Face to face with power, I froze!

On Monday this week, I stood face to face with two of Africa’s most powerful men, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame and his Ugandan counterpart, Yoweri Museveni and for about two minutes, I inhaled presidential air. It was an inebriating experience.

On Monday this week, I stood face to face with two of Africa’s most powerful men, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame and his Ugandan counterpart, Yoweri Museveni and for about two minutes, I inhaled presidential air. It was an inebriating experience.

This was on the opening day of the Global African Investment Summit that took place at the Kigali Convention Centre from Monday to Tuesday.

 

The two presidents had just finished making their submissions on a high level panel and were touring an exhibition in which my organization participated, on the sidelines of the summit.

 

People love to ask, "How does it really feel to hold State power?"

 

Until one actually experienced that power, I believe any attempt at answering how it feels would just be sheer imagination.

But after my Monday experience, I can fairly tell you how it feels like, to be within an inch of power, especially for the first time.

First, you freeze while experiencing perspiration at the same time; you momentarily lose your memory and just stand there in absolute awe of a fellow human being.

Commentators including myself spend a good chunk of our space writing about power but when stood face to face with the men that exercise that power, most would simply cave-in. Oh yes!

There is an anecdote in a book I can’t remember about one American President who walked into a room to address foreign ambassadors; they could tell the President wasn’t in a cheerful mood. As everyone stood there wondering what could have gone wrong, the President said something.

“Gentlemen, I killed my mother-in-law last night.”

All the diplomats in the room, except the French ambassador, said in a chorus.

“Thank you Mr. President, thank you.”

The French ambassador, shock written all over his face, looked at his counterparts in disbelief before turning to the President.

“Mr. President, of course you are not a murderer. You did not kill anyone.”

Thus is the effect of being close to power. It disorients you and affects the performance of one’s otherwise normal senses; otherwise why would diplomats clap at the President’s revelation that he had murdered a person?

In my case, many times I have been in the same room as presidents, asked brave questions at press conferences, but I had never been as close to any as I was on Monday.

Initially, I had planned to engage President Kagame and Museveni on two points they had made during the panel discussion at the summit. But my mental script disappeared from memory only to return after the gentlemen had left.

Here I was facing two men with a combined experience of over 50 years of military and government management; how do you start engaging them? 

Earlier, President Kagame had remarked that it is high time Africans put a cost to the time often wasted in bureaucracies that result in delayed investment projects.

His Ugandan counterpart added that most of the issues leaders need to fix in order to spur intra-regional trade are software in nature, just requiring pronouncements backed by strong political will from leaders, to make things happen.

So I had intended to share with them a classical example of a scenario where time is wasted and how a solution would be a simple pronouncement by their two governments.

There are hundreds of Rwandans who work in Kampala but have their families in Kigali just as there are thousands of Ugandans working in Kigali with their families in Kampala.

Although most of these people are in the lower middle class, they can’t afford a regular air ticket on RwandAir, to visit their families and back to work every weekend.

The 40-minute flight between the two cities costs roughly US$225 or Rwf180,000 on our RwandAir; that is way too much for many a person.

Most resort to the night bus on a Friday night, on our bumpy roads at Rwf10,000, about US$12; and brace for a ten-hour road trip with barely any sleep. 

The two presidents can make flying between the two countries much more affordable for travelers hence saving them a lot of time but also boosting consumption of other taxable products. How?

An airline official told me; for every passenger that lands at Entebbe, the airline pays a tax of US$102 of which Uganda retains US$57 and US$45 to Kigali.

Had I not caved in on Monday, I should have asked the two leaders to waive this prohibitive airport tax so we could have our flights at US$123, around Rwf90,000.

The two governments would lose nothing for we would have more people flying between Kigali and Kampala and they would have plenty of disposable cash to spend on consumption in the process paying consumption related taxes such as VAT.

So instead of spending ten hours on the bus, it would take Allan Brian Ssenyonga only 45 minutes to go to Kampala, check on his extended family every Friday evening and another 45 minutes on Sunday evening to return to his workstation in Kigali.

Fast travel should be software to spur trade in the region. Governments should make air transport as affordable as possible by removing deterrent taxes and regain ‘lost’ revenues through increased consumption of other taxable products.

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