KIGALI - On October 23, President Paul Kagame turned 50 years old, and his family organised a grand birthday party for him during a private function held at Jali Club on December 23. At this well-attended event, different people spoke of the President’s life, his personality, and military and political life. A beaming Kagame also shared his rich experience, delving into private issues such as his close relationship with fallen comrade Maj. Gen. Fred Gisa Rwigema.
He also talked about the duo’s ordeal at the hands of armed robbers in Kampala, his undercover trip to Kigali via DR Congo in late 1970s, and how he went to the US for a staff and command course, which he later abandoned to lead the then RPA rebels following Rwigyema’s demise.
And the First Lady Jeannette Kagame recalled her first encounter with Kagame over eighteen years ago.
On Sunday, December 23, when I received a call from the President’s Office. “James I’m sorry for this last minute invitation, but you are invited to attend the President’s Birthday party today at 5.00p.m,” the caller said.
As I was about to give her the names of a reporter and photographer that would cover the event (since I thought that was the essence of the call), she pre-empted me: “Please come in person and do not come with any (journalistic) tools. It’s not for coverage.
It’s a purely private ceremony.” She explained that she had instructions to invite to the party the journalists who had two months earlier held a retreat with the President, and were probably the first people to wish him his a happy 50th Birthday. I was among those journalists.
At this, I shrunk. But at the same time I felt sweet about myself. Not that I was going to sit in the same auditorium or dine and wine with the Head of State (I have been in this profession since 2001 and have certainly covered stories featuring President Paul Kagame), but this was rather a lifetime special invitation. Well, I told my colleagues at the desk that I have got this impromptu but must-attend high-profile private function. Thus, we had to adjust accordingly.
By 5:30p.m, I was at the entrance of Jali Club, the venue of the ceremony. My first impression was that indeed everything looked casual although obviously the invitees wore to their best. Going through the metal detectors, the invitees, most of them couples, looked calm and so were presidential guards who are usually mean-looking.
Inside the partying room
After invitees, probably around 1,000 had taken their seats, the hosts, the President and his wife, arrived. The President and the First Lady, Jeannette Kagame, walked in at exactly 6:20p.m to the deafening applause from the audience among who were family friends, government officials, childhood and long-time friends to the President and Mrs Kagame.
The smiling couple waved to their guests and shook hands with some people as they walked to one of the roundtables in front.
Inside the well-decorated sparkling room, the atmosphere was that of a hospitable home. The reception was that of a friendly family which treats all its visitors equally. I and my other media comrades were seated closer to the President than many VIPs. It was such a free environment where some ministers and generals contentedly turned out to be the ‘backbenchers’ of the day.
In front was a giant screen which constantly showed video clips ranging from Kagame, the young boy; Kagame, the schoolboy; the bachelor; the officer in the Ugandan army (1986-1990); Kagame the RPA rebel commander; to Kagame, the now Head of State.
A splendid inscription of neon lights reading “Happy 50th Birthday” was shining across the front wall.
After the President and First Lady’s arrival, the MC, Alexis Rutimirwa, immediately took us through the agenda. Anglican Bishop John Rucyahana and Catholic Archbishop Thaddeus Ntihinyurwa took us through prayers.
The national troupe provided the hors d’oeuvre, treating guests to the country’s rich entertainment culture. The Intore (traditional male dancers) stole the show, swaying their imigara (long and white hair-dresses, which male dancers swing in the air as they display their talent), while smartly dressed female dancers were, as usual, at their best.
The Prime Minister Bernard Makuza spoke next. He articulately described the
President’s exploits in his fifty years on earth, with his characteristic perfection of well-placed Kinyarwanda terminologies. “Let me say this, you are a Head of State who is worth it,” the premier said of the President, who equally looked moved
After Makuza’s speech, it was time for dinner. The staff of Kigali Serena Hotel, which had all along ensured that all guests got their ‘preferred’ drinks, was again at hand, guiding the assembly to the rich self-service tables, which were strategically placed to avoid any inconveniences to anybody.
And just few minutes into the dinner, an unannounced and unexpected presentation came up. The youthful Youth, Culture and Sports Minister, Joe (read Joseph) Habineza, picked up the microphone and, after a few words, told the gathering: “We looked at how we can surprise him (Kagame), but you know, its hard to a surprise a President” to a thunderous laughter from the audience, apparently in agreement.
Arsenal’s surprise gift and letter
Minister Joe was brief in his message, but ensured that his was a unique gift. His package to the President was: ‘a Birthday present and letter from Arsenal FC Manager Arsene Wenger.’ The Frenchman, who is among the most respected soccer coaches the world over, and his players, sent an Arsenal flag souvenir signed by all the players to Kagame, a fan of Arsenal, which currently leads England’s Premiership table with 47 points. (My own Manchester United FC lost this weekend to slip into the second position, with two points behind the Gunners).
In his Birthday message to Kagame, Wenger said he was proud to learn that the Head of State was a fun and keen follower of Arsenal, saying it was an honour for him and the entire Emirates team. And when Joe handed the letter and the flag to the President, everyone, most likely even the Head of State himself, was left mesmerized by the minister’s surprise gift.
Uganda’s representative at the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) General (retired) Mugisha Muntu was among the foreign friends who attended the party.
Muntu, who was at one time Afande to Kagame back in Uganda’s then National Resistance Army (NRA) and long-time close friend, spoke of Kagame’s life over a period of almost thirty years since they met around 1978.
He recalled their time together under the same roof in Kampala, adding that their personal friendship continued even after Kagame crossed to Rwanda and eventually became a President.
The former Ugandan army commander, addressing the President as Paul, thanked God for keeping both of them alive, taking them through Uganda’s liberation struggle, and added that for Kagame, “he survived twice” in reference to the second liberation war the latter would lead – the 1990-1994 RPF/A rebellion against then Rwandan repressive regime of Juvenal Habyarimana.
He said the President remained a down-to-earth person despite his high profile, and promised to give him a gift of a book which talks about spiritual and personal inward examination.
Mzee Donat Kananura, who has known Kagame since the latter’s schooldays, spoke of Kagame’s childhood personality.
He spoke of a Kagame, the schoolboy, who was always reading whenever his friends would go dancing.
“My children always told me that they did not know what kind of future person Kagame would become because his lifestyle was totally the opposite of that of many youths. He never went after the typical activities that distracted teenagers. He was always a focused and hard-working student”.
Jeannette’s first encounter with Kagame
One of the highlights of the night was a speech by the First Lady. In a brief but moving statement, she recalled her first encounter with the “heroic military officer” who would later become her husband. “A friend of mine asked me how many children I wanted to bear with him (Kagame), and I told her that any number he would wish”.
The First Lady said that when Kagame proposed, she wondered whether she would cope with a man of his caliber since she had heard about his liberation credentials long before their first encounter.
“What started as a family of two people has today grown into a family of six people,” she said in reference to the birth of their four children, three boys and a girl.
A documentary showing Kagame as early as during his childhood days to as recent as few days ago when he received the 2007 Africa Gender Award from Senegal-based Femmes Africa Solidarité (FAS), was then played.
It featured remarks from the President’s mother, Asteria Rutagambwa, children, friends, and international personalities including former US President Bill Clinton and former US Ambassador to the UN, Andrew Young.
It also showed photographs which the President took with a number of political and business leaders from around the world, as well as international celebrities.
“Today, the former-rebel-turned President has become an enterprise President,” the narrator said in reference to Kagame’s well-known commitment to attracting investments into the country.
And it was the President’s turn to take the floor.
Dressed in a stripped navy blue suit and white shirt, the beaming Kagame expressed gratitude to his family, friends and invitees for making his day.
He admitted many preparations in the run up to the occasion took place behind his back. “I would see things being done but whenever I would ask they would tell me to ignore it,” he told the lively audience.
The President, who was seemingly moved and overjoyed by the event, said his children had a big role in the organisation of his birthday party, adding that the party occurred two months after he turned 50 because one of his children was abroad.
The Head of State, last born child in a family of six, was born in Ruhango, Southern Province, to Deogratius and Asteria Rutagambwa.
Kagame spoke of a wide-rage of issues, mainly about his past, but he spent much time narrating his good and intimate times with the late Fred Gisa Rwigyema, the first commander of RPA. He said he shared a lot with Rwigyema, right from Gahunge refugee settlement, as neighbors, to the time when the duo stayed in the same building in Kampala.
He said that his friendship with Rwigyema made him the most caned child at home because they would go together ostensibly to fetch water, and spend many hours with a man named Mark who would tell them stories of the wars of Inyenzi (a Rwandan Tutsi rebellion which was suppressed by the then regimes). Mark, the President recollected, was a former Inyenzi fighter and that he also showed the then young eager boys military tactics (manoeuvres) which Inyenzi used.
“By the time I would go home, they would probably no longer be in need of the water, and they would beat me,” he said to the amusement of those present.
He explained how around 1978, he travelled on foot from western Uganda through DR Congo (then Zaire) and subsequently to Gisenyi, the border of Rwanda and DRC, and later found his way to the heart of the same dictatorial administration that had kept his family in exile – Kigali.
He said he used to pass near the then State House in Kiyovu (around the same location of the present-day State House in Kigali), and that when he was passing by for a third time, a presidential guard called out to him, but he ran, and when the soldier followed him, he could not trace him.
He said he ran back to a relative in Kiyovu at whose home he would stay whenever he was in Kigali. “Nobody understood my intentions even the relative in whose home I would sleep,” he explained.
The President further said that he later travelled to the National University of Rwanda in Butare, to look for a friend who was studying there. But as he was inquiring amongst students in search of his friend, he was abused and looked at by the students as a foreigner who did not deserve to be in the country.
“I was learning something at the time. All that had something to do with our eventual (liberation struggle),” he said.
Carjacking and armed robbers
The President again spoke of his experiences with Rwigyema in Kampala. He said that at one time Rwigyema was waylaid by armed robbers, who took off with the car in which he (Rwigyema) was driving.
Pointing at the vice chairman of African Union Commission Dr Patrick Mazimhaka (who was in the country for holiday and was present at the function), a relaxed Kagame said: “I think that car belonged to Mazimhaka.” Mazimhaka nodded in agreement.
When Rwigyema returned to their place and narrated his ordeal, Kagame said he was deeply saddened by the incident and regretted not having been with him at the time of the attack but realising also that had they been together they could have probably both been harmed.
And in another incident, the President remembered, hooligans once again ambushed the two, this time on a Kampala road which they used to trek every evening going for their supper.
“When they demanded Rwigema’s watch, he told me in Kinyarwanda that he would rather break it than surrendering it to them, but I said ‘no give it to them, probably they will spare us’. He gave it to them and I gave them the money I had on me. They then led us towards a shrub; we thought they were going to kill us, but then they told us to go,” the President narrated of his and Rwigema’s tribulation at the hands of armed robbers.
US military academy
The Head of State also disclosed how he ended up at a staff and command course at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in the US, which he would later abandon to come to Rwanda to lead the liberation struggle after the demise of Rwigyema in 1990. He said it was Rwigyema who was originally supposed to go on the course.
He said that when Rwigyema, then a Major General in Uganda’s army, told him about the orders he had received from above to go to the course, Kagame, then a Major, discouraged him from going since he (Rwigyema) was the leader of the eventual Rwandan liberation struggle, which they had been planning and was just about to start.
“I told him that he was our leader, and if he went, probably it could derail the plan,” he said, adding, that Gen. Rwigyema bought the idea, but the problem was now how to turn down the offer without creating the impression among the military bosses that he was insubordinate.
Subsequently, he said, Rwigyema gave the excuse of having family problems that could not allow him go on the course.
That is how the military leadership now picked Kagame for the course even though the then military intelligence chief had just been selected to go for another course in Nigeria.
However, this time round, the two senior Rwandan officers could not concoct an excuse since it would be seen as if they were deliberately defiant or plotting something. And the President said that probably, their bosses had already smelt a rat and therefore did not want the two to remain together at that time.
President’s advice to the young
The President said that his 50th anniversary was an opportunity to be thankful for being alive, despite the terrible times he has gone through.
Kagame also took time off to advise his children and the country’s young generation in general to concentrate more on shaping their “character and integrity” rather than being diverted by superficial trends.
He also asked people to make and maintain friends based on shared principles, adding that he had no apologies to make for losing friends who abandoned the principles upon which their friendships had been built.
He wound up his over one-and-a-half-hour speech by introducing his godmother and midwife who had been present during his birth, and wished all Rwandans a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year of 2008.
And the icing on the cake came when the President, his wife and children together cut a birthday cake which was later served to all guests while Stevie Wonder’s ‘Happy Birthday’ played.
The function, which ended at around 11:00pm, was capped by Muyango n’Imitari group, which sang special hits for the occasion, to which the President, his family and other guests, took to the floor.
Yes, it was a perfect birthday party for the President and Christmas gift for me.