Paul Kagame is one of the hardest leaders to grasp in the 21st century. And yet, the man who has led Rwanda for close to twenty years, has pulled his country, after one of the worst Genocides in history, to the status of role model for Africa and beyond. Thanks to what, and at what cost?
Le Point paid a visit to Kigali to get a closer picture of the “Rwandan miracles…”
In 1994, the country is completely ruined, banks are empty, crops rot in fields and the bodies of 800,000 to one million victims - mainly Tutsi, the minority – litter streets and fields in the entire country. Some Hutus who took part in the killings, flee to Zaïre (the current Democratic Republic of Congo). Survivors discover their relatives massacred, their houses looted and their livestock stolen and slaughtered.
Twenty-five years later, the scenery is something else. There are no more ethnic groups, no Hutus, no Tutsis nor Twas, but 12 million Rwandans. Youth now throw parties on roofs of terraces in Kigali, while others open incubators and start-ups in the new economy. The streets of the capital are spotless: an army of cleaners relay to clean them. Barber shops, haircut saloons, manicure, pedicures and décor shops, restaurants seem open all day long. Is this where lies the seed of the “new Rwandan” that Rwanda wants to see emerge? The one whose staff nickname “The Boss” met with Le Point on Friday, January 31, for an interview which lasted over two hours at the office of the President in Village Urugwiro, Kigali.
Paul Kagame is Rwanda’s strongman since he led the Rwanda Patriotic troops to victoryin 1994. His personality was forged during his exile in the refugee camps in Uganda, where his Tutsi family fled to escape massacres when he was 4 years old. But the chasm never narrows between his critics that denounce his will to muzzle individual freedom, and his praise-singers who are often international economists and experts still divided between a sentiment of guilt in the post-Genocide era and admiration for the “modern” African leader…
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his close friend, describes him as “a visionary leader”. Recently, Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, revealed in an interview with Le Point that “he was impressed by Paul Kagame”: “It takes courage to rebuild a country like Rwanda, decimated by a Genocide with surreal brutality “.
Before insisting on the qualities of President Kagame: “Maybe he doesn’t necessarily meet all democratic criteria but I can confirm that he has vision for his country and Africa in general. He knows where he is taking his country.” It now becomes clearer why official delegations from Gabon, Togo, Benin, Burundi, Burkina or many others, have been going to Kigali to learn from the Rwandan model.
On February 9, Paul Kagame; 62, was elected by his African peers as the new Chairperson for the AUDA-NEPAD Heads of State and Government Orientation Committee (HSGOC), the continental body in charge of infrastructure for development.
This outspoken man, sometimes not very diplomatic, was described by Philip Gourevitch, an author who wrote a reference book on the Genocide in Rwanda, as “unapologetically authoritarian”.
This “Rwandan miracle” must not make us forget that there is still much to be done. In a report released in February 2018 by Amnesty International, the organisation raised questions on repression of the opposition and serious cases of restrictions on various rights, criticism often described by President Paul Kagame as “excessive and unfair”.
On the other side, other institutions such as International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are not short of praises towards the country’s transformation, as the country is expected to take over the presidency of the Commonwealth and will host the organisation’s next summit slated for this coming Spring.
This country of Paul Kagame is not short of surprises as it has concurrently succeeded to put its former minister of foreign affairs Louise Mushikiwabo at the helm of the International Organisation of La Francophonie.
This small country has also signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the African Union and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), committing to establish an emergency transit mechanism in Rwanda for African refugees and asylum seekers. A strong political and diplomatic action that aims to show that Rwanda is a country to be reckoned with.
France’s influence is weakening in sub-Saharan Africa, to the benefit in particular of China, Turkey, or Russia. Does that scare you?
We are not afraid of anyone (Laughs). We are strong, at least mentally. Not because we are a powerful country, or have the most advanced technology, but because the path of our development and the policies that lead to it are clearly outlined. Whether it is China, Turkey, the United States, Russia, we deal with everyone. Most of them are neither our friends nor our enemies. By principle, Rwanda does not interfere in the internal affairs of these countries, and they also expect our support on several issues. If we have our point of view on these subjects we share it. Otherwise, we choose to remain silent.
What do you expect from France? Forgiveness? Business? Investments?
Between Rwanda and France, so many things have happened, so much has been done ... Today, we are looking more to the future than the past. However, it turns out that President Macron is a president whose point of view is not influenced by the past ... There is a new spirit. There are indications that the relations between our two countries have improved. Like the recent visit of the French Development Agency. French Businessmen have been visiting Rwanda looking for investments. We’ve made two official visits to France at the invitation of President Macron. We now have a new ambassador to France and Louise Mushikiwabo, our former Minister of Foreign Affairs, is the head of the International Organisation of La Francophonie. All of this is very positive. If you look at the past, you don’t forgive. There are things you never forget, but there are things you can forgive. (Laughter).
We cannot always look for excuses. It is up to everyone to take up their responsibility and apologise if they deem it is necessary.
You have been in power for 20 years, what are the challenges you have encountered in rebuilding the nation?
Almost everything was an obstacle. In 1994, we had to rebuild everything from scratch. The country was completely devastated, there was literally nothing left. But the first obstacle was to bring people together. People were torn out in their minds, in their psychology they had been forced to think that they are different and that they have absolutely nothing to do with each other. There were the victims on one side and the perpetrators on the other. The vast majority had lost everything. I mean everything. It was a huge obstacle. It’s hard to describe.
How to convince each group to live together with each other again? Many told us, “But what are you talking about? How do you want me to forgive?” We replied that we had a future and a country to bring together and build. By saying this and implementing it, you know deep down that the logic is hard to understand. But many who had lost everything have forgiven and made sense of our logic. This is how we slowly started to get people to live together while providing a framework for reconstruction. In 1994, it was necessary to rethink security, to bring back the best medical personnel in hospitals filled with those who were wounded. We had to reopen schools, bring food. We did this with the help of our partners who provided assistance and funding.
But we also needed to invest in ourselves to ensure that we were not constantly assisted. These obstacles are still present.
Rwanda has had economic growth of more than 7% for 5 years. What is behind this growth? Is there a Rwandan miracle?
Our economy has been doing well for over the last 15 years with an annual growth of around 7 to 8%. And according to the figures of the institutions that monitor our economy, we reached 10% in 2019. I say all this with great caution, but, in 2020 and in 2021, our growth will be more than 8%. If this is the Rwandan miracle, then we must continue in this direction, even if we do nothing supernatural. Like all other countries in the world, we are affected by many factors that are not under our control, such as the prices of raw materials. But we focus on agriculture, tourism, security, improving services, infrastructure ... After these sectors, the others will follow ...
Isn’t the change, first of all, that of mindset?
Rwandans were not working because they had this mindset of assistantship. If you gave them the minimum, if you provided the basic needs, then people were satisfied with it. Currently, the mindset is not the same. To achieve this result, we have invested in the population, in particular our young people, and in education. We have provided solutions to the prevailing health situations. We have acquired new skills. Young people are well educated, they can compete on the job market not only in Rwanda but also across the region and on the global market. All of this is starting to bear fruit. We have evolved in our governance: understanding what is good for Rwandans, making good changes, looking at public accounts, to constantly formulate adequate policies.
Is your model inspired by that of Singapore?
Yes. All of Africa can draw inspiration from this country. Half a century ago, it was at the same level of development as Africa. When you go to Jakarta, Singapore, Malaysia, Korea, you are amazed by what you see. We have a lot to learn from them.
What can Africa learn from Asia?
A lot! How to invest in infrastructure, technology, security, education, trade, how to attract investment, etc. But above all, you have to start by investing in people. The rest will follow. What is needed is to give everyone a fair share. And not just one group enjoying everything.
Rwanda is regularly cited as an example in the fight against corruption, how did you get there, and above all how did you make Rwandans adopt your approach?
We quickly understood that corruption was an obstacle to our rebuilding. And that the people were paying a high price. We had to make people understand that corruption is serious. It is often done by prominent personalities, civil servants, leaders, sometimes, even members of the government. The people were victims of this corruption and nobody thought it benefitted them. People resorted to corruption because there was no alternative. This is why we have put in place clear rules and policies to fight corruption and to ensure that there is no impunity. Whether it is education, health, purchasing medicines or any other service for the population, you don’t have to pay anyone to get the things you are entitled to. Those higher up in level of responsibilities must set an example. Hence, in government, everyone has to pay for the education of their children just like ordinary citizens. We have enhanced this culture first in those with responsibilities, then in our society as a whole. Every penny we spend on the development of our country goes where we want it and not anywhere else. Rwandans quickly saw the benefits. It also helped change their mindset.
In West Africa, the CFA Franc will be dropped in favour of the Eco. Should Africa seize the opportunity to create a common currency?
Whether it is colonial history, whether it is a good thing or not, the most important thing today is that these leaders have decided to change the course of their recent history to move towards what they consider to be better for them. On the other hand, this choice should depend on the people of this region and their leaders. I see this as a positive development in this whole process: working in unity, looking out for their region is very important to strengthen the economy. It’s already positive to think about the present and the future.
You have made the environment a key priority. Why did this appeal to you as important?
It has been more than ten years now since we started implementing these environmental policies. Our slogan is: “Cleaner, Greener and Accountable”. Again, you have to go back to 1994 to understand. We inherited a conflict that completely destroyed our country, divided our people, everything came to a standstill. Rwandans needed to clean up everything spiritually and symbolically. We simply looked at our daily lives: in general, in the morning we clean our houses. I asked myself, why don’t we treat this country like our own home? Why don’t we wake up one morning or every morning and clean up? You will agree with me that for cleaning, you don’t need anything, you just need the resolve and the courage to do it! This is how we started. A large part of the garbage we collected was the plastic bottles that everyone used to throw carelessly after consumption.
At the same time like many developed countries, you have declared a real war on plastic…
It has been twelve years since we put in place measures against plastic in all its forms. We have carefully considered the danger of plastic waste. It was not enough to grasp this, it was also necessary to think of solutions. They had to be credible and present opportunities for business. Our tragedy also had a “positive” effect in developing this kind of policy and I’m not saying it to be cynical. But when you start from zero, or even below zero, you have an obligation not to repeat the mistakes of the past. So, we decided to try policies that make sense for our future.
Was the issue of the environment considered in the reconciliation of Rwandans? Has it been taken into account in the reconstruction of national identity?
Absolutely. Unfortunately, it was because of our tragedy that we had to rethink these issues. I’m not saying that what happened is good. I am emphasizing the fact that it helped us to change course and strengthen peace between people who had lost everything and were divided. Having a clean environment allows you to regain confidence in yourself and in others. The environment is also a factor in a fresh start on a healthy basis. And as I said before, people also want to clear their minds, have better state of mind. In 1994, we were looking for common ambitions and challenges that could bring people together: environmental issues were essential.
Rwanda has set up a high-end tourist offer and seems to be keeping away from large tourist flows ...
Yes, and for a reason: our country is small. So, when you are small, you have to increase the value of your offer. And also protect natural wonders like the mountain gorillas in the Virunga National Park because they are the last survivors of the species in this region, living between Uganda, the DRC and Rwanda. This small place is the only one in the world to preserve them; if we decide to open this place to more visitors, the park risks being quickly damaged. But if you are selective, then you can offer a product of great value, people come and appreciate all our efforts to preserve this world heritage. This is what we are trying to maintain in Akagera National Park where you can find the Big Five. We quickly understood that it is essential to increase the value of sites by making them exclusive. The results are already there with a constant increase in visitors and tourists.
In your cabinet, in your government, in administration and even in international organisations (Louise Mushikiwabo at the head of the international organisation of La Francophonie) women are very present. Was this movement easy to implement and welcomed in your country?
Let me begin by emphasizing that we are not doing enough. On this issue, we are idealistic but also realistic. Women in our society have not been accorded their due value. Sometimes it’s because of the culture, the level of education, the wishes of their families, etc. Such a mindset allowed many Rwandans to think there is no reason to support gender equality. However, 52% of Rwandans are women. How can a country grow while leaving behind or far behind 52% of its population? It does not make sense. Women should be given equal chance as men, and this from childhood.
Do you encourage young Rwandans to leave their country to study, work or live in Asia, the United States or Europe?
We are investing in our education system so that students can feel comfortable to live and stay there. But we are realistic and we recognise that we don’t have everything we want here. So, we are offering scholarships to encourage students to learn other skills elsewhere: in Africa, Asia, the United States, and Europe. Most of them return, others remain in their host country, but the majority keep strong ties to Rwanda. The system self-regulates with those who leave, those who return and those who chose to stay.
How do you see Rwanda in ten years?
Let me give you a few key points: over the past twenty years, our country has undergone enormous transformations. We have managed to lift millions of people out of poverty, we have reduced inequalities in the capital as well as in rural areas. By 2030, I want to believe that we will see even more transformation taking place where there are still poor populations. We are talking about planning, transformation to improve the standard of living. Another indicator that is important to us is life expectancy. Between the 2000s and today, do you know that life expectancy here in Rwanda increased from 49 to 67 years?
Some international institutions accuse you of manipulating statistics on poverty…
We don’t care about such voices. Since you are in Kigali, go where you want and ask Rwandans, they will tell you whatever you want. You can believe it or not. The rest is just politics.
Are you afraid of radical Islamism?
Several countries in the region are affected, so we are all concerned. We are not really safe, because some of those who sow terror are sometimes present in Rwanda and want to make it their rear base. We are watching these developments closely. No one is immune. We are very careful.
For the French citizens who know little about you, who is President Kagame? A citizen of the world, an African, someone who has been shaped by his past, history, tragedy?
First of all, I am a human being. But circumstances and nature make me a different human being from you ... Several events – all complicated – also had a profound impact on me. It all depends on where you were born, what has happened in your life. But you can decide in life to do good or bad. You can decide to be honest, you can decide to be bad towards others, to be selfish, generous. But I always try to consciously choose to be on the right side of what humanity brings our way. I don’t think I’ve succeeded yet, but I’m still trying.
Could you still be President of Rwanda in 2030?
It will depend on many factors, the circumstances, the environment in which the country will evolve. Personally, I want to some day, perhaps, in the future, to rest and live off my other occupations. I am not welded to this office I don’t see it just as an office, I see it as a responsibility. I have carried a lot of responsibility maybe it is time other people will show up and carry on and I keep helping the country through other means.
What legacy do you want to leave behind for your country, Africa and the world?
Each year, I take stock of what I have experienced, what I have done, what I have been able to accomplish and what I have participated in. If in my lifetime I have been able to help solve many of the problems that have affected Rwanda, that have affected me personally and that has affected the continent, then I could say that this would be my legacy.
They say you love soccer. Are you more Arsenal or PSG?
I like sports in general, football in particular. I cannotrankteams, but there is of course Arsenal that I have been a fan of for more than thirty years! (Laughter). Then there is PSG, whichrecently became a partner. They have very good players. I would love to attend one of their matches when the next opportunity presents itself. But there are alsoother teams like Barcelona, Madrid, Juventus... I played basketball when I was young. I still watch basketball matches but I don’t play anymore. I also played volleyball, but now, at my age, I don’t play anymore. When I have time, Itry to play tennis.
Your country has embarked on an unprecedented promotional campaign with the Arsenal and PSG football teams, is the investment worth it?
Yes, absolutely, it’s great. Our investment with Arsenal has worked well. We are seeing an increase in the number of British visitors. I think we have probably earned no less than five times what we spent. For Paris Saint-Germain, we don’t have any figures yet. The partnership has just been signed.
What about cycling?
Cycling is a very important sport for our country. People come from France, from the United States for competitions, they organise them all over the country. We are a candidate to organize the next World Championship, to be held in 2025. We may be the first African country to host this global competition.
Do you make sport a tool of “soft power”, like Qatar and Saudi Arabia?
Yes, sport is a tool of soft power, because it connects people. That’s the beauty of sports. When people play sports, they don’t ask questions about who you are, where your family comes from, etc., and in the end, everyone is happy to be together, whether we win or lose.
An aerial view of downtown Kigali. Under Kagame, Rwanda has consistently recorded impressive growth rates. File.
The country has entered strategic partnerships with global football brands, namely Paris Saint-Germain of France and Arsenal of England.
Tour du Rwanda is ranked among Africa’s top two cycling events. File.
A family of rare mountain gorillas in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. Tourism is one of the major sources of the country’s foreign exchange. File.
This interview was first published in LE POINT