Conversation: Paul Kagame

From the Winter Issue "Africa's Moment"

From Massarces to Miracles

A Conversation with Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda

For the past 12 years, President Paul Kagame has ruled Rwanda with a firm hand, stabilizing a country that was torn apart by genocide only 18-years ago. Nevertheless, his opponents say his rule has come at a cost—harassment of journalists, politically motivated killings, and a crackdown on human rights defenders. Above all, Kagame has been accused of supporting a violent rebel insurgency in eastern Congo, a charge he repeatedly and vehemently denies.

Kagame was born into a family that traces its roots to the last Tutsi king, Mutara III. In 1959, the building hatred between the majority Hutu and the Tutsis boiled over. Hutu tribesmen massacred tens of thousands of Tutsis, forcing more than 100,000 into exile in neighboring nations. Kagame and his family fled to a refugee camp in Uganda, where he joined a guerrilla army. By 1994, peace talks between Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front and the Rwandan government were under way, but when a plane carrying Rwanda’s Hutu president was shot down, it signaled the beginning of another Tutsi extermination. Eventually, Kagame’s force pacified the nation and seized the capital, Kigali. He restored order and installed a civilian government, but some 800,000 Tutsis had already been butchered. In March 2000, Kagame took over as president of a united and now largely peaceful Rwanda. Since then, Rwanda has become a model for development and economic growth across Africa—a prototype demonstrating that domestic harmony, a welcoming environment for international investment, and bureaucratic stability can build a prosperous nation on a continent so often marked by chaos and corruption. Still, Kagame is the first to admit that much remains to be done. Eventually, he says, his hope is to preside over a nation where all ideas can be freely expressed and all can live together harmoniously. Until then, this is very much a democracy in transition—all too often a justification to defend intolerance of dissent. For our Conversation, a wiry, soft-spoken, but quite direct Paul Kagame spent 90 minutes talking with World Policy Journal editor David A. Andelman and managing editor Christopher Shay.


WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Rwanda is often considered Africa’s biggest success story. What lessons from this transformation might be appropriate for other nations on the continent who are still grappling with some of the issues that divided Rwanda for so long?

PAUL KAGAME: It starts with people deciding to go about their business themselves, not sitting back and waiting. I don’t want to suggest that this is a simple thing. It’s full of challenges, hard work you have to put in. It’s determination. It’s the understanding that even where there is poverty, even where there are all these problems, there is also talent and enormous potential. In the case of Rwanda, even with that level of despair, Rwandans have been found to be people who are resilient, who, given an opportunity, rise to the occasion and actually deal with their issues. These are the lessons. Essential to their thinking must be taking full ownership. Ownership is key, and not blaming the wars on other people but just saying, “Okay, we are in it together, and it’s for us to deal with the matter as we should.” This is what we have found works best, so that when assistance comes in, when aid comes in, it finds people who are ready to put it to good use.

People have to choose among many priorities. There always seems to be a huge list of priorities, sometimes coming at the same time. You have an opportunity, then, to say, “No, I’ll deal with this one, then another day, I’ll deal with that one.” You have to identify where you want to start from. In our case, we have learned a lesson in trying to first give a sense to our people that they can do it.

WPJ: How did you go about doing that? Your country was very divided along tribal lines for so long. How do you get them all to pull together now?

KAGAME: It is showing them what we have got out of a country that is so divided. The most important thing here is to communicate, to be able to communicate, and we do that every day. In every part of our country, we always are talking to our people and saying, “Look, political division only resulted in a tragedy for us.” That’s all, nothing else. We try to appeal to common sense. We say, “Look at all we have done and have been through in history.” Because of divisive politics, we ended up with genocide. Nothing else—rampant poverty, disease, politics of hate, which resulted in genocide. I say, “Let’s try something else. Regardless of differences in society—you’re different from me; I’m different from you; you’re different from the other—we’re all interested in one thing, our well-being.”

WPJ: Let’s talk a little bit about how this works internally. If you have a company in Rwanda, and you’re starting to hire people, and you are from one tribe, say the Tutsis, would you hire a Hutu now?  How does that work?

KAGAME: That works because it has been brought about by the difference we have created through our politics that is different than the politics of the past. This involves emphasizing the unity between people even if they are different.

WPJ: So they do work side by side? How did you accomplish that?

KAGAME: This politics of unity is very key here, because it’s about access to education. Everybody has access to education, equally. In fact, we have raised the universal basic education to nine years. Now, we are taking that up to the end of high school.  Everybody has access to that, and the government foots the bill. Better than anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa. Now, the enrollment rate is above 92 percent, which means every child is covered whether you are coming from a Hutu family or a Tutsi family, so now you have given them this access, all of them equally. Health care covers every citizen, irrespective of where they come from. So this goes into their mind, and they say, “Well, after all, standing together we benefit more, and we make more and make better progress.” You find a family owning a business, whether it is Hutu or Tutsi, and you find they are hiring Hutus, or they are hiring Tutsis. In fact, they are hiring Rwandans. They are just looking for talent. It has come about because of these other seemingly little things we’ve been doing. I say, “Look, divided we have ended up with genocide. Together, we can rebuild this country.” And by doing some of the practical things over the last 18 years, the change helps consolidate this kind of thinking, because people are already seeing benefits.

In fact, the other day in Boston, I met 2,000 Rwandans from the United States and Canada. Many were students who were studying here or in Canada. And it doesn’t matter if they are Hutus or Tutsis. They are all talking about how the country has given them opportunity. It has given them equal opportunity whether they are Hutus or Tutsis, and they’re here studying. Many of them have finished and will go back. So efforts to try and unify the country have worked, and we’re seeing progress. They’re saying, “We are Rwandans. It doesn’t matter if we are Hutus or Tutsis.” Treating each other well, accepting one another, and working together are the benefits. And we’ve seen the country grow at the rate of eight percent per year for the last 10 years. These are not just impressive numbers; they have transformed people’s lives, translating directly into development. Between 2005 and 2011, the World Bank, our own statistics departments, and other international organizations have proved that we have lifted 1 million people out of poverty in five years.

WPJ: Let’s talk about how the outside world looks at you. You’ve been especially critical of some outside forces for their role in the 1994 genocide, particularly France. What do you think is the appropriate role of the developed world—perhaps France or other former colonial powers—in Africa’s future development?

KAGAME: You see all of these developed countries may have had a negative role in Africa. But our thinking is, let’s not get lost in our history and apportion blame. Let’s see, instead, if we can forge better partnerships. Can former colonialists, and we, the people who were colonized, work together for a better future? Of course, this may be easier said than done. But we say don’t get caught up in our history, in our past. And let’s not play the blame game, and say, “Oh, these people they came, they did this 50 years ago,” and keep talking about it. Find another way of creating a better relationship, where the continued support for our development happens, but happens in a different way where we now take charge of the processes of development ourselves.

WPJ: The developed world is in economic difficulty today. Is that impeding your development as well?

KAGAME: This affects our development in two ways. We have been speaking to our development partners and telling them, “Don’t just give us aid. Give us something else in addition, which is more important; allow us to trade with each other.” This is empowering most of our people. Second, we are saying, for what you are giving us, let’s manage it differently. Let’s manage it in a way that we are targeting those areas that build capacities so that in the long run we won’t need more aid. This is what we are grappling with presently.

WPJ: The Chinese pattern in some African countries is to come in, build a stadium or a dam that’s not really needed, and, for payment, take out resources without leaving anything of real value behind.

KAGAME: Yes. This will happen in the countries where there is still weakness, but there are other countries that have been able to leverage this new situation and the new players on the global scene. The Chinese have developed as a global power. That’s why they even rob countries. So if Africa does not put its house in order, so that we can identify what we do want, then we will continue to see some of those things happen.

WPJ: What about establishing an African union, like a European Union or currency union?

KAGAME: That is happening, but it is more complicated than that. There is already an African Union. But Africa is 54 countries with vastly different backgrounds. So making these 54 work together will take some time. But what we have done is to say, “Okay, why don’t we break down this continent into some economic organizations or communities—a West African Community, Central African, South African.” This brings 10 countries together, or 15, even five, with a lot of commonality, making it easier for them to get together. Take the East African Community, for example—Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, with a total population of about 140 million people. We are already coming to that kind of organization. We already have a customs union. We already have a common market. We are moving toward a monetary union.

WPJ: How long do you think it will take for a common currency?

KAGAME: We are moving toward a political union, meaning an African federation. It will take time. It is hard. It is going to be hard to set a specific target, but people are already talking about reaching that goal at least by 2015. But you understand that countries, with so many problems and a legacy of so many things, take a bit of time. But the customs union is already working; the common market is already working. Of course, the recent developments in Europe have not helped much. People are looking at this and saying, “Is this what we are heading for?” If so, we need to work at them more carefully.

WPJ: There are also problems between different countries. You even have problems on your borders too, in eastern Congo especially. A recent African summit in Kampala agreed to send an international neutral force. What’s the prognosis? Can there be Pan-African forces like that, dealing with such issues?

KAGAME: There can be, and there should be. We have already seen this kind of force help resolve a number of problems. We saw it in Burundi, which was actually helped by the Africans getting together. We have seen that happen in Somalia, which isn’t yet fully stable, but it is better than it was yesterday, and it is because of the Africans and the African troops. Now in our case, everything we have to do, it is always important to do with a clear context. We are in west Africa. It is Congo’s problem, but it is also Africa’s problem. Congo has nine neighbors, so the mess in Congo will affect nine countries. If in these nine countries there is any problem, it will flow back into Congo. There is no way you can parachute in a solution from outside. People don’t even understand the issues on the ground, which are extremely complex. You have had the UN helping to deal with that problem for the last 12 years. You have had close to 20,000 troops on the ground, which is expensive, but is not making a dent in the situation. Something is not right about how we are dealing with the problem.

We want to help Congo deal with these problems. The Congolese leaders themselves must understand the problem, and we can only support them. So the international force that is supposed to come in is a force that ensures some peace and security that will allow political processes to happen so that most these problems are addressed. Now, the international force that is going to monitor the border is really operating on two premises. The first is history. The border of the eastern Congo was ruined in colonial times. It divided societies. A big population of one culture, origin, and heritage lives on the other side of the border in the Congo. And depending on the governance of Congo, sometimes the leaders decide to accept these people as bonafide citizens of Congo, while other leaders have to play politics and say these are not Congolese, these are Rwandese. Indeed, the setup in Rwanda is the same setup on the other side in Congo—Hutu and Tutsi together. You have the same problem in southern Uganda, which has hundreds of Rwandese, again from the other side. But, there is no problem with Uganda on this basis, because the governance structures in Uganda and in Rwanda really don’t turn it into a problem. So the force that will be arriving must say, “Let’s be at the border. Let’s make sure nothing happens from either side of the border to aggravate the situation with this community, and then let’s allow the political solution to evolve naturally.”

WPJ: So are you going to be part of this force? My understanding is you’re not going to send troops.

KAGAME: Only because we don’t want to. As a matter of right, members of the region can send a force. But we are already playing an important role. In fact, the chiefs of the armies and the ministers of defense of 11 countries, including Rwanda, in this region are already working out a plan of how this force is to be formed and how it is to operate.

WPJ: I’m interested in the apparent link between development and strong rulers. In your case, the growth is undeniable, and you are a strong ruler. There’s no doubt about that. To achieve security and development, criticism has to be muted sometimes. It’s often cited as incitement to rebellion or genocide. How do you draw this delicate line between a strong central government and the need for democracy, which we see as a prerequisite for a thriving economy?

Kagame: My feeling is that there is a stereotyping sometimes so that the meaning of what we are doing or even what is happening gets lost. We have come from a very low base in the world, so we have to move forward. And in moving forward, we have found in our own lessons that economic development actually facilitates democratic governance. And democratic governance also supports economic transformation. They happen at the same time. One may be more visible than the other, but actually they come together. Let me show you. We have high standards for what is happening in Rwanda. People have come. They have seen economic progress taking place. They have seen rule of law established. They have also asked citizens. In fact, as the last Gallup poll reported, 86 percent of the population feels they are living in a democratic country, that they have access to unquestionable processes of elections, electing their leaders. As for rule of law, people express themselves freely.

WPJ: Still, a lot of the opposition newspapers have been closed; some journalists have been imprisoned.

KAGAME: Actually the problem is we had no papers in Rwanda—it’s not that they have been closed. This is the whole problem. They have, in fact, not been there. In the whole region, even in the Rwanda we inherited after the genocide, there was not even a single paper. We are not closing the papers that are not there. But I’ll show you what it means. The rule of law, whether it is here or anywhere, follows certain standards or beliefs. I’ll give you an example. One time I had a conversation with some Americans who came to Rwanda, and you see in their mind, they were questioning even, for example, why I would be the president of my country. Because they are saying, “You are a Tutsi.” It is not malicious. It is just some level of ignorance or where they come from. They could not understand how a Tutsi could be the president of Rwanda without a majority. Of course, I can understand this is how their mind works, how their political system works. Then I said, “When it comes to the presidency of your country and other countries, those people who later become presidents and prime ministers, they come from which majority? Is it a religious majority? Is it a racial majority? Is it an ethnic majority?” This was my question.

As I was telling them, “Why don’t you ever envisage that even in Africa or anywhere else, we could actually have this kind of situation, where people will decide freely that this is our leader?” And I told them how I became a leader of Rwanda. During the time of our struggle when I was leading the struggle, I wasn’t doing it to become the president of Rwanda. It was other issues that were making us fight—justice and rights. But that also had an element as to why, in the end, people found even a Tutsi suitable to be a president of Rwanda—a struggle that identified itself with the interests and the needs of the people.

WPJ: So you’re saying a country like Rwanda—and this may be applicable in a lot of African countries—has to go through a period of transition to get to a place where people can really begin to express themselves?

KAGAME: Absolutely. There’s no question about it. In fact, for us, we’ve gone through that transition. Indeed, we’re still going through that transition. But when people are coming to describe and define what is going on in Rwanda, they do it as if they are doing it in the United States or Europe or somewhere, and they take it out of context. They just forget that the life of Rwanda is only 18 years, from 1994. From nothing, we have been creating this nation. I remember in November 1994 I met a delegation from Europe, and one of them, a member of parliament, asked, “When are we going to have elections?” And I said, “Oh my god, can you bear with us please? Have elections?” At that time, we had three million people outside our borders. We had another two million internally displaced. And somebody was saying, “When are you going to have elections?”

WPJ: What are your plans? Will you seek to remain in power?

KAGAME: We have the Constitution in place. We have term limits. I’m serving my second and last term. I’m just hoping that another suitable person will come and continue with the work we are doing and not reverse it or break it up. But as far as I am concerned, to come back to your point, I strongly believe there is no conflict between democratic governance and social and economic development. They are just two bedfellows. They stay together. We need to do both and look long term, build institutions, and allow people to keep coming in and expressing themselves, including the media and civil society. But you go through a period of growth.

WPJ: So if you leave office, and a Hutu comes in, what’s to say the Hutus aren’t going to say, alright that’s enough of this, we’ve had rule by a Tutsi for so many years and …

KAGAME: I hope it doesn’t happen. It depends on many things. It depends on what you’ve been building in terms of institutions, but leaders are very important too. If you had a leader who’s a Tutsi or a Hutu, you could have a Tutsi come in and say, you killed us, and we are going to take revenge on you.

WPJ: It’s only been a few years. People still remember, right?

KAGAME: I’m saying you could have had a Tutsi who comes and says that. Much as you could have had a Hutu who comes and says, “We have had enough of you Tutsis.” We have hard-minded people in the society in that sense, but the best we can do is to say, “Let’s put structures in place. Let’s build institutions, so that when some of these mad people turn up, these structures can actually create constraints.”

WPJ: Do you have a nation model that you model your country after?

KAGAME: Not as such. We’ve been driven more by our own peculiar context. Still, we have had lessons from different countries that have different political systems. We have found a piece here that works for us, a piece there. In fact, this is even how we wrote our Constitution.

WPJ: So which countries did you take pieces from?

KAGAME: We can look at Singapore. We can look at South Korea. We can look at the United States. We can look at different countries in Europe. There are good things about it, yes, but for me, the most important thing is to build on our people. What can our people do together, and what are going to be their choices? Second, where we are coming from? I would have wanted private enterprise to take the lead in our development and politics to remain to facilitate that. But we have also found ourselves in a situation where government has had to play a role in allowing private enterprise to emerge in thedevelopment, because we have found the resources in our country need to come from both sides. They come from government, and they come from the private sector. But our private sector is still underdeveloped, so there is in fact more development in the government and more resources in the government. We are trying to make sure that government plays a positive role in bringing these resources to bear on development of private enterprise, which should lead our economy in the end. So in this respect, we are like a hybrid. You will find countries where there is less role of government, and this is how it has developed. They look more toward the private people. You will find other places where government is dominant and does almost everything. We call it a developmental state. In our case, it’s a developmental state insofar as that is still necessary to make sure that the private sector develops and takes on more responsibility than they are taking on today. It takes a combination for us.

WPJ: Do you think that Rwanda and other African countries would be better served if boundaries had been drawn more astutely 100 years ago? Comprised of tribes rather than geographical regions—a country for the Hutus and a country for the Tutsis, for instance? Grouping peoples together, more homogeneously.

KAGAME: In a sense, there is some reality to that. That different societies and communities that had been homogenous were fragmented and re-mixed. This has happened across Africa and caused a lot of problems. To deal with that now depends on good governance, in other words on your leaders. So the absence of such leaders creates serious problems. With good leaders, this has not been a problem. It is all dependent on certain factors that are hard to ensure all the time. At the same time, I’m not sure that even if you had all tribes governing themselves on their own, it wouldn’t take long before even within one homogenous society you’d find problems. Even if you had one tribe, it doesn’t take long before there is infighting. So much depends on the leaders.

WPJ: Rwanda’s Parliament is composed of 56 percent women, the highest percentage in the world. How has this affected female empowerment or the type of legislation that’s passed?

KAGAME: Sometimes you’d think some things would arise just out of simple common sense. For us, even during our struggle, our main goal was to mobilize everybody, young and old, men and women. The reason was obvious. You need more people, whether it is contributing money to the struggle or mobilizing fighters to go into battle. There is always need for inclusiveness. You want to bring in everybody, even people who have different views about how to deal with a problem. We were always inviting them and wanting them to be part of us, so out of that kind of thinking, it became obvious to us long ago.

In Rwanda, females constitute 53 percent of our population, so women should have rights like men—whether it is in employment, inheritance, business, anywhere. Furthermore, what logic would possibly suggest excluding 53 percent of your population, the people who contribute to the well-being of the country? From that, we said, “Look, we need to change that situation. Our women should be empowered, should have their rights, just as men do.”

It is an issue of rights. It is an issue of economics. It is also an issue of good governance. Even in our Constitution, there are provisions to ensure equality. In fact, we have changed many rules. Before, in some cases, it was illegal for women to inherit property from their parents, but we have changed the law and ensured that women have the same rights to inherit as men. We are also saying there’s no way you can have a government always led by men and not find even one woman. Now, in appointing my cabinet, the Constitution tells me I cannot have my cabinet be less than 30 percent women. Then during the elections of parliament we encourage women to participate. Finally, there’s also an agreement with all nine political parties, that for the cabinet, and the parliament, even if they have not hit the mark through elections, we shall make sure that through other processes that women represent 30 percent in parliament. We have also found that if there are laws to be passed that are gender sensitive, they have very vibrant debates, because the participants have this close to their hearts. It makes it easy.



 [Illustration: Jeff Danziger]

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