Paul Kagame, who has presided over Rwanda’s recovery since his guerrilla army ended the 1994 genocide, takes a dim view of the prescriptions that often come with western aid. He has been on the receiving end, having relied on donors to bankroll his government.
But he is also sober about the benefits of China’s more mercantilist approach. Ultimately, he argues, it is up to Africans to determine whether they can build more equal relations with the rest of the world as trading patterns shift.
“It doesn’t matter where the money comes from, where the investments come from. It’s how we ourselves are prepared to maximise the impact,” he tells the Financial Times.
Kagame shares with many African leaders an admiration for the contribution China is making, building roads, railways and power plants, and the speed with which these projects are taking shape. Yet Africans must ensure this does not lead to fresh dependency.
“We don’t want to be dictated to about what we need to do for our country,” he says. “We don’t want to feel owned or indebted forever. We want a good relationship that benefits us and, if the others benefit as well, so be it”.
Rwanda is not one of the principal beneficiaries of the scramble for African resources. Nonetheless, Mr Kagame has leveraged the country’s tragic history with a track record in fostering development to win foreign suitors.
The Chinese are financing a vast new convention centre in Kigali, the capital. Cadres of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) have quietly built relations in Vietnam. Rwanda, meanwhile, is the only African country to receive assistance from the Singapore Co-operation Enterprise.
As for Europeans, says Kagame, they have overestimated their ability to shape events in Africa. But this, too, is changing, he believes, as competition for African attention tempers hubris among former colonial powers.
There is no question about this, he says. There have also been other events globally that have shown the limitations of the west.
“Keeping western donors has not been easy. Britain is the most generous, prepared to listen as well as advice,” Mr Kagame says.
But when the Rwandan leader tires of donor bureaucrats, he can still call on powerful allies. Among others, he can count on Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister, Howard Schultz, the chief executive of Starbucks, and Rick Warren, the influential US preacher.
From this group, ‘the Friends of Rwanda’, his government receives pro bono technical assistance, help in attracting investment and occasional lobbying support.
This makes Mr Kagame one of the more innovative African players on the global scene.
“My preoccupation”, he says, “is how do we make Africa, this one billion people, relevant so that we can partner with other members of the global community, instead of being just dependants or victims caught up in between the conflicts of the key players”?
This story was first published by The Financial Times