Rwandan President Paul Kagame followed a well-trod route to power in Africa, from child refugee to guerrilla leader to civilian president.
Like other African strongmen, human rights groups have accused him of abuse of power, particularly for slow progress on human rights and for, they say, using the 1994 Genocide as an excuse to repress the opposition.
But since he deposed President Pasteur Bizimungu and assumed the presidency in 2000 and was formally elected in 2003, Kagame’s government has also racked up impressive successes.
It shows no tolerance for corruption, it has been hailed for its success in fighting HIV/Aids and is one of the first in Africa to tackle overpopulation.
Rwandan coffee is now some of the most sought after in the world and its eco-tourism industry is booming, but the effects of the country’s bloody recent past linger on. Kagame, 49, met bureau chief Alex Perry at his offices in Kigali.
TIME: What’s your vision for Rwanda?
Kagame: This country has a very tragic history. Genocide, colonial history, and so on. So the vision is informed by this history, but built on the desire to say: ‘We can make a difference.
Rwanda can develop, can rebuild itself, can build a totally new nation from the one we experienced in the past.’ We have to create an open and democratic society.
We try to create peace and stability, a country of laws. We fight corruption. All these things are foundations on which we build socio-economic development.
The vision is about development, stability, about letting that instability that has characterized Rwanda for so many years become history. Put a lot of value in our people, give them knowledge and give them skills, and make sure they are part of the process.
TIME: There are some analyses of the Genocide that suggest the background to the ethnic division was overpopulation. Too many people, and not enough resources.
If that’s true, then development becomes a way to get past the divisions of the past. If people prosper, they don’t fight any more. Do you agree with that?
Kagame: I don’t think it’s correct that the Genocide happened as a result of overpopulation. The seeds of Genocide were planted here six or seven decades ago, when the country was not overpopulated.
For example in 1932, the Belgians introduced the identity card, to make a difference between a Hutu and Tutsi. But it is true that prosperity can really resolve some of these problems.
If people are thinking about how to move forward, if people see the benefit in associating with one another and think in a broader way, you really have no time to hate one another. You start valuing one another instead.
TIME: How are you going to create this prosperity?
Kagame: The most important resource of Rwanda is the people of Rwanda. That’s true in any country, but more so in Rwanda because of the lack of other resources.
That’s why we want to invest in healthcare systems and education, and why we made the choice to promote science and technology. We are looking at how to modernize our agriculture and shift from that to other things.
So we are looking at agriculture, tourism, energy, infrastructure, telecommunications, mining. And we are looking at setting up institutions and tax regimes that are favourable to investors.
And we do all this not just looking at Rwanda. We are trying to present Rwanda as the heart of Africa, to (make Rwanda) attractive as an access [point] to other markets in our region.
TIME: One focus of yours is population control. You’re trying to limit families to three children.
Kagame: We are not forcing people. There is no law. We are encouraging people by showing the benefits of smaller families. Our population growth is very high.
And Rwanda is already one of the most crowded countries in the world. As much as the economy is growing and expect 6.5% this year population growth cuts a deep hole in that. And with the levels of poverty we have, the growth is simply unsustainable.
The population is 9 million now, but in 10 years, it could be double. So we have to be careful. We are trying to formulate incentives for people to have fewer children. But it all starts with education.
TIME: You have an ambivalence towards the international community.
Kagame: Look at the past few decades. Rwanda was always among those countries that was praised for one thing or another.
Even when there was nothing to praise Rwanda for, really. Under (former hard-line Hutu President Juvenal) Habyarimana’s government, people were talking about how Rwanda is peaceful, Rwanda is stable.
But our people were just living on hand-outs. Now, the question comes for our donors and partners: having spent so much money, what difference did it make?
In the last 50 years, you’ve spent $400 billion in aid to Africa. But what is there to show for it? And the donors should ask: what are we doing wrong, or, what are the people we are helping doing wrong?
Obviously somebody’s not getting something right. Otherwise, you’d have something to show for your money. Rwanda has been poor throughout its history. Since independence, instead of getting better, it has got worse.
Our per capita income is below $300 [per year]. Sometimes closer to $200. We need to challenge one another, we need to challenge ourselves.
How can the developed world, the donor community, talk about funding different projects in Africa, yet after so many years, you do not find much that has been done?
For me, the answer is that there were mistakes on both sides. The Africans have not been able to take full ownership and responsibility for (work done in our countries). The donors have also made a lot of mistakes.
Many times they have assumed they are the ones who know what countries in Africa need. They want to be the ones to choose where to put this money, to be the ones to run it, without any accountability.
In other cases, they have simply associated with the wrong people and money gets lost and ends up in people’s pockets. We should correct that.
We should be working together, and agreeing where to put money, so that we know it will make a difference and are able to monitor that.
TIME: One part of the international community, the human rights groups, are pretty critical. They talk about the arrest of your political rivals, they say you use the Genocide as an excuse, they say that’s also used as a reason to jail reporters.
What is your response to that? And why is there such a split on Rwanda, between those that love the government for its progressive attitudes and those who accuse it of repression?
Kagame: There are critics. But I don’t think they are being fair. The same people who may be behind some of these criticisms are the people who have historically been associated with what has taken place in this country, before we came to power. And these were the people who were praising Rwanda for progress, which was not there at all.
It’s like today: always criticizing Rwanda and the government and not accepting the improvements or that Rwanda is much better today than it has ever been. I believe they are doing that because they are defensive.
They created the wrong impression of Rwanda, they were part of this very tragic history, they carry a responsibility on their shoulders.
So they don’t want to accept the new and the good that has come out of this whole struggle. And it has been a struggle.
We have had to wage a war, an armed struggle, we have had to go through the aftermath of the Genocide and re-building the country, so many difficulties. And they don’t want to accept this.
And some of the things they criticize Rwanda for are not well explained. They talk about arrests. Well, there are going to be arrests. Based on the law.
We have put laws and a constitution in place. We have had to fight things like corruption. We have had to fight things like sectarianism. Genocide was built on divisive politics. So what do people want us to do?
And they say we use Genocide as an excuse. This is really an insult. Did the Genocide happen or not?
It happened. And I don’t think any of those [critics] could deny it. What do we need an excuse for? What can’t we do, what can’t we achieve that we need an excuse?
We have a record to prove our worth. If there is something that we need to stand up and fight for, we stand up and fight.
It’s okay to have people that don’t like us, who criticize the right things we are doing.
Maybe sometimes we may not do things right. Its okay, we listen to that. If there any criticism that is fair, we will take it on board. If it’s not correct, we move ahead.
But to people who are making criticism, Rwandans and foreigners, I would say: take a moment, and look at what we went through. [The type of experience] that would make many countries failed states.
But we didn’t fail. A country where a million people have been lost. A country which has really been shattered beyond what you could imagine. A country that had 3 million people displaced.
Every institution completely destroyed. Starting not from zero, but below. And we had to bring these people back together, people whose minds and hearts were seriously wounded.
TIME: Is there a sense in which, if you’re trying to avoid a Genocide, then there has to be some sacrifices in freedom? For instance, not allowing people to incite ethnic hatred. Is Rwanda free, or free within limits right now?
Kagame: I think there is a lot of freedom, and with time, it is only increasing. But if people expected us to start from 100%, and I don’t know where that exists anyway, even in the countries that come to give us lessons.
But for us, first of all we have to create institutions, laws, we have to educate people and move forward and see these freedoms constantly increase, to the highest level we can take them.
As early as 1994, immediately after the Genocide, some people came here from Europe and they were asking us: ‘When are you going to have elections?’ And I thought these people were crazy. Elections by who?
In what situation? We were busy battling all sorts of problems. Displaced people, inside and outside. The dead were still lying on the streets.
I could see from this statement from these people that maybe they weren’t ill-intentioned, but they were absolutely ignorant.
We are very mindful of our history.
For instance, in our past, power has created problems in Rwanda. People used to think it was just a problem between Hutus and Tutsis. But when they came to power, even Hutus had their own conflicts.
There was a power struggle between Hutus from the south and Hutus from the north. This had nothing to do with the Tutsis. So we looked at this and said there are many things that can create problems.
Second: power. We need to put institutions and structures in place that we avoid exclusion of any kind. So power-sharing became one of the pillars of our constitution. And that’s how we came to embrace things like consensus-building.
We want people to buy into what is being done in the country and feel they are part of it. And we say you have to play the politics of inclusion. These became our guiding principles.
TIME: How do you explain the 2003 election figure, recording that you won 95% of the vote? A lot of people look at that and say: ‘That’s just not credible.’
Kagame: Why? The burden is on them to prove their case. But I can prove my case. It all depends on the context in the country.
In our case, what were the circumstances? People coming out of a Genocide. A lot of chaos. So people wanted peace and security, to break away from the past.
And they really focused on what could bring that. And what was it? People said the Rwandan Patriotic Front were the ones who stopped the Genocide. They have worked very hard to return security to the country.
We reassured everyone even those who took part in the Genocide, apart from the masterminds, we gave them hope. So all the minds of the country were tuned to this.
And when they looked at the candidates, they saw people who had been in politics for so many years who could give them nothing. They saw people who had been in exile and who came back for the elections and thought they could build on ethnic sentiments.
It didn’t work. They also thought that foreigners would prop them up and make them President. But that kind of politics doesn’t work any more here. And they lost miserably. You know what the turnout was? 96%.
Everybody turned out to vote. People were simply united in voting for what might bring peace. Maybe in 2010, it will different, because there will be different circumstances, because progress will have been made.
TIME: There this enduring mystery over how the Genocide could ever have happened. What made people behave like that?
Kagame: It’s not easy to explain. Some of the things that were done, I still cannot speak about. We have to do research into it, we have to look into ourselves and work out why it happened in Rwanda.
People were killing members of their own family. Fathers were killing their own children because some of them resembled their wife, who was a Tutsi. How do you explain that?