Kagame: I have not asked anyone to change constitution for me


Kagame: I have not asked anyone to change constitution for me

While Rwanda’s parliament goes through the motions of amending the constitution to allow Paul Kagame to run for a third term, the President granted New African a wide-ranging interview in which he addresses the hot topic and issues of peace and justice following the 1994 genocide. 

Q: As a president and a man, what spurs you on?

A: Well, I guess, many things; some of which I cannot easily explain. In fact it is a combination of things. It is a combination of the person and the environment. For me, therefore, I think I have benefitted from the many hardships I have grown up in, and maybe the character also. But for the character sometimes you can’t say you are responsible for it, maybe it is somebody’s nature, your parents’ for example, that you inherited, something that you have no control over.

But the combination is what drives me. If you grow up in an environment of hardship, it either breaks you or you resist it. You push it back and stand up to all the challenges it throws at you. And you find that you are driven by the urge to succeed and turn things around.

I lived through hardships in my early life as a refugee and later in the rebel struggles in Uganda and Rwanda. It has been a case of fighting for our rights all the time. It has almost become a way of life that you don’t get anything for free. For us, we have had to fight our way through the jungle, through politics, and through a lot of the things you see in the world.

Q: There is no dispute about the fact that Rwanda has changed for the better under your leadership. Looking back on this 21-year work, again, what motivates you?

A: Once you confront many challenges and progress is made, when one step of progress leads to another and to another, you feel that what you are doing is worth your energy and therefore it becomes an encouragement to keep doing what you can do. There is satisfaction in seeing that other people’s lives are being impacted in a positive way, and this gives you more energy, which drives you on.

I can see where my country has come from 21 years ago and where we are today. We can see that there is hope in the future. We want Rwanda to become prosperous, we want it to be stable, we want the people to become what they want to be. The story between 1994 and 2015 is so encouraging to everybody, myself included. It shows that no problem is insurmountable, and that if we can overcome ours, then whatever lies ahead of anybody anywhere can be confronted and overcome.

Q: Last October, in your address to Chatham House, you made a statement that in Rwanda today,  people trust each other. In your view, has the country turned the corner?

A: Absolutely, these stories are true; they are backed by evidence, by facts. The stories about the industriousness of Rwandans and their resilience, the confidence they have in themselves, and the trust that has been built around that, coupled with the results on the ground vis-à-vis where we have come from, and weighed against the context of a continent that is struggling… I think the country has turned the corner for sure. Better things lie ahead.   

Q: Rwanda is famous for having one of the highest numbers of women in parliament, in government and in other positions of power. What is it like working with so many women? Do they bring something different to decision-making and getting things done?

A: We always talk about equality and respect for life, and in Rwanda we want to translate it in real terms into something that works for us. I always say that the many problems in our history have taught us lessons, and we use these lessons to rationalise what we do, why we do it, and so on. So if you take our women, who form 52% of the population, it is important that we don’t leave them behind in whatever we do. Perhaps we understand this better than anybody because of our history.

Given where we are coming from, we need everybody’s contribution, and therefore we cannot forget our women, 52% of the population, they have a lot to offer and they bring a lot to national development. Secondly, it is an issue of rights. Women have rights like anyone else, and if we recognise that both men and women have the same rights, then we are better off for that.

But specifically on your question, much as we are talking about equality, we also realise that men and women definitely have different things to offer, so it is better to bring them together. For women in positions of responsibility, whether in cabinet or parliament or outside parliament, they bring a difference and it works very well in terms of complementarity. Women are as capable as men in everything, but women bring less rough edges in doing things and in managing issues than men [he smiles knowingly]. So …

Q:  … So they don’t give you a hard time?

A: [Laughs]. It is not so much as giving me a hard time, they are carrying out the same tasks as the men and doing the same things that we want in society. But if what they do comes without other costs, then you prefer that. Women tend to be more rational and operate more smoothly than men. While men will do some unnecessary things because they can afford to do them in a society that allows them to do so, women don’t.

So these qualities of women help add value to what we are doing. And we can’t talk dismissively about women as if they are peripheral people; these are our mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives. They are part of us. Men and women live together in homes, so by bringing them together, I am better able to manage things, better than telling them to stay aside and allow men to do the job. And after all is done, we go back home and find a woman. So it doesn’t make sense to leave them out. 

Q: You are of the view that Africa has to drive its own agenda, because Africa has a lot to teach the world. But in your Chatham House address, you said outsiders strongly opposed your attempt to use Rwanda’s traditional Gacaca system for resolving conflicts, to tackle genocide cases here. So what was their problem?

A: You see, we live in a world that I think needs constant reforms and redefinition of things and not to assume or take it that some people are superior than others, and therefore they set the standard and everyone else must follow. The world is such that there are different places and different people managing different kinds of talents. What that calls for is for people to work together rather than saying what works for them, they have set it as a standard and everyone else’s must fit in. That won’t work, because people are managing different problems in different places. So what works for you may not necessarily works for me.

So with the Gacaca system, the outsiders opposed it simply because they said it did not fit the international standard. And we asked them: “What is the international standard in trying genocide cases in a society where one section of the people has killed the other section, and there are hundreds of thousands or even millions of cases to bring to court?”

To add insult to injury, the magnitude of the problem in and of itself posed a huge problem because of the sheer numbers involved. So while we wanted justice for victims, we wanted at the same time to bring reconciliation. But these two important processes go against each other, and there is always a collision course. 

Q: A kind of Catch-22 situation?

A: Exactly. So we said to the outsiders: “Honestly, do you know what you are talking about?” If the international standard means you have to take every genocide case to the normal courts, in Rwanda we didn’t really have a functioning judiciary at the time; everything was completely destroyed. Even if we had the best judiciary in the world, trying millions of cases would have taken thousands of years.

So we said to the outsiders: “We have traditional ways of resolving our problems, though never before of this magnitude. In the end what we are looking for is what works for us and allows people to live together in the future.” Then we said: “Okay, maybe you think we are wrong, so give us a specific solution to apply.” And they had none, absolutely none, because they were aware that they couldn’t tell us to first create a functioning judiciary and only then try the perpetrators of genocide.

Interestingly, these outsiders are the ones who say, and I believe in that, that justice must be seen to be done. Then we said: “Okay, while we have this disagreement, let’s continue debating the issues, but for us, we can’t wait to resolve the problems of genocide to allow us to continue living together in the future.”

So that is what we did. And they continued complaining about the Gacaca courts which eventually tried nearly 2 million cases and allowed people to go back to their rural homes and wherever, and settle down with each other. This is why today we have the stability you see in this country, which allows us to go about our developmental activities.


Q: The Gacaca system in fact allowed both perpetrators and victims to sit together and resolve issues, so it made the work of the government easier, did it not?

A: It did, absolutely. That is another good thing about the Gacaca process. It allows both victims and perpetrators to sit together to resolve their problems. It is not like the normal court system where one side accuses the other, and the other defends itself and then waits for the judge to pronounce judgement. No. In the Gacaca system, the victims and perpetrators are the ones at the centre of the process.

As a result, we achieved perpetrators standing up and saying: “We are sorry, we are actually the ones who killed such and such a family, we will take you and show you where we threw their bodies or buried them.” They would literally bow in front of the victims and say, “We are sorry”. But this is something that some outsider would simply, by a stroke of his magical pen, say does not meet the international standard, so Rwanda is blah, blah, blah. But it worked for us. It has allowed this country to heal.

Q: And just look at the juxtaposition of the two cases. This is 1994 in Rwanda and 1994 in South Africa, where President Nelson Mandela came into power and reconciliation was the buzzword. In South Africa, reconciliation via forgiveness and national healing was hailed worldwide because the perpetrators were white, but in Rwanda your attempt to seek justice and reconciliation via the Gacaca system did not meet the international standard because the perpetrators were black. This is where your idea of Africa driving its own agenda becomes pertinent, doesn’t it?

A: Yes, absolutely. We really came under fire. Incredible fire! But we stayed the course, we insisted on saying: “We believe we are doing the right thing, the right thing that works for us and we are not going to deviate from it.” In the end, the Gacaca process allowed our people to settle down. It doesn’t mean that [the result] is perfect, far from it. We never told anybody that what we were doing was perfect, but it gave us the best we could expect from our own situation, as we dealt with the most complicated problem we had at hand.

Q: I hope Africa is going to learn a lesson from your experience, because we just cannot be pushed around all the time by outsiders.

A: Not all the time, not on things that affect our own lives. It is here that things tend to push me to the extreme end because I don’t think that human beings, self-respecting people, [allow that] and I keep asking myself what do Africans lack in order to be these wobbly kind of people and [a] society who will keep bowing to anything and anybody and just complain, instead of taking the bull by the horns and doing something about their own situations. I never find reasons for that. I don’t see why we do it as a people. That is why for me, when it comes to such things, you can count on me to be the extreme end, whatever that means. I have no room for accepting it.   

Q: In 2011, my colleague, Hichem Ben Yaiche, interviewed you for the New African April issue, and asked you this direct question about your re-election in 2010: “Will you step down at the end of this 7-year mandate which is effectively your last term in office, as provided for by the constitution?” Your answer was very emphatic: “Our constitution is clear on term limits. I have no intention, and no desire, to disrespect the constitution.” This morning I read in one of the local newspapers that 3.7 million Rwandans have signed a petition asking you to run for a third term when your two terms end in 2017. So what has changed, Mr President? Are the 3.7 million people not coaxing you to “disrespect the constitution”? What have you said to them?

A: Before I say anything to them, I say something to you. The statement I made in the 2011 interview still holds true for me today. First, I have not – and you can investigate it by asking anybody – I have not sought or asked anybody to change the constitution for me. No. I am not part of this exercise as you see it. So I see people writing that Kagame is seeking a third term. No, I am not seeking anything. 

Second, the 3.7 million Rwandans who have signed the petition and the many others besides, are the ones who are saying, let’s change the constitution – after all, we wrote it in the first place. It is not me! Therefore, if, for them, they think they are going to change the constitution, that is their business. I respect the constitution, and will continue to respect the constitution made by the people.

Now let me work on the scenario of playing the devil’s advocate and say I actually made the request to run for a third term, and so when the constitution is changed, I would fit in there. At that point, when the constitution is indeed changed and I run for a third term, I will have respected its new demands, because a constitution is what the people make. But here, the difference as against other cases, is that it is the people who want to change the constitution, not me, the president.

Q: That may be true, but how do you convince people that the push for a third term is not being remote-controlled by State House?

A: I will tell you. In some cases in Africa you may have a leader who gives the impression that people want him to stay, but in reality they want him to go. He may present himself and say, people want me. That is how sometimes it has led to problems in certain countries.

But if there was a way of knowing the truth and the people really want him to stay, there should be no problem. The problem only comes when some leaders, and their friends and families, are the ones who engineer the push. But I can assure you that in our case the push is not coming from me or my family or friends. 

Q: The people of Rwanda, as I understand it, are saying this man has been a good president for us, we still want him to continue. What’s bad about this?

A: I find nothing wrong with that, and that is why I am saying people are distorting the whole argument when they say Kagame wants a third term. I have told nobody that I want anything, believe me. As such I have simply stayed away from the whole thing. I have not been part of it and the simple reason is, I want to really be sure of what is going on.

I have had discussions with my party cadres, 2,000 of them in one room, made up of the who’s who in our party leadership, and I have told them: “Please be sober about this, let’s be sure that we are dealing with the real thing, and not people trying to influence this or that for their own interests.” I said to them: “I want to be sure about this, I want to be sure about the process, about the facts, about the realities.” That is when I will come up with my own decision, a decision which will come to me as a person who is able to make his own decisions.

This is why I have left the 3.7 million people and the many others to play it out, to convince themselves and convince others that what we are dealing with is the real thing and that it is not fake or manipulated. This is why I am saying even to you as a journalist and an analyst and somebody coming from outside our country, that you are doing us a good service in trying to understand the nuances and the whole detail of this issue, so that we know the reality of what we are dealing with. And maybe it is going to end up being another case where Rwanda charts its own course and lives by it and reaps the benefits of it, or faces the consequences.

Q: Good. But let me say that even the USA, which Africa is following so blindly, only introduced term limits in 1951 – a good 175 years after its independence from Britain, and this only after the USA had become a superpower. So why can’t Africans likewise do what suits us?

A: It is the problem of Africa. The African mind is still trapped in the past, the colonial past. Slavery and colonialism did a lot of damage to the African. He never believes in his own rights or thinks he is ever right. He always sees right in what happens elsewhere. It is a mindset issue. And it is a serious matter. So the African always seeks validation from the outside. It is a big problem!

They [outsiders] are mixing a couple of things. Among us Africans, there are people who make very serious mistakes. And these people include leaders in power, how they came to power, how they have exercised power, and maybe they have term limits and have ended up messing up and changing the constitution because they say people want them when people actually want them to go. And therefore this triggers a problem where people say: “Oh this man did terrible things, now he wants another term, so God forbid.” And they take this particular case and extrapolate it and make it apply to all Africa.

Q: A kind of one-size-fits-all solution?

A: Absolutely. And this is the problem. They say: “Oh, there is another African coming, he is like the other one”. So the term limit issue becomes the standard for the African, when in fact it is, or should be, the problem in a few particular cases. They forget that other cases in Africa may be different, which again triggers another thing: In Europe, for example, there are no term limits in the UK or Germany and in almost all the European countries. Even Australia has no term limits.

But here in Africa, the issue is almost a given, a God-given right; so term limits can happen so seamlessly here because we don’t have leaders who are not dictators, who don’t want to cling to power, who don’t manipulate things. So no term limits becomes the preserve of others, not the African.

And yet the African accepts it and says: “Oh, you know, those outside Africa can do whatever they want, but here in Africa things cannot be like that. If there are no term limits, a bad leader can manipulate things and perpetuate himself in power, and we will find it difficult to remove him.”

So the African takes refuge in that and doesn’t even ask: “How does it work in Germany? How does it work in the UK? Why don’t we do it here too and make sure it works?” We deprive ourselves of the right and ability to actually achieve it by simply saying: “No, for us, you know, we are Country X, Country Y, we are laymen, and somebody will come and stay forever even when they are doing the wrong things, so let’s agree with the Western world that we should have term limits as a way of protecting ourselves from ourselves [laughs].

They say they are protecting themselves from themselves by binding themselves with what is being suggested by the West. This is a real problem. And the confusion prevails. The insanity prevails. Apart from that, there is no reason why Africa cannot chart its own course.    


Q: So what can we do in Africa?

A: Many things. You see the mess in even Western countries which are advanced in so-called democracy, however they define it. Just look at the problems they are facing even now. So I fail to understand what they advocate as a perfect democratic system. I don’t know which one it is. Even for them, democracy manifests in different forms. It is never in one form. But they come to Africa and just kick anybody they meet on the way into line.

For me, I don’t know which democracy the West advocates. They have term limits in the USA, and no term limits in almost all of Europe. So which version are they saying Africa should go for? The American one or the European one?

Q: And yet these days the fashion in Africa is to look at the Asian Tigers and say we want to be like them. But we forget that the founding fathers who created the Asian Tigers stayed in power for a long time. They may have been elected from time to time, but they did stay for a long time to be able to build the miracle economies and countries we yearn to re-create in Africa. So how do we square the circle?

A: You know, I have a friend who came from the West to tell me how he had heard that the people of Rwanda wanted me to remain for another term, so he was advising me not to follow what the people are saying. But he contradicted himself by saying that what he thought best for me was to be like Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore. So I asked him, “What did Lee Kuan Yew do?” He said he did this and that and retired.

I said: “You are actually mixing up your whole argument. In other words, you are actually saying I should continue in office, because I haven’t yet reached the 32 years that Lee Kuan Yew served. And even today Lee Kuan Yew’s son is the prime minister. Is that what you want me to do?” I said: “You are introducing a whole new idea to me without even knowing that if I should follow the path you are suggesting to me, you will later oppose it. So we are following our own path.”

Then, another one, an American, told me: “You know, you should be like George Washington, he was a general like you, admired by everybody, and when they asked him to run for a second term, he said no.”

And I said to him: “But somebody may come and say, why don’t you be like F.D. Roosevelt? He went for four terms and was actually elected each time by the American people. And Roosevelt came long after Washington.”

So I asked him: “In your history what do you blame Roosevelt for? Do you think he was not a great leader?” He said he was. So I said, “Why do you think what works for you can’t work for others? It’s like you choose from your own system what to impose on others. But there are things that worked for you, and if I choose what worked for you, you say no, let me choose for you what will work for you. That is wrong.”

Q: Now, let me ask you a direct question. At the end of the process, when the constitutional commission has finished its work and the people asked you to stay for another term, what would you do?

A: I have remained open to that. Even with the statement I made in the 2011 interview with your colleague, I knew in my mind that I should be careful about it, when I said I respected the constitution. Respecting the constitution means respecting the constitution that is there [he taps the arm of his chair for emphasis], at that time [still tapping the arm of his chair], and that it has come in the manner it should. Not manipulated. Not tampered with. By people other than those who should. You see what I mean?

So your question about staying if asked by the people, I remain open to it as long as all the things I have described above are legitimate and right. If I discover today that there is manipulation going on, there is somebody playing games to fit me into whatever they want, I will just tell them, forget it. But if it is genuine and convincing and legitimate, I am open to the idea of staying. Yes.

This is why I want these things to play out the best they can, so that I can make my own decision, because I have a decision to make at one point.

And I have always spoken to my people, as I said to the party cadres and so on, and I have told them: “You need to act rationally, you need to think properly and always expect that even something you don’t like may happen”. So they must be prepared for all kinds of scenarios.

Q: In fact, I read that it has happened before?

A: Yes. So I was even preparing to say, don’t be surprised to come to me and I say no, because that has happened before by the way. You remember after the genocide in 1994, I was not the first president. But everything qualified me to be, meaning everybody wanted me to be; between the opposition and our party, they wanted me to be.

You remember there was an earlier Arusha Agreement, which had brought in opposition parties and our group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The RPF almost took it for granted that I was the president because I was the commander of the forces that fought in the bush and I was also number two in the political leadership of the RPF, which by the way also happened by default because our first leader had been killed at the beginning of the war in October 1990.

In fact when our first leader [Fred Rwigyema] was killed, I was number three. There was the chairman who was the commander who got killed, there was the vice chairman [Pasteur Bizimungu], and I was there.

When the commander and chairman died, everybody came to me and said you must take over. I said “No, there is the vice chairman”. And what made it difficult for us was that when the vice chairman heard that the chairman had died and there were problems at the warfront, he kind of ran away. He went into hiding literally. He actually went to Tanzania, lay low, and disappeared.

Q: And you didn’t want to take over?

A: No. I told them to go and look for the vice chairman.  So they went to look for him, and after a hard struggle they got him to accept coming back. That was during the war. Then after the war, when everybody had assumed that I was going to be the president, I said, “No, I am not prepared, give me any other role and I will play it.” So that is how our former president, Bizimungu, came in, until after 6 years when he ran into problems with parliament for the things he had done.  I became president in 2000.

But for me this whole issue of being president, clearly doesn’t appeal so much to me. But for all that I have done to serve my people, and even to serve my own conscience, if the people say to me, “President, you are tired or we are tired of you, you must go”, I will go that very day. I wouldn’t give anybody trouble at all.

And this is what makes me say if the current push to make me stay plays out to my satisfaction, that there are no games being played, that it is genuine, and also people are not becoming too dependent on me, and that they have a genuine problem, maybe they need time to choose another leader but now is not the time, I remain open to the idea of staying. But I am not the one driving it. NA


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Written by Baffour Ankomah

Baffour Ankomah is New African's current Editor at Large. He has spent much of his 39 years of journalism at the magazine, having served as its Assistant Editor for 6 years, Deputy Editor for 5 years, and Editor for 15 years, retiring from active service in 2014. In 39 years of his journalism career - Africa and his many causes have been his passion. His personal column, Baffour's Beefs, which has been running continuously in New African since 1987, is a big hit and a must-read for the magazine's worldwide readers. He is now based in Zimbabwe, where he and his wife Elizabeth run their own media consultancy and fashion house called "African Interest" which trades under the trademark "I am African".

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