Last week President Paul Kagame spoke at Yale University in the United States on the right of nations, regardless of their size or power, to pursue their legitimate national goals without interference and called for mutual respect between nations.
This was the Kagame the world has come to know, doing two things he always does: saying things as they are and making a case for everyone to have their place in the sun and get a fair share of sunshine.
The Yale lecture comes after others President Kagame has given at some of the world’s premier universities.
In the last five years alone, he has spoken at Oxford, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia and Beijing, to mention only a few.
Every year, these and other universities send their students to Rwanda as part of their learning experience. Meeting the President and having a discussion with him on a wide range of topics is a must-do on these study tours.
It is not the universities alone that have found President Kagame a compelling speaker. Top think-tanks also do. Again, in the last five years he has spoken at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, the Institut Francaise des Relations Internationales in Paris, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Atlantic Council, both in Washington, among others.
There must be something about the man and his country that the world’s top brains find attractive and want to share.
For some reason, this something special also angers a group of individuals united by their loathing for President Kagame and incensed by the progress Rwanda has made.
They would be happier if Rwanda was a basket case in which they played an important role as advisors, consultants and intermediaries with the powerful nations and do-gooders. As it is, their services are not required, and that annoys them more.
But the less said about these cantankerous creatures the better. I won’t even name them. Let us instead ask the question they should be asking. What is it the universities and think-tanks, and, indeed world leaders and development partners, find in Kagame and his Rwanda?
Rwandans know what it is and now some in the universities do. The answer lies in what he is as a person and leader and in his achievements.
The recent history of Rwanda presents an interesting study in transformational leadership. A little over two decades ago, Rwanda was a little-known country.
Its people were isolated, lacked exposure to the rest of the world and were very short on confidence. They were accustomed to, and actually expected, handouts from do-gooders.
Then it got worse. A million people were wiped out in the Genocide against the Tutsi. Everything was destroyed – the economy, institutions. Rwanda was fast becoming a failed state.
Another phase followed: resuscitation, recovery and rebuilding, and then development. Nearly all development indicators show progress. Rwanda broke out of isolation, became noticed and respected. Its counsel is much sought after.
It is a key player in maintaining world peace. Now the country is on the verge of becoming a middle-income economy. Truly remarkable and worth learning about.
Two things excite academics: things that work and those that don’t and why. In modern times, especially in the study of effective leadership and management, the case study has become an invaluable tool in understanding what works and why. In this sense President Kagame and Rwanda provide an excellent illustration of how to transform a society.
President Kagame may be described as a solutions leader. He is not known for expounding on theory and philosophy – the universities are better placed for that – and it is not because he knows nothing about them. Rather, it is because he is more concerned with practice and results.
As noted, he tells it as it is. He will not tell his audience what they would rather hear, but rather what the truth is, even if it is inconvenient. Isn’t that what universities are for – to seek the truth? President Kagame is not the evasive diplomat or appeasing politician who will stay clear of unpleasant truths.
Nor is he the sort of leader for whom straight talking and insult are synonymous. Civility is an important trait and does not in any way subtract from firmness. To use a popular expression: with Kagame what you see is what you get.
It is this that frustrates some people who are used to placing individuals into compartments and reducing complex ideas into a single or quotable slogan. They can’t do that with President Kagame or his ideas.
The only ones that come to mind are ‘home-grown solutions’ and ‘agaciro’. And so when they cannot find a convenient and fashionable pigeon-hole to put him in, they resort to name-calling and insults.
The universities know better and seek to tap into his experience to enrich our knowledge of governance and development. In many ways, both are complementary.
He provides lessons of how things work out in practice. He gives lessons in skills of statecraft and nation-building in resource-constrained countries.
They fashion the broad theoretical and philosophical framework for wider application. The world is richer for that relationship.