Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame defies standard categorisation. Some see him as the greatest living African leader who has built a shining, virtually corruption-free nation of proud citizens from the ashes of the 1994 genocide; others say he rules with an iron fist and will brook no dissent. Some acclaim him as Mr Africa, articulating and implementing the continent’s desires; others say he is divisive and at loggerheads with his neighbours. Who is the real Paul Kagame? Our Editor, Anver Versi visited Kigali recently to talk to the man.
I set off from Mombasa, Kenya, for my interview with Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame just after Christmas. The traffic was a noisy confusion of heavy trucks, matatus and tuk tuks. Kigali, the Rwandan capital, was an astonishing study in contrast – not a pothole in sight, painted and beautifully tended verges and although traffic was heavy due to the holiday season, road discipline was immaculate.
The city was festooned in fairy lights to celebrate the festive season. It was a lovely welcome and told me immediately a great deal about what the people of this small nation think of themselves and their value systems.
My meeting with the President was scheduled for after the end of Umuganda. On the last Saturday of each month, all able-bodied Rwandans, including the Head of State, set out to clean and improve their neighbourhoods from 8.00am to 11.00am. Shops and businesses are closed during this period and traffic comes to a halt.
The result is a sparkling city, officially the cleanest in Africa and vying with Singapore as the cleanest in the world. The civic pride that people take in their surroundings is clear to see – made all the more valuable by the knowledge that it is all from their own efforts. It reinforces the sense of self-belief and confidence you will find among ordinary citizens in Rwanda, a faith that their destiny is indeed in their own hands and that even the seemingly impossible can be achieved.
Rwanda’s rise from the genocide of 1994 has indeed entered history as an example of a resilience that is nothing short of miraculous. The economy has also risen from the ashes of that period to become one of the fastest-growing in Africa, hitting the high digits over the past few years. The first factory to make smartphones from scratch in Africa was opened in Kigali in October last year and given its reputation of zero corruption, there is a long line of investments in the pipeline.
While there is no doubt that the heroes and heroines of Rwanda’s extraordinary redemption are the Rwandese themselves, there can be no side-lining the figure who halted the genocide 25 years ago and has overseen the country’s remarkable transformation every step of the way: President Paul Kagame. He was elected for a third, 7-year term following a referendum on the constitutional time-limits in 2015.
Over my nearly four decades as Editor of New African and African Business magazines, I have closely observed and followed the careers of a host of African leaders – many of them remarkable people, but there is no doubt in my mind that Kagame seems to be cut from a totally different cloth.
He is a man of action rather than words; he believes in results rather than promises; he is pragmatic rather than idealistic; he eschews the trappings of power rather than cultivates them; he refuses to kowtow to big powers and insists on being treated as an equal; he has been a fierce defender of not only Rwandan but also African rights and aspirations in international fora; and he is proud to be an African and to celebrate the African genius in deeds and achievements rather than empty rhetoric.
Paul Kagame, dressed in simple civilian clothes, strides in briskly, has a firm handshake and gets down to business. He speaks softly, often pausing to emphasise a point. He has a quiet but sharp sense of humour, often slipping in an ironic twist.
Given the fact that year in, year out, Kagame is voted ‘African of the Year’ in numerous multinational polls and seems to have become a fixture in any ‘Most Influential Africans’ listing, I start by asking him whether the former colonial systems of governance, which most African countries have adopted lock, stock and barrel, are fit for purpose in dealing with the realities of post-independence Africa.
The governance systems in the West, for example, have evolved over centuries of struggle between different classes domestically and constant warfare externally and also reflect changes in social structures as a result of inventions and discoveries.
“Given that history,” he says, “it’s really up to Africans to try and make sense of this legacy and find out what parts of it fit their purpose to be able to obtain the transformation that we all want.”
Transformation and development don’t just happen, he argues. “They happen because first, people want them to happen.” Secondly, one needs to understand the mechanics, the social, cultural and industrial set-up to bring about this transformation.
The laws, the rules and regulations and the ways of doing things established during colonial times served a very different purpose and needed to change at independence. “Post-independence, Africa has completely different ways of doing things, as defined in the context of the needs of African people and the continent,” he says.
“This is why I always have a problem with people being made to just swallow wholesale things that they are told to do. These are not what they think they should be doing, or about the overall circumstances and context, but rather because somebody who used to be the master during the colonial period, thinks it is the right thing to do – therefore, it’s what you must do!”
Here, while Kagame reflects the thinking of large sections of Africa’s well-educated youth and intellectuals, he also hits a sore point. We are all well aware of African countries that rigidly toe the line from their former colonial masters and are terrified of deviating, even by an inch.
“There is a struggle, if you will, between different schools of thought about whether we should just follow the ‘business as usual’ line from colonial times – and the period immediately after independence – or whether we have to change and adjust to new situations. I think surely that should be the case.”
What he finds most frustrating is that while there are those who believe that things must change and talk about it all the time, “when it comes to practice, you find nothing is happening in terms of what they preach. This may be human nature or perhaps this is how global interests in politics play out,” he muses.
He explains that influences from the past and present continue to evolve in the light of current situations so “it’s up to people, from each country – or better still as a continent – to keep coming together, getting closer in our thoughts and our beliefs about what needs to be done for this broader transformation that we talk so much about, to occur.
“We Africans have to walk the talk – we have to do the very things we say, or we know, are necessary to do, to get to where we want,” he says.
Having raised this issue of the dichotomy between the rhetoric that rings out all over Africa in speech after speech, conference after conference, and the actual implementation that hardly ever follows, I wanted to hear his views on the perceived lack of confidence in African solutions to African problems.
Why is it, I asked Kagame, that so many African countries toe the line with systems and practices, even when they don’t work, despite the fact that countries like Rwanda – and others outside the continent like Singapore and Malaysia – have followed their own line and succeeded? Is it a lack of confidence in their own ability?
“You are stating it absolutely correctly in a sense. There is a need for that confidence – we often talk about it. In many ways, there is a lack of it across our continent.
“In fact, in other cases, what appears to be confidence is exposed in the end to be false confidence – presenting a false image about self-belief and confidence that things can change. There are examples of this in different parts of our continent – but the results, the outcomes in the end tell a different story. We find people are just talking and coming back to old things.”
It is no secret that Kagame has modelled Rwanda’s development very much along the lines of Singapore; in fact, Surbana Jurong, Singapore’s award-winning urban planning company, produced the masterplan for Kigali’s redevelopment as a high-class global city.
He points out that many of the highly successful Asian countries “at one point, were very similar to us or even behind us in actual fact, 40 years or so ago; and now, they are far ahead of us.”
He says he finds it difficult to account for why transformation has taken place in other places while many African countries have remained stagnant. Yet, in speeches made by many leaders, “We tell anybody, our own people, others who ask us any time, every week, every month, every year, things that show we understand what is at stake, we understand what needs to be done.
“Yet, year in, year out we find we are back to where we have been. There is some good progress made here and there, then the good times slip back. We keep going around. So, you are absolutely right, it’s something that we need to re-examine about ourselves.”
On the other hand, he says, there are those countries that, against the odds, decided to take a different route. “They said, no, we have decided we are going to work with and for our people – and be guided by what needs doing and what properly defines our purpose,” he explains, rather than their following the path beaten for them by others.
But those who have had to go their own way and work in the interests of their people rather than those of others, he says, “have had to bear huge costs”.
Different forces, he says, come down heavily on people making good progress as well as those trying to dismantle the negative aspects of their nations. The leaders in such cases are often called all sorts of bad names and given negative images even if they are completely the opposite of what the people of that country think, he stresses.
“Which means it doesn’t matter what the people in this situation think; no, it’s about some referee somewhere deciding that we don’t satisfy them and what is important is satisfying them, not your people,” he posits. Clearly, he is taking a dig at some European leaders who have called him harsh names because he has spoken out against the role some of them played in the genocide.
Loosening reins of control
As many commentators have pointed out, while former colonial powers, especially in the Francophone areas, continue to speak the language of freedom, it is clear that they are not anxious to loosen their reins of influence and control. Any African leader who bucks the trend can expect a hostile treatment.
Kagame is yet again articulating a strong bone of contention among African political philosophers and commentators, who have been asking if the political straight-jacket that most African countries have been placed in by long-established, mature and advanced countries is what is hamstringing the continent’s progress.
By insisting that African countries replicate systems that have evolved over centuries in the North, rather than fashioning systems that reflect and respond to ground realities, Africa is locked into a state of stagnation. It was only by abandoning the prescribed mantra and charting their own way that the Asian Tigers overcame their chronic poverty and underdevelopment and are now some of the most successful societies in the world.
He reminds me that those Asian countries that the world is now singing the praises of were also subjected to different pressures from different quarters but “they endured, they rallied and they prevailed. It doesn’t mean they didn’t have differences among themselves but when it came to the state that is theirs, they came together. They were able to put their differences aside. So why can’t it be the same with Africa?”
Kagame says that even with outside pressures and vested interests, one can find a few places in Africa where progress is being made. “Why should Africans expect things to be made easy for them?” he asks. “It’s a struggle that requires sacrifices. If you confront a situation that is harder, it may push you to a higher level to make progress.”
While Kagame has his admirers across the world for his exceptional leadership of a country in the most trying of circumstances, he also has his detractors, who criticise him for some perceived deviation from the standard ‘textbook’ handed down to developing countries.
Even after the genocide and the remarkable turnaround in the country, there were those with vested interests who continued to criticise the new government.
“We still believe we are given a bad name because we brought changes to our country that were intended to put us in a better place. We are not there yet. We still have a lot of work to do, but I think that one can see the pathway to where we want to be. Even the young people who were born 20 to 25 years ago, when this country was just emerging from this tragedy, have a sense of where we are going.”
He also articulates the thoughts of millions across the continent when he says: “It’s frustrating in the sense that Africa has almost everything: the people and the resources. The resources remain buried somewhere for others to add value to, to benefit more from and [it’s] for the African owners to remain stranded and begging – some getting beaten up and left screaming.”
He is clearly referring to the resource wars in parts of Africa, the repressive regimes and the treatment of migrants as they flee the continent for what they believe are greener pastures abroad.
“We put ourselves there – we shouldn’t do that. It doesn’t make sense. And yet we know we can overcome this – but I don’t know why we don’t do it as fast as we should.”
From the wider, pan-African issues, we moved more specifically to Rwandan politics, particularly opposition issues.
In mature democracies, the opposition plays an important part in providing checks and balances, contributing to debates, scrutinising bills, acting as the devil’s advocate even in good situations – in short, a constructive role.
But this role of the opposition has evolved over centuries and even then is vulnerable to breakdown, as happened during the Nazi and Fascist eras in living memory.
The opposition in Africa and many developing countries, as we have seen, is often a beast of a very different nature, which can be highly destructive. As African political scientists have pointed out, most African countries are not mostly homogeneous as in the West, they are a randomly concocted collection of ‘nations’ or ethnicities roped in by boundaries.
Politics in such situations is very different – while it is largely horizontal in the West, where different interests tend to work collaboratively towards a common goal, it is mainly vertical in Africa where, by its very nature, policy is directed from above and compliance is expected further down the scale. A winner takes all situation.
The opposition therefore does not see itself as part of the horizontal collaborative process but as engaged in a struggle to wrest power away, often by undermining the incumbent government. The ruling party therefore sees itself as locked in a battle of survival (sometimes literally) against the opposition.
Yet, all governments have to be held accountable – otherwise, what is there to stop those in power from abusing their office or, as again we have seen repeatedly, committing atrocities?
It should be kept in mind that it was precisely this unchecked wielding of power in the first instance that eventually led to the Rwandan genocide. Given this conundrum, I wanted to hear President Kagame’s views on the role of the Rwandan opposition.
“The Rwandan opposition politics might be different, or similar, to other opposition politics on the continent but it has its own uniqueness. Again, Rwanda being Rwanda, it’s not like another country,” he explains. “We have so much in common with our four nearest neighbours, Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, the DRC – our people are very close, brothers, sisters, our histories are interconnected and intertwined – yet, we are different from them.
“Even before that particular point in history [the genocide and events leading up to it], we were different from our neighbours.”
He explains that Rwanda’s politics had been shaped by a long history of ethnic identification and that this had led to one faction taking matters to the extreme – which led directly to the genocide.
“It [the genocide] was a result of that, no question about it. There is no beating about the bush about it. What evolved after that has been a society based on the politics of consensus. We debate, discuss and find some understanding for all of us.
“We cannot afford the ‘winner takes all’ scenario. Maybe other countries can, but I have my doubts because – I don’t have to name names – we have seen many places where they have continued the practice of winner takes all politics at the expense of the stability of their own countries – where the countries are torn apart. It’s been going on for a long time but they keep going on in that fashion.
“Our politics,” he continues, quietly but with increased earnestness, “therefore changed because of the extreme nature of the events that happened here, to evolve and become that of consensus. Consensus- building is important.”
He says that there are four or five significant political parties in Rwanda; “Still, we bring in everyone; we encourage getting together so that each party, different groups, different backgrounds, find a place, have place in the government.”
In short, and despite the fact that most countries in Africa do not have clearly delineated class structures around forces such as capital and labour and political struggles based on negotiating resource distribution, Rwanda is making a determined effort towards horizontal politics.
He adds that Rwanda had no choice but to look for a different sort of political matrix. “If the country had continued with the sort of ethnic politics and power play that had existed before and which had led to the loss of nearly one million lives, the only sure outcome would have been to lose maybe another million at some point in the future.”
But this pragmatic, horses for courses approach, he says, was criticised from outside. There is little tolerance for African countries that dare to follow any system that is not a carbon copy of a Western model, even if the conditions are vastly different.
Once again, voices from outside that think they know better were dictating how an African country should govern itself. “‘No, this is the way you do politics,’ they say. ‘You have those in power and the winner takes all and then you can fight and kill each other; this is democracy’. For us, we will have none of that!” Kagame stresses.
“What I am telling you now,” he says, “is not theory, it is life as we are living it. This is not stories or rumours or what we have heard from others. This is why we are so determined to find, within ourselves, home-grown solutions. ‘Home-grown solutions’ has become the catchphrase here; we believe in it and we practise it.”
Good politics, he says “allows different views to be expressed. We also make sure that, again because of our histories, you can express yourself, be different from the others and go to the extent you want but don’t go to the extent of depriving somebody of their rights because they are different from you or because they have different views. So, this is the kind of politics I offer the rest of Africa.”
The fourth term question
During a forum in Doha, Qatar, Kagame, responding to a question, said that when his current term expired in 2024, he was unlikely to seek a fourth term even though the Constitution permitted him to do so. Was this statement set in stone, I asked him, or would his decision be dictated by circumstances?
“The trouble with answering such questions is that we are dealing with a very complicated situation – it’s not one plus one equals two, nor is it black or white and that’s it,” he replies.
In many situations, there’s a grey area between the black and white, he elaborates. “However, the moment you are asked such a question, if you don’t answer it, it is even worse; if you say, ‘I have no answer for you’, then it would be a boring response for you.”
He went on to explain that whatever response one gives about something in the future, circumstances could change – “the ground shifts, whether it’s your own making or not.” But that does not stop people expressing their thoughts or their wishes, “so I was expressing my thoughts, I’m expressing my wish”.
Kagame’s extended tenure, which could see him remain in office until 2034, has sharply divided opinions both in Africa as well as abroad. There are those who insist he should have stepped down when his second term expired in 2017 and those who say the last thing Rwanda needs now is divisive politics and a no-holds-barred grab for power. They point to Lee Kuan Yew’s three decades in power in Singapore, during which he set the foundations for his country’s success.
The argument is that the current time limits work well in advanced democracies because the institutions, including the civil service, that run the country are deeply entrenched. This is not the case in most African states, where institutions are still weak, infrastructure is underdeveloped, economies are stagnant and basic facilities like education, health care and national insurance are either primitive or function very poorly.
In such situations, divisive ‘winner takes all’ elections, often based on little more than ethnicity or religion, are an unnecessary disruption which prevent continuity of development policy and countries find themselves mired in poverty and inefficiency or worse, disintegrating into communal or ethnic violence over disputed results.
But without term limits, how can the people change the top leadership if they feel the need to do so? Given the often disproportionate power, for good or ill, that Presidents wield in developing countries, what recourse, other than revolution or mass protests, do people have if a leader overstays his term?
There are no easy answers except to accept the horses for courses theory. A great leader, like Lee Kuan Yew, can change the course of his country for ever while a poor leader, like Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, can drive it into the ground. How do you separate the one from the other?
Perhaps the fairest solution is to ask the people if they wish the leader to continue in office past his set term and to look at the leader’s track record.
When it comes to Kagame, even his strongest critics admit that he is immensely popular and that his track record, everything considered, shines very brightly in modern history. Perhaps, like Lee Kuan Yew, he is a one-off – the right man at the right time in the right situation. Time will tell and in any case, he has left the option open.
He says he wanted to step aside in the lead-up to the 2018 election but the pressure on him to continue was immense. Those who covered the referendum to extend his time limit reported that there was genuine fear that if he stepped aside, things would collapse. “They said to me: ‘Since you have carried this weight successfully, you continue to carry it,’” he recalls. “How could I refuse?”
Uneasy relations with neighbours
The next topic we moved on to was Rwanda’s current fraught relationship with its neighbours, Uganda and DRC. Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s President had been Kagame’s comrade in arms when both fought for the liberation of their countries and were fast friends before the falling-out between the two nations.
At the time of going to press, the border between them had been closed, affecting thousands of petty traders. Uganda is crucial to Rwanda’s economy as it provides a convenient channel for the movement of goods to the land-locked country, since the route from Kenya’s coast passes through Uganda.
Both are members of the East African Community, which means goods and services attract no tariffs and in theory at least, the proximity enlarges Rwanda’s currently small market and can help attract investors.
I asked President Paul Kagame the reason behind the current animosity.
“We have a lot to build on to make us successful, both of us. But for some reason this hasn’t turned out to be the case. That’s where [things] gets lost and I don’t find clear answers. If I have the means to make a good contribution towards resolving that, I’m happy to do that,” he says.
As a background to the troubles, he says that for a while, Rwandans who had gone to Uganda (where many have kith and kin), were arrested. Some were tortured, many lost their properties and had their trading goods confiscated; some were imprisoned in unknown locations and were not tried in a court of law. Some have been kept in prisons without charge for up to two years.
Many of them, who were then dumped across the border, had harrowing tales to tell. When the matter was raised at diplomatic level, the Ugandans, according to Kagame, said the people had been spies.
Kagame looks incredulous. “We are talking hundreds of people, not five or ten. For Rwanda to be sending hundreds of spies to Uganda would be a very expensive exercise indeed!” And none, he adds, is ever brought to a court of law.
But what seems to really irk the Rwandan leader is the belief that Uganda is harbouring and entertaining criminals, including some Ministers caught up in corruption charges, who have fled Rwanda and set themselves up in opposition. He says he does not understand why Uganda should involve itself in internal Rwandese politics.
He says he has even travelled to Uganda to raise these matters. “When we have met in conferences, we have talked about it. But it keeps going around and around.”
The development should be looked at from the broader security situation in the sub-region. The defeated Interahamwe, the far-right Hutu paramilitary organisation that was largely responsible for the genocide, has based itself in parts of DRC and Uganda, where they are seen as a highly dangerous, disruptive influence. Both countries would like to see them out beyond their borders but as long as the RPF continues to rule in Rwanda, they cannot find a way back.
This partially explains the rather bizarre statement of the former premier of DRC, Adolphe Muzito, urging his government to wage war on Rwanda and even occupy and annex part of the country. Saying that, he insists that the relationship with the DRC and President Tshisekedi, who has visited Rwanda at least three times since he was elected President, are the best they’ve been in twenty years.
It should be kept in mind that while the world’s focus has been on Rwanda’s social and economic development since the genocide, the Interahamwe and the former Hutu elite who enjoyed unprecedented power in Rwanda before they were expelled, have not abandoned the hope of being able to return one day through a violent overthrow of the government. Rwanda’s security organisations can never really take their eye off this lurking danger.
Other analysts suggest that Rwanda’s obvious success serves as a rude slap in the face of other regional leaders, who have generally failed to keep pace with it, and this has bred resentment of both Kagame and Rwanda – but when I suggested this to him, Kagame refused to be drawn into any speculation on this score.
Reading between the lines, it is clear that there has been a breach of trust between the two former allies, Rwanda and Uganda, and perhaps with good reason. This is where the good offices of the AU have to come to the party and work to restore trust between the two – and work to reopen the borders because, as Kagame says, this situation is not good for anyone, except for those who are working against both countries’ interests.
As we were winding up our interview, I asked him what, given the current global environment, including climate change and the drift to authoritarian, right-wing governments, his priorities would be if there was such a position as President of Africa and he had the role.
“I am not looking to be and I don’t want to be presumptuous on that. The first thing is to try as much as possible to bring Africa together.
“Because Africa remains fragmented and therefore that means there is no voice that can be called an African voice: it’s Rwanda, it’s South Africa, it’s Nigeria, it’s Senegal, it’s Ethiopia, it’s Kenya, Tanzania, separately. What that means is even the biggest countries of our continent, alone they are small.
“The bigger entity we can be by coming together, the better we can represent ourselves as Africans and stop playing in the hands these people who divide us, and they divide us for a reason, because they want us to remain small. It is like if you want to eat something, you chop it into pieces. We need to create that thing that cannot be swallowed by anyone.
“Knowing how difficult it is, we cannot expect all the countries to come together into one bloc all of a sudden, but we can use different approaches and tactics, like the sub-regional blocs. Even if three countries decide to say ‘please listen’, you are still increasing your chance of making an impact on the global scene and avoid being trampled by the heavyweights.
“We are not only seeking survival, we are also seeking partnership and this is how we are going to develop and put to good use the resources we have, to build and transform our countries. That would be my preoccupation.”
My final question was about Rwanda’s sponsorship of the English Premier League (EPL) team Arsenal’s kit and stadium boundary boards with the logo: Visit Rwanda. It has caused a considerable stir because this kind of bold advertising strategy is rarely associated with African countries. Nevertheless, since EPL matches are televised worldwide and Arsenal has tens of millions of fans globally, Rwanda has thrust itself right to the forefront of possible destinations to visit.
Still, there are always those who felt that the money could have been spent elsewhere, so I asked President Kagame if the investment has been worth it.
“Critics are very lucky, they are not accountable,” he says with a smile. “I am accountable, and the investment we made with Arsenal has produced good results. We are seeing an increase in numbers of visitors. I think we probably gained not less than five times what we were spending, absolutely.”
The deal has been so good, Kagame tells me, that a similar one is being finalised with Paris Saint-Germain, probably the most famous football club in France. Rwanda expected somewhere near 17m visitors this year and the numbers should go up when the new airport, in which Qatar Airways has taken a 60% stake, is completed.
I had reserved my toughest question for last. President Kagame has been an ardent fan of Arsenal FC for as long as he can remember and like millions of the club’s fans, he goes through the cycles of joy and sadness whenever Arsenal play. It has been the latter more often lately. What is his advice to the new manager?
“I’m not an expert but I will give you my analysis, at least from the point of strategic thinking rather than management tactics [oriented] toward the goal,” he says.
He believes that while legendary coach Arsène Wenger was “fantastic”, a malaise had set into the team’s performance and it kept losing away matches. That ‘malaise’ carried on even after Wenger left.
Kagame says he was one of the numerous fans who tweeted their frustration with manager Unai Emery, who was unable to inject a fresh approach among the players.
“Arsenal used to compete to be first or second in the league, then they were struggling to reach the top four,” he recounts, “now they are fighting to remain in the top 10! Something has to change.”
Arsenal are currently 10th in the league and although the manager has changed, new man Mikel Arteta still has to rely largely on the same set of players he inherited from Wenger and Emery. Kagame believes that Arteta understands the DNA of the club and is perhaps the best man for the job but he wants the owners to support him by giving him more resources.
Nevertheless, like any true soccer fan, he has been a supporter for 30 years and is not going to change horses mid-stream. “I still love Arsenal, they have the DNA of the good game, but in the end you are not just playing for the sake of playing, you are playing also to win.
“The frustrating part is I’m just a fan and there’s nothing I can do about it. I can only keep watching on the screen and feel bad about their loss and happy when they win. Sometimes you feel like punching the screen, when you see mistakes being made. But you still remain loyal.”
Perhaps that attitude sums up Kagame to the hilt; he loves his team – in his case, his country Rwanda – to win, and sometimes he feels frustrated and wants to punch something. But he remains loyal and in the case of Rwanda, he is the manager, not just a fan. He knows that both winning and defeat are habits and, crucially, seems to have engendered the winning mentality throughout Rwanda during his tenure.