President Paul Kagame, one of the most articulate and connected leaders in the world, demonstrated his concern about the youth of Africa by agreeing to take time out of his very busy schedule to participate in New African’s special youth report. In this wide-ranging interview, guest editor Amandine Ndikumasabo leads on her first presidential one-on-one.
How do the priorities of youth fit in when devising policy under your leadership?
In our policy framework, the youth fit in very well at several levels. We have youth at the back of our minds when we are planning and putting into place these policies.
We see that as the future. I should also say much of government policy is concerned with the youth and their development and on enabling them to be where they want to be and where the country wants them to be.
However, the youth must really be the ones to determine what they want to be and where they want to be. That makes them a central part of these efforts.
They must be the ones also to come forward – they must understand their need to participate and to play their role as well. It’s not just policies and the government that make things happen.
As a proud young African woman I am very inspired by your leadership and the fact that many women are in responsible positions – as Ministers and heads of boards and hospitals in Rwanda. Your Excellency, was this a deliberate strategy?
It was very much deliberate and strategic. By the way, let me assure you nobody is complaining that that is the case. It is based on building on the realities as we know them in our lives.
Why should women or girls be left behind? It doesn’t make sense. Making everyone a participant, and especially women, and leaving no one behind is very critical. It is very deliberate in our whole way of moving into the future.
How do we make sure that the youth are engaged? Should there be a dialogue between government and the youth to make sure that at least, they articulate their vision?
It’s about their engagement, their participation. You referred to young people generally and women in particular being in positions of leadership in government institutions and the private sector.
Once they are in that position, we can say: “Now don’t blame it on us, blame yourself if you don’t put in place conditions that are necessary for the emergence and development of young people and girls and women.”
The aim is not to do things for them or speak for the youth; it’s to bring them in as part of that conversation and they can raise matters as they wish.
ICT is a major plank of the government’s economic growth strategy. How you are going to go about creating a tech hub in Rwanda, to make it globally competitive, another Valley?
We are very happy to learn from the likes of Silicon Valley or other places but you shouldn’t ever want to be somebody else. You want to be yourself but you learn to make yourself as good as you want to be.
What we see across the world is that it all hinges on people’s capacities and skills. Therefore, it’s prioritising education and skills in Rwanda that will lead us to the place we want to be.
We make sure of that from the policy perspective and from putting the infrastructure in place. We are investing in our young people, boys and girls, men and women, and also creating resource pools they can learn from; they can access financing to do what they feel they should be doing.
Keeping in focus the need to bring innovation and entrepreneurship together, we create an environment that fosters that to happen.
That is really what we’ve been trying to do within our limited means – but with unlimited understanding of what we need to do – so we keep trying to get better every time.
And how does one go about creating this culture of innovation in a place like Rwanda?
We have to learn from the rest and from the best if we can. We have been exposing our young people to different experiences in the world. That’s why we send some of them to study abroad.
They learn within different environments with their own cultures of doing what is needed. Then they bring this learning back home and layer it on our own culture that is connected with the people. This leads to success.
The mind-set change or the cultural change is something that happens with time and with education and exposure. We want to connect Rwanda to the rest of the world but also keep Rwanda as it is supposed to be.
Sports is another pillar for growth. What is the importance of sports, both as a business opportunity and for making a better society?
Sports connects the world in competition, leadership, participation and in the end, sharing happiness and success. Sports people are happy to be out there, growing their talents and putting them to good use. Sport provides a whole industry and ecosystem for people’s development.
However, as much as we have full understanding of where we want to go, you don’t want to dictate to people what they should or should not choose to do. You create the environment for them to make the choices they want and then help them grow on that basis.
What stage of development would you say Rwanda has reached at the moment and what are the big challenges in growing and maintaining double-digit growth?
For development, first it was important to lay the foundation – the policies, the systems, the institutions, the nurturing of talent and knowledge; and then to build on what existed already.
Commerce, business has been going on anyway for decades, if not centuries, but you modernise it and make it more sophisticated by education, by the development of talents and skills, by learning from others beyond our borders.
We successfully managed to put in place institutions of governance but the aim and purpose has always been about working for people, not just for the benefit of a few individuals.
It’s about the people, including the ordinary person in the rural area, who might be illiterate but who can also contribute, can also produce for the market.
Once you’ve laid the foundation and made the right investments, then you uplift the nation to a much higher level. Later on, you can gauge this in terms of per capita incomes and other measures.
We adopt development that changes the lives of people. It ensures transformation. We are on that path. We are maybe somewhere in the middle – we still have a long way to go to consolidate middle- income country status – then we’ll move to an upper middle-income level.
The perception of Africa in the international media is still often negative and biased. You’ve been outspoken about this and you’ve said people still treat Africa with a racist mentality. Do you still hold that view?
It has been happening for so long and yet it doesn’t change. The same demands, the same attitude, the same approach, the same finger pointing, the same disparaging attacks. Every day, every week, every month, every year it goes on!
You would expect that if these critics meant well, they would correct their errors when these are pointed out to them, but instead, we get the same negative line about Africa from the same people every day for years and it doesn’t change – so something must be wrong.
We have a world in which it seems the rich have the attitude: “Let the not-so-rich and the very poor stay there. This is how we become in charge of the world. We are the ones who provide the goods. We are the ones who tell everybody what they should do and what they should not do. If you allow people to rise to the level where you are, then they become competitors, then you lose control.”
It is all done in a subtle way. These so-called global leaders have everything they need, they have the power of money, they have the power over the media, they have the power over the military, they have the power over everything. If you are not beaten by one, you are beaten by the other.
We can also flip it and look at it the other way around. How does Africa itself respond to being treated in this manner? With this perpetual ‘adult’ supervision? Do we accept it? Why should we accept it? This is not the way things should be.
It is true you will find bad actors, people not caring for their citizens and instead, exploiting them on the continent. But does it have to apply to every African or African country?
Is it a problem that we cannot overcome? I believe that even within our limited means, we can actually change the wrong things we do ourselves and which are self-inflicted.
The other question that arises is: Do wrong things happen only in Africa? No, I don’t think so. We find that there are bad actors and wrong things happening everywhere in the world – even in the richest parts.
Therefore, the conversation has to be completely different. But the onus is on us, Africans, because we carry the biggest burden to do some soul-searching and start with ourselves and say, “What is it that we are doing wrong to our people that we can change?”
If we do that, people will stop using any excuse to say Africans don’t respect democracy, don’t respect human rights, Africans don’t know anything to do with freedom.
They say that because they have identified certain places where maybe these things are lacking, but it shouldn’t be used to permanently label all of Africa.
There are improvements to be made in Africa, no question about it. Africa needs to change its attitude to its problems; we need to act together and we also need to act as individual countries to address the needs of our people and their interests.
At the same time, the rest of the world needs to make improvements within their own systems. We are talking about the racism you see every day, in the places of work, on the streets, in sports…
We need to attend to our own wrongs and get things right and at the same time, confront the injustices coming from elsewhere.
The last year has been tough for everyone. Would you please tell us what lessons you have learnt from the coronavirus pandemic?
I learn lessons every day and from my position I learn lessons the hard way. In the end what goes wrong is blamed on me and I’m not complaining, that comes with the territory.
But when things go right, it seems I had never even participated in making it happen. But that is another issue… [he smiles].
We learnt long ago that we needed to build resilient health systems even without being a rich country. We found ways to make good investments in the health sector.
We have also built a healthcare system that is resilient, that goes to the grass roots level.
We have thousands of healthcare workers who take care of rural areas and who have been given the basic training that allows them to do their work and also serve the needs of the people.
We anticipated future pandemics and therefore, we not only invest in the healthcare systems, we also invest in public awareness of good healthcare practices. Although we have limited resources, there are simple things you can do to protect yourself and your future in Rwanda.
Then we have global partnerships that help build institutions. Partnerships are very important, no single country can be ever-ready and sufficient on its own. It is much clearer to us that we need a helping hand, but we need helping hands to build systems, to build capacity, and to need less help from outside.
We are not surprised that when we were looking for vaccines we could not get them. So it helps to be prepared mentally that yes, this is the world we live in. It helps you utilise your limited resources the best way you can.
Your Excellency, you have been a great promoter of pan-Africanism in a variety of ways. You must be proud of how the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) was quickly mobilised, how African Ministers of Finance got together to negotiate on the global stage and of course, with the roll-out of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement.
I’m proud and happy that some of the thoughts and the things we were discussing with other leaders of our continent have come to pass. But difference comes about not just by having the right discussions, but by doing and scaling up to move forward.
There are still immense challenges – maybe we’ve just made a dent but it is a good path we are on. It’s up to us again, leaders of our continent, to pull together and move faster also. It is better if we can move faster, otherwise problems accumulate and others catch up.
Many Africans came together to strengthen the CDC – people like Strive Masiyiwa, Donald Kaberuka, Tidjane Thiam, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Vera Songwe and of course, the CDC chief, John Nkengasong. All these people have done a fantastic job – they’ve done us proud.
You mentioned that you are a Mastercard Scholar. Outside organisations like the Mastercard Foundation also carry out a lot of activities. They have come to Africa with the sense of acting in the right way. We are proud of that. We need everyone’s contribution and participation.
What are your thoughts on development beyond aid? This year, we’ve seen cuts to aid from the UK and to aid in general.
It does not surprise me. The issue is not that it is cut by so many percentage points or the other – I’m waiting for that to come down to zero. One day it will happen, whether it is done by the UK or any other country.
It again vindicates my point all along that aid is not sustainable but it is needed to help build capacities and eventually enable people to not need it – or at least, for fewer and fewer people to need aid over time.
The conversation about aid is sometimes convoluted and even distorted. The conversation has never been that there is no need for aid – there is and there will be, but aid should be used and dispensed differently.
This is my argument: you should be able to quantify – for example, easily say that the people of country X actually built such and such on aid. I think this should be the conversation, rather than aid recipients expecting aid forever and actually turning it into a right; or those who give aid, feeling it’s their right to give aid and to dictate to those who are receiving it how they live their lives – or to tie it to so many other things.
On social media recently, France’s President Emmanuel Macron was called ‘Le President de l’Afrique’ for yet another African initiative he announced to promote entrepreneurs and youth. Do you think all these should be African-led, as opposed to being run by other foreign governments?
Foreign initiatives are not bad in themselves. In the old days, we had foreign people called ‘Madame Africa’ or ‘Mr Africa’ who spoke for the continent!
On the one hand it’s a good thing if you have genuine sympathy or feelings for Africa and you want to help. I appreciate that. I hate the other side of it, which gives the rights to people to speak and do things for Africa as if they were Africans. I ask myself, “Where are we?”
I have no problem with outside ideas, outside initiatives but why don’t we work together so that Africans take the lead in articulating their needs and also the ideas. In fact, they may even improve on the initiatives because of where they come from. If the initiatives are about Africa, it’s important that Africans make inputs rather than somebody else feeding Africa with their ideas.
When young birds have hatched, their parents bring food and the young birds in the nests open their mouths so the mother puts something in each one. Africa can’t be like these young birds that just remain opening their mouths for the Mr and the Mrs Africa’s to come and put things in them. I think it is wrong.
I have to say this even in relation to young people. They are often invited abroad and encouraged to be like their hosts, not like Africans. These young Africans must be able to see through this and ask: “Do you value my opinions on Africa in your initiative? Are you concerned about seeing me as an African with African problems or are you just shaping me the way you want?” You see what I mean?
Young people need to grow up with the mentality that they can be as good as anyone and they can do all they want in the world, it’s ok.
They must see the world as Africans and act as Africans the right way, not as Europeans would for Africa. It’s a subtle sense of continuing business as usual but pointing out that many problems we have had for years have not been addressed.
I remember your speech at Chatham House where you said there are many things that Africa can contribute to the world and that others can learn from. Are we not proud enough to go out there and defend our own ideas and show the world what we’ve got to offer them?
It’s not even in that perspective that I raised the issue. I don’t intend to show anybody that I’m capable of this or that or give anybody lessons, I don’t think for me that is the issue.
I want people to recognise our efforts in dealing with the problems that we have. Unless you have something fundamental you want to complain about, in terms of how I address my country’s problems, that’s ok, we can have a conversation – maybe I convince you and we can have a discussion about it.
Take the example of gacaca courts (community justice, following the genocide). We had a problem of justice here. In all of the books written about how to resolve such matters I didn’t find anything that solved my problem.
If in Rwanda we find a way of getting around this problem within our own culture, traditions and means, why shouldn’t we do that? It works because this gives us a solution, it leads to the stability of our country and creates unity and so on and so forth.
The outcomes of the gacaca system were twofold: It was punitive in a sense of accountability but the other equally important outcome was that it led to reconciliation, bringing the society back together again.
If we had applied the Western justice system we would have never ever seen justice done. Maybe it would have taken 500 years to try 150,000 people. By the way, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda sentenced only 60 or so people in over 25 years and spent billions of dollars. [82 people were tried in total]
We are asking these outsiders that they should be humble enough to listen to people, what their problems are, what their needs are and what they need to do to actually deal with them for the betterment of their societies.
I’m going to ask the last-but-not-least question. We are seeing a rise in conflicts based on ethnic groups, religion, tribes; Mr President, what can other countries learn from the One Rwanda programme?
If you look not only around Africa but beyond, the disharmony, the racism we talked about, the injustices, the wars, the chaos – sometimes you think the world is on fire, it’s just a burning house.
Then I look back at my own small setting and see how people who suffered a tragedy 27 years ago – when we lost over one million people at the hands of their neighbours, relatives, friends, and also external actors and factors – have managed to come through and live in harmony.
Yes there are problems in our country, absolutely – I want to know which country has no problems – but we have the most important thing which is stability, which is security for people – in terms of the social, the economic and the physical security.
When I see what has emerged from this tragedy, where we are now, I can only say some of our thinking and actions have been vindicated. I really think we couldn’t have done better for ourselves and I don’t spend much time blaming anybody else for our problems or those who had a hand in causing it. It happened, we know it, we’ve seen it but then we need to do what we need to do for ourselves and that’s where we concentrate.
As Rwandans we are happy with what we have and where we are and who we are. We can just keep working harder to deal with the many other problems that are before us.
Read more from our special report African Youth Speaks