Rwanda's Paul Kagame: saviour or dictator?

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President Paul Kagame waves at thousands of supporters in Rusizi District where he held two rallies during the recent campaigns. File.

After the slaughter of one million people in 100 days in 1994, Paul Kagame is the man who brought peace to Rwanda and made it an African success story. His critics say he’s an autocrat who has ruled for too long and orders the killing of opponents. In the month that he won another election, John Carlin asks the president about his legacy – and involvement in the murder of his friend and former political ally 

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A mammoth crowd receives RPF-Inkotanyi’s presidential candidate and incumbent President Paul Kagame in Rubavu District last month. Courtesy. 

All was calm in Kigali as I drove to my hotel from the airport on the night of August 4. The streets were spotless in the Rwandan capital. Armed policemen stood on every corner, but the pedestrians looked carefree following a day’s voting which, come the announcement of the result at one in the morning, would extend President Paul Kagame’s long hold on power with 98.79 per cent of the national vote. There was so little tension and so much order – no litter, no plastic bags (banned by law) anywhere to be seen – that I might have been in Switzerland had it not been for the African rhythms belting out of the bars.

It was my sixth visit to Rwanda since 1999 and I’d never seen the place looking more prosperous or clean. Recalling recent articles critical of Kagame that I had been reading on the flight south to this small country in the geographical heart of Africa, I couldn’t help thinking of a scene from the Monty Python film, Life of Brian.

The leaders of the People’s Front of Judea, dedicated to the overthrow of “the Roman imperialist aggressors”, chair a meeting at which the question is put: “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

“The aqueduct?” one comrade replies. “Oh. Yeah, yeah. They did give us that. That’s true,” acknowledges rebel commander Reg, played by John Cleese. “Sanitation?” another militant suggests. “Yeah. All right. I’ll grant you the aqueduct and the sanitation.” “The roads?”

To Reg’s growing dismay, the answers to his question come at him in a flood. The medicine; the education; the wine; the public baths; “It’s safe to walk the streets at night”.

“Oh, all right,” exclaims Reg. “But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

“Brought peace?” another voice pipes up.

 Paul Kagame’s many critics in the West regard him as a power-drunk African emperor who, had he any sense of responsibility towards his country or his continent, would have groomed a successor by now and stepped down from the presidency. Following a constitutional amendment two years ago he could rule until 2034, encouraging critics in the view that he is yet another African dictator ruling over a police state.

Yet they have little choice but to admit, as Monty Python’s Reg must, that he and his Rwandan Patriotic Front party have delivered everything to his people (save the aqueduct and the wine) that the Romans delivered to Monty Python’s Judeans – peace and public safety, first and foremost, in a country which 23 years ago endured one of the worst atrocities in recorded history: the slaughter of close to one million of its inhabitants in 100 days, a rate of murderous efficacy that outdid the Nazis’ industrial extermination of the Jews. That the favoured instrument of death was the machete offers a glimpse of the blood frenzy into which this nation descended as large sectors of the majority Hutu population, urged on by a ruling clique quite as callous as Hitler’s, toiled hard to remove their Tutsi compatriots from the face of the earth.

None of which is to say that Kagame is a saint or that the charges levelled against him are baseless. He is Rwanda’s Fidel Castro, a free-market version but as toweringly all-reaching, penetrating every crevice of Rwandan life, and almost as controversial. Opinion is sharply divided among those of us foreigners who take an interest in Rwanda, turning on whether Kagame has been a good or a bad thing for his country since the rebel army he led, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, came over the border from Uganda, defeated the government’s forces and, while the rest of the world looked the other way, put a stop to the genocide and seized control of what was left of the state. That was in 1994 and, while Kagame only formally became president in 2000, he has effectively ruled the country ever since. 

The United Nations has been critical of the Kagame regime: the case against him has been based largely on evidence supplied by organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. They highlight vengeful rampages by Kagame’s military against Hutus who after the genocide sought refuge in the neighbouring Congo, with estimates made of 200,000 dead; they say he stifles all opposition and curbs freedom of the press, hence his staggering electoral majorities; they say that he jails his political opponents and he has arranged the murder of at least seven of them, according to newspaper reports, since 1998.

I have a particular interest in one of those seven. Patrick Karegeya was my friend. I met him on the first of my six visits to Rwanda, in 1999. The most high-profile of the Rwandan political figures to have been killed since the genocide, he was an old and intimate ally of Kagame’s in the rebel Rwandan army and afterwards in government, where he served as a military colonel and head of foreign intelligence. Over 15 years or so we met for lunch, dinner, drinks or coffee in Kigali, in London and in South Africa. He was clever; he was funny; he was a roguishly engaging bon vivant – quite different in character from the austere Kagame.

On New Year’s Day 2014 Karegeya was strangled to death in a Johannesburg hotel.

I was shocked and horrified and, like almost everybody else who took notice, immediately deduced it had been the work of the Rwandan government. I wrote to Patrick’s daughter saying how sorry I was and how much I had valued my friendship with him.

Flash forward to the present, at the end of a week travelling the length and breadth of Rwanda, and I am sitting in a plush room in Kigali’s State House waiting to interview Kagame. I know there is nothing else for it but to do my duty to my murdered friend and raise the subject of his demise, but I must confess to a little apprehension as to how the question will be met. I don’t fear for my safety, but I do wonder whether the interview will be drawn to a sharp close.

Kagame, dressed in a blue jacket, beige trousers and shirt but no tie, walks in. He is the thinnest tall man, a 6ft plus bantamweight, I have ever seen. Thin and tall is a Tutsi trait. Kagame has endeavoured to eliminate all talk of Rwanda’s two dominant ethnic groups from the national vocabulary but the truth is that, while increased intermarriage since the 1994 genocide has blurred the characteristics somewhat, the Hutus have a distinctively different look. They are invariably shorter and squatter than their Tutsi neighbours and their features are less angular.

Kagame, while naturally severe in his appearance, seems more relaxed than on other occasions that I’ve met him, the last time in New York four years ago when he was there for a meeting of the United Nations general assembly. Now 59, married with four children, he smiles, and even chuckles a few times, during the 90 minutes our encounter lasts.

Before broaching the Karegeya question, I take it easy, asking him first about cows, the black and white Friesians I have seen everywhere on my tour of his country. Elsewhere in Africa you don’t see much beyond cattle of the brown, long-horned variety. What’s this about? Kagame’s lengthy answer serves to confirm the impression he makes on visiting foreign business people, diplomats and aid workers, that he is not just a political animal or a military man but an obsessively attentive national CEO.

“I looked into the milk our cows yielded and saw it was much lower than that of these European cattle,” he says. This prompted him to organise the importation of Friesian cattle and vast quantities of Friesian bull sperm, which was initially delivered in large tubs right here to his office. That was ten years ago. “We now have 400,000 Friesians in Rwanda and our government has seen to it that every farmer owns at least one cow.”

Moving swiftly from the gentle starter to the political main course, I suggest to Kagame that foreign opinion on him is divided along two broad camps. On the one side the business types, who often say there is no easier and less corrupt place to work in or to invest in Africa (one fan is Howard Schultz, the president of Starbucks, who buys coffee from Rwanda); academics in development economics, some of whom marvel at a “Rwandan miracle” that has seen growth rates of 7 to 8 per cent a year since 2000 and a distribution of wealth more even than anywhere else in Africa; governments that have been generous with aid, and political leaders, notably Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, both of whom have used their foundations to invest in Rwandan health and education.

The other camp is made up of journalists and human rights groups.

People in the West measure us against their yardstick, but has it even worked for them?

Kagame chuckles and warms to the debate, seizing the chance to turn on his detractors, arrowing in on what he considers to be a “paternalism” founded on the premise that the western model offers the exemplary democratic yardstick against which he and the Rwandan state system must be measured.

“I have a problem with this,” he begins. “Who told anybody we actually want to be like the West? We have been making progress, but we are not moving towards being western because we can’t be western. We are moving towards being better Africans.” Besides, he adds, “If you look at the chaos all over the world, including the western world, the unpredictability, the concerns of ordinary people against those of the elite, I think the ordinary people are getting an extremely raw deal. Nothing is being done to address their concerns and this is causing all this turmoil all over the place. People in the West measure us against their yardstick, but has it even worked for them?”

By contrast, Kagame says his purpose has been not to appease elite foreign opinion but to attend to the needs of “real people leading everyday real lives”, providing them with the health and education and food and security most Rwandans crave way above all other concerns. “We learn things from others, from the West or whoever, but we have to be sure they work for us. We are not objects of imitation; we are real people trying to lead our lives the real way – not journalists or academics or business people. Where do our critics factor ordinary Rwandans into their way of thinking? All they do is focus on me, the individual. Everything comes down to this man Kagame who has done this and that; the country is not free because of him; he is a dictator, an autocrat and so on. Anybody reasonable should see that this is nonsense.”

The unreasonable ones, as he sees it, are “stupid” or “idiots”, insults he hurls a number of times in the interview against his critics.

“I think there is a set kind of narrative that they find themselves sticking to, no matter what. A set western political narrative from which they do not want to – or cannot – be diverted.” 

Sticking to the narrative includes, in Kagame’s view, disbelieving what he, “the African strongman”, says and believing the dissenters on whose testimony the case against him rests. “We are not credible people, but when they go to the other side they become credible. That is how the human rights groups evaluate the strength of their evidence.” Kagame claims that the likes of Human Rights Watch, which is banned from Rwanda, supply lists of names of people who have been jailed or killed or are missing, only for it to be discovered later that several of them are alive and well.

He insists that the charges levelled against him are overstated, yet he does not entirely deny that some of them may be true. “If any of these things have been happening, dozens more are happening in those places where the accusations are coming from. You see all these years across the world all these cases of what they call ‘collateral damage’, human beings killed, women and children killed, people who have nothing to do with anything – and probably now as we speak this is happening in Yemen, Syria, Iraq … You can go on naming places. This is considered normal and somehow acceptable because there the perpetrators say they are doing their best to prevent it, because they have good intentions, better intentions than we do. But how do you measure intentions? This is the interesting thing.”

First of all, we actually never killed him. Second, we don’t regret the loss of his life

He refuses to be drawn into describing whose intentions exactly he is talking about, but a nod and a grin reveals that he has in mind, among others, the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations, the numerous innocent collateral deaths that have resulted from drone and air force attacks on far-flung targets deemed to be a threat to American national security.

Kagame stops grinning when I mention Patrick Karegeya.

Karegeya told me he had been arrested in 2004 when he was still head of intelligence and jailed for 18 months. He was released in 2006 and fled to South Africa the following year, living in Pretoria, where I last met him, until his death in 2014. I liked Karegeya but he was evasive, as intelligence people tend to be.

I never got a satisfactory answer out of him as to why he had been arrested in the first place.

Kagame tells me his version. He does not react angrily or defensively. He does not look flustered. He does not throw me out of the room.

The reason he gives for Karegeya’s arrest: Kagame learnt from a friendly foreign leader and later confirmed to his own satisfaction that Karegeya had been working for the intelligence service of another country. Paid? “Yes, paid.” Not only did he judge his old comrade in arms to be a traitor, Kagame says, he learnt he was involved “in gross corruption”. “I was very much taken aback. I called him to this room where we are sitting now and I said, ‘Patrick, how can you do this? You are not a teenager; you are an old man with family and children.’ He had nothing to say.” 

But then Karegeya was killed, I say, lured to a room in a five-star Johannesburg hotel and strangled. Kagame had a motive. Karegeya had told a Ugandan newspaper three and a half years before his death that Kagame was a dictator and a killer of political opponents who could only be driven out by force of arms. “Yes,” Kagame tells me. “He did not even bother to hide his intentions. I will say what I have said before and have never dissociated myself from. First of all, we actually never killed him. Second, we don’t regret the loss of his life. Maybe that is what he deserved for what he did here.”

Kagame denying responsibility but saying thank you very much to those who did kill him has not left things any clearer as it applies to my own moral conundrum. A part of me feels that I ought to hate Kagame, as I definitely do hate those who carried out the political assassinations of two good friends in South Africa in the Nineties, and that I ought to be in full-throated agreement with those who call him a monstrous tyrant and clamour for his fall. But I cannot and am not. From his exile in South Africa Patrick Karegeya was, in a rather half-baked sort of way, plotting the overthrow of the Rwandan government. Of this I am sure. And whatever Karegeya’s reasons, selfish or altruistic, and whatever sins Kagame may have committed, I insist on believing that Kagame has on balance been a good thing for the great mass of the Rwandan people. For him to leave power now would be a disaster for them.

In the week I travelled the country I met many ordinary Rwandans. Just one example from the dozens of people I spoke to in the east, north, west and south before I saw Kagame: a man with a bicycle, probably in his forties, whom I talked to briefly on the side of the road. How was his life? “I am happy,” he said. “I have a bicycle, a house, a cow and protection.”

Protection was the key word, one I heard over and over on my travels. It’s great that things have improved materially for ordinary Rwandans since the apocalyptic ruin the genocide bequeathed, but it’s no good having a cow, a bike and a house – plus access to education and healthcare without precedent in Rwandan history – unless you have the state to protect you from crime and, whether you are a Tutsi or a Hutu, from far worse. The reality is that when Kagame seized power in 1994 the stage was set either for mass vengeance by the Tutsis, or for renewed carnage at the hands of the hundreds of thousands of guilty Hutus who fled to the neighbouring Congo and whose leaders were threatening to return home, as they put it, “to finish the job”, to wipe out all the remaining Tutsis.

For 100 days in 1994 people were killed in Rwanda at the rate of seven a minute

Many thousands who returned to Rwanda from Congo and handed themselves in were jailed and most of them have since been amnestied and allowed to return to the scenes of their crimes to live alongside those whose relatives they chopped to death. Amazingly they continue today to coexist in peace. They do so on strict orders from Kagame, obeyed as dutifully by all as many Hutus obeyed the orders to kill the Tutsi “cockroaches” in 1994.

On the other hand, many thousands of those Hutus who did not heed the call to return home and remained in the Congo were treated mercilessly by Kagame’s invading troops.

The Congo killings are high up on the human rights charge sheet against Kagame. When I ask him about them he does not issue a strong denial. “In comparison to these things that happened in 1994, some of these accusations are nonsense.”

Kagame says he acted in the Congo on a logic in keeping with every single decision he tells me he takes, be it in the military, political or economic sphere. “It is easy for me to decide,” he says. “I just ask myself whether something is more or less likely to lead to a repetition of the genocide.”

I have a harrowingly lucid image of what happened in the Rwandan genocide, having conducted numerous interviews down the years with both victims and killers. I lived in Argentina under Galtieri and his generals; I lived in El Salvador at the time of the death squads and in South Africa in the years of township slaughter, but I have never, ever heard stories more nightmarish than those I was told in Rwanda.

To choose from my personal catalogue of horrors, I spoke to a Hutu man who was forced to beat his wife to death in order to spare their seven children from a rampaging mob. I spoke to an amnestied man who admitted to killing more than 100 people, many of them inside a church, and who told me he was surprised on returning to Rwanda from the Congo that Kagame’s Tutsi soldiers did not have tails and horns. I have talked to “families” of orphan children who screamed as their elder sibling recalled how their parents were cut to pieces before their eyes. I have heard stories of parents who would pay the killers to shoot their children rather than butcher them.

Kagame’s critics claim he has ordered the killing of at least seven political opponents since 1998. For 100 days in 1994 people were killed in Rwanda at the rate of seven a minute. That is why Kagame tells me that the genocide “is the defining factor in our lives that will remain so for years to come”. Kagame’s perception that his detractors fail to factor in the enormity of that horror, and to see the huge shadow it still casts over his country, is why he despises their judgment and ignores their recommendations. What irritates him most of all is their inability, as he sees it, to put themselves in ordinary Rwandans’ shoes.

I approach the end of the interview asking Kagame for his response to those who are offended by what they perceive to be his despotically prolonged permanence in power. His lengthy answer, in a nutshell, is that he agreed to carry on as president beyond 2017 against his will, and only in response to a clamour from his party and his people. “The day I leave I shall blow out a big sigh of relief,” he says.

You can doubt him, although I think he is driven more by a heavy sense of duty than by hunger for power. I could be wrong, but of this I am certain: in the event that Kagame were to resign or fall, as my friend Patrick Karegeya wished that he would, the overwhelming majority of those he calls “ordinary, real” Rwandans would be filled with deepest dread.

A recurring complaint against Kagame is his failure to groom a successor. His glass of water untouched at the end of our 90 minutes, as relaxed as when he began, he tells me that he asked his party followers to do just that seven years ago, that they failed, and that he has now asked them to “do their homework” again and find one in time for the end of his new presidential term in 2024. It will be hard. Paul Kagame, ruthless and single-minded as he may be in his quest to make true on the principle of “never again”, is an exceptionally intelligent, pragmatic and sophisticated man in an exceptionally traumatised land inhabited by exceptionally unworldly people. Castro was an option for Cubans; Kagame a necessity for Rwandans. Many have paid a high price, but most of them are lucky he came along. What has he ever done for them? Plenty. To imagine the country without Kagame in the brief period since the genocide is to imagine a return to hopeless poverty and, quite probably, to hell.

This article was first published by The Times, a British national newspaper