On March 23, President Paul Kagame sat down with Francois Soudan for an interview that first appeared in Jeune Afrique magazine on March 29. The following is a translated version of the interview:
A peasant woman publicly declares that she will commit suicide if he does not run for another term, a businessman says he will go into exile, soldiers threaten to desert and opinions in favour of him staying in power have increased on radios and newspapers in Kinyarwanda: there is no doubt, the campaign for the re-election of Paul Kagame in 2017 has begun. What is surprising, for an observer used to seeing these kinds of orchestrated and manipulated manoeuvers in other places, is that this one is not pretence. The “desire for Kagame” is really there; it does not matter if it takes changing the Constitution, which today forbids the incumbent President to run for a third term. The Reasons: the undeniable positive economic and social achievements in thanks to the man who has ruled with an iron fist for the last 15 years, but also and mostly because of the fear of the void for a country that is still traumatized by memories of genocide.
Life Insurance: It is rare to find such a big gap between what is said and written on the international scene about the Rwanda Government and what is the perception of the majority of the citizens of this country. The lack of political and civic rights highlighted by different NGOs and the trials of opposition members almost go unnoticed for those who see access to food, health care and education - meaning 90 per cent of 11 million of Rwandans, Hutus and Tutsis inclusive- as their ultimate priority. For them, Kagame is a life insurance that guarantees order and progress. Many of them think that if “Rwanda’s Lee Kuan Yew” leaves, it would mark the opening of a new season of machetes.
One might as well admit with near certainty that if the 57-year -old man request for another term in the next two years is faced with opposition, it will come mainly from outside and will slide onto the slopes of thousand hills just like water would on the feather of a heron in Akagera. “Strangers see only what they already know” a Rwandan proverb says. And in Kigali, the clean and safe capital of a country managed like a Japanese Kaisha, no one can picture Paul Kagame as a gentleman-farmer in his ranch at Lake Muhazi…
Jeune Afrique: On April 7, Rwanda will mark the 21st commemoration of the Genocide against the Tutsi. How do you reconcile this important tradition with the necessity of presenting another image: that of a country which is in the process of reconciliation and is also in the process of social and economic development?
Paul Kagame: These two options are not contradictory but complementary. One is about our country’s history and its collective memory, our duty to pay tribute to victims of these atrocities. The other one is about how we live our daily lives which tells another story deeply related to the previous one. At the heart of both, there are our people, their pain, resilience and success.
The debate on the amendment of the Constitution is now an open and public in Rwanda. Particularly Article 101, which currently limits Presidential terms to two, which rules out your candidacy in 2017. You say that you are not concerned but, as you know, everything revolves around one person: you.
That’s right. But what is interesting, meaningful and in the end embarrassing is that this debate on 2017 was not started by Rwandans. Since three or four years ago, the international media, consulates and NGOs give the persistent impression of being obsessed by this question, as if internal matters of this country concerns them more than the population itself. Now, it is true that time has come for us to debate on that issue democratically, calmly and independently. Conclusions will be drawn by Rwandans and only them. We don’t have the pretentiousness to tell France or the United States who should lead them; the same principle should be applied to us.
Is that your answer to those who, like President François Hollande or the US Secretary of State John Kerry, request African Head of States not to amend their Constitutions to allow themselves to run for another term?
Absolutely. In fact, we don’t feel concerned by those kinds of lessons. It goes without saying that nobody can dictate our actions.
If the majority of Rwandans ask you to run for another term coming 2017, won’t it be a failure on your side? Why weren’t you able to groom a credible successor, or why didn’t you let a credible successor rise?
I have trouble following your point: what you are advocating is simply anti-democratic. Where have you seen, in a democracy, a President fabricate, groom and then impose a successor? That is applied only in monarchies and dictatorial regimes. Rwanda is neither one nor the other. It is not up to me to appoint my successor; it is up to the people to choose. We cannot be lectured to abide by standards of democracy and at the same time be accused of violating them. It is absurd.
For many observers, the programme is as follows: the Parliament will abrogate Article 101and then Rwandans will decide though a referendum. Is that right?
I have no idea and you are asking the wrong person. 2017, I repeat, is the People’s business.
At some point, it will be yours too. You will need to decide.
Yes, but that time has not yet come and other factors will have to be taken into account. My wife and children for example, would like me to be closer to them. They think this job is consuming and that it is time for me to be more present at home. I don’t blame them, especially because, if it were only up to me, my life would have taken a completely different path than the one that led me here. But history and circumstances didn’t want me to be confined to my family only. There are obligations that one cannot and should not escape.
If your decision is to run for another term, you know very well what the opposition and a section of the international community would say. That all these debate were manipulated and orchestrated, that you had no intention of stepping down…
Whether my decision is that one or the opposite, it would not change anything. Those who think that they have been given the mandate to manage Rwanda on behalf of Rwandans have decided long ago to fabricate their own history and elaborated their own scenario. Let’s imagine that I don’t run in 2017: they will say that people rejected me that the situation was no longer bearable, that I fled, I was afraid, and who knows what else. Let’s imagine that I run: it will be a proof that I am an autocrat. In one way or another, narratives made up externally are and will always be negative. But those narratives don’t matter. What matters for Rwandans, is progress, the quality of their life, good governance and the vision that their leaders are capable of. All the rest is trivial.
Interviewed some months ago by Foreign Affairs magazine on the possibility of amending the Constitution in Rwanda, the billionaire Philanthropist Mo Ibrahim, answered this: “Kagame has really managed to bring the country to the foreground and he has developed it. People admire him for that. That should be his legacy, and I hope he will make the right decision.” According to you, what did he mean by that?
The right decision will depend on circumstances and will not necessarily be what Mo Ibrahim has in mind. Mo has many good qualities, but he is not Rwandan and I am not a candidate for an award that is given only to Africans for the accomplishment of having stepped down even when they have accomplished nothing else for the people.
The award I am looking for is the one Mo Ibrahim would give to Rwandans for having achieved so much progress in such a small period of time, after surviving the brink of annihilation.
Every time a Rwandan personality dies, inside and outside the country, you are the number one suspect. The most recent are your former personal physician Dr Emmanuel Gasakure or the tycoon Assinapol Rwigara. Have you ever had enough of that?
Whether I have had enough or not, do you think it changes anything? Those who spread that insanity know why they do that and why they continue to do it: destroy, disturb, and make people believe that in Rwanda no one can die from natural death. All of that is of no interest to me, except maybe for psychologists. As far as I am concerned, I have neither the time nor the desire to think about that.
The NGO Freedom House and the Foreign and Commonwealth office are reported to be worried about the state of civil and political freedom in Rwanda. Do you take note of their recommendations?
I will take note when they start applying the same rules and standards to their own countries. When, for example, a black American is killed in the streets of a town just because he doesn’t have the right skin colour, will they dare question the President of that country, the same way they give themselves the right to blame me personally for everything and anything. I will give it importance when these institutions, NGOs and the media they use change their narrative and stop always writing the same thing, as if nothing had changed in Rwanda for the past 20 years. In the meantime, my job is to lead my country the best way I can. The day Rwandans will feel that I have failed, they will have the right to dismiss me, only their opinion matters in my eyes.
Actually, when Freedom House and other NGOs are said to evaluate the degree of freedom in Rwanda, they do it based on a restrictive and biased western definition of freedom. For us Rwandans, there is no freedom without the freedom of getting health care, education, shelter, food and electricity; there is no freedom without equality between men and women. We can therefore not understand each other.
The BBC Programme in Kinyarwanda was suspended five months ago after broadcasting a documentary with revisionist themes on the Genocide and its origins. Are you going to lift that ban?
We will see. That documentary was intentionally and maliciously made to divert, degrade and misrepresent our history with unbelievable media violence. We need to know why BBC wanted to play that game and we need those behind that to give us explanations. An Inquiry Committee was set up for that purpose. Our decision will depend on its findings.
Does freedom of expression really exist in Rwanda?
I meet tens of thousands of people during my meetings across the country. For hours, people speak, and I listen.
They criticize their leaders; they talk about their neighbours, their worries, their claims. I speak to them, I hold officials accountable and ask them to explain themselves and I make decisions. What is this if not freedom of expression?
Yet according to Reporters Without Borders reports and the Committee to Protect Journalists, the media is being muzzled...
This is actually what they claim by voluntarily ignoring the facts. They do not read our newspapers; they do not listen to our private radio stations. If they did their job, they would find that, contrary to what they say, in this country we can criticize the Government and criticize Kagame without going to jail. Our law does not sanction the critics. It only punishes abuse, defamation, incitement to hatred, and the promotion of genocide. Like in any democracy.
Do you consider yourself as a strong man, a statesman, or both at once?
I am a man who gave his life for the cause of his people and his country. So I’m not exactly reducible to a man off the street, I agree. For the rest, call me as you want. You can even ignore me, I do not mind.
You received former French President Nicolas Sarkozy in late February on the sidelines of a visit to the Unesco headquarters in Paris. Why did you want to meet him?
Mutual friends told me that he was available and that we could meet. When he was in office, Sarkozy took good initiatives to reduce and smooth over the dispute that existed between France and Rwanda. I wanted to tell him that again. We talked about it all, the progress that has been made, what we agree upon, and what we agree to disagree on as well as what remains to be done.
Did you discuss the internal politics of France?
No. It is a debate I have no place in.
During your interview with the French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, in Libreville in August, you had promised to write a letter to President Hollande to explain exactly your accusations against France during the Genocide. Is that correct?
No. I have no commitment to make, certainly not of this type, with a Minister of Foreign Affairs. I write if and when I want, and I have nothing to promise. The Foreign ministers discuss with their counterparts, as I do with my counterparts.
Are you concerned about the deterioration of the internal situation in Burundi, a few months ahead of the Presidential election?
According to what we are told from different sources, we have reason to have some serious concerns as neighbours. The political climate is tense, there are risks that it will explode and we worry that the potential violence can potentially be exploited against us by negative forces operating in eastern DR Congo. But we especially have concerns for the people of Burundi. They are our brothers and sisters. Anything that affects them affects us.
For over a month, the Congolese armed forces launched Operation Sokola 2 to put an end to the rebellion of Rwandan Hutu rebels of the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) in both Kivus. Are you confident in the results of this offensive against your enemies?
I’ll believe it when the results, as you say, will be there. If the results show up, I’ll be the first to congratulate.
The Congolese army is fighting alone for now, without the support of Monusco (the UN mission in DR Congo) and the rapid intervention brigade composed of South African and Tanzanian soldiers. What do you think of this inaction?
I can see, like everyone else, that this brigade was created to fight the FDLR but it has not moved even though it was extremely aggressive when it came to attacking M23 rebels (March 23 Movement) which was mistakenly considered close to us. That says a lot about the hypocrisy and double standards that governs this type of intervention. And this only strengthens our resolve to only rely on our own strength.
The FDLR is only a weak guerrilla made of approximately 2,000 men. Do you still consider them a military threat to Rwanda?
That is not the issue. If the groups that Monusco, the Congolese government and the international community as a whole consider - or pretend to consider –as criminal groups for years, still operate without any serious offensive being mounted against them then that means the problem is elsewhere. Even more so if they are weakened, defeating them should be that much easier! But nothing happens. The problem should be looked at from the side of those who work with them, to protect them or refuse to address their cause.
At the last Rwanda national leadership retreat that you chaired in the beginning of March, you have once again urged the participants to acquire the culture of performance and accountability. You have been saying this for years. Are you not tired of repeating yourself?
No. Repeating myself is part of my job. It’s not my favourite part, but for it to sink in, you need to keep repeating it.
Why are you obsessed with the need to be accountable?
Because no one can produce results if they are not held accountable. How can we win the health and education battle if part of the money dedicated to it disappears with impunity? It is a requirement that I apply to myself as well; everyone can hold me accountable.
Will this be the case during the 2017 presidential election?
This is the case at all the time; every year, every month, every day. And Rwandans do not shy away from it.
“You should not claim your due for your past sacrifices, we do not live in the past”, you recently told the cadres of the Rwandan Patriotic Front. Don’t you have the impression that you are often too hard, too demanding, and too uncompromising with your collaborators, your ministers and your people?
Do not count on me to apologize for that. I know that Rwandans work hard, but I also know that we must always push the limits if we are to achieve our objectives. I applied this rule to myself throughout my life. If we want to become a middle-income country in five years, we have no other choice.
It is not an easy job to work with you. You ask for perfection!
Yes I do. Knowing that perfection is not human and that I am a human myself.
Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore, has died. Was he your model?
Evidently, an inspiration. A great man, driven by great principles and who achieved great things with a small country. Lee Kuan Yew has transformed Singapore and the lives of his people. This is also what we are doing in Rwanda.