially when some of your biggest donors are among those who criticize your leadership?

Paul Kagame: Obviously it is both a weakness and a problem. Hence our relentless fight for self-sufficiency and our refusal to let donors dictate our conduct.

Jeune Afrique: Your stand on the ICC is well known: you are strongly against it. Do you have anything against the general prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda?

Paul Kagame: No. She and I know each other well. It’s not her the problem; it is instead the perverse system she works for.

Jeune Afrique: Is Rwanda safe from Daesh and jihadist terrorism?

Paul Kagame: More than many other countries of course, but not completely. A handful of young Muslims recruited in Belgium, Rwanda and Sudan are fighting in the ranks of the Islamic State, and you surely remember the Bangui incident in August 2015, when one of our soldiers in the MINUSCA killed four of his comrades. The investigations carried out have revealed that the soldier had indirect links with Daesh. I said to the representatives of our small Muslim community to internally manage cases of radicalization. Anyways it should be understood that the police is ready at any moment to intervene.

Jeune Afrique: With Kigali as the exception, all Rwandan cities have had their names changed. It’s your decision. Why did you take it?

Paul Kagame: For two reasons. The first is psychological: many of these names have been associated with ethnic, political and personal fiefdoms in the worst sense. Both before and during the genocide. We had to break with this heavy legacy. The second is historical: we have actually given back to these cities the precise names that were theirs before colonization. Ruhengeri returned to Musanze; Gisenyi, Rubavu; Butare, Huye, etc. This therefore is not about denying history, rather it’s about  erasing a past of hatred to reconnect with a history of greatness.

Source: J A #2882 of 3-9 April 2016

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