Kagame insists ‘Rwandans understand the greater goal’

Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s soldier-president, runs what is arguably Africa’s most orderly and disciplined society. Flowerbeds are immaculate, villagers wear shoes (by decree) and local officials strain to meet targets, whether raising cassava yields or reducing maternal deaths. Yet despite the seemingly clockwork system and carefully laid-out development plans — among the most ambitious on the continent — for Mr Kagame, the memory of chaos and violence is never far away.

That is hardly surprising given Rwanda’s harrowing history and his own formative experiences as a refugee and guerrilla. In 1994, the Hutu majority attempted to exterminate the Tutsi minority and its moderate Hutu sympathisers, hacking as many as 1m people to death, nearly 15 per cent of the population, in 100 blood-soaked days.

Mr Kagame, a Tutsi brought up in a refugee camp in Uganda after his parents had fled an earlier anti-Tutsi pogrom, received his political education in the bush, first as a soldier in the Ugandan civil war and then, in 1990, leading a ragged rebel force in Rwanda. Hiding for more than a year in the rugged Virunga mountains he learnt to make strategy where no obvious path existed.

It is that mixture of planning and improvisation that underpins what is probably Africa’s most daring experiment in nation building and social engineering, one that has born tangible fruit but has bitterly divided opinion outside Rwanda — and occasionally within, although outright dissent is rare.

“It is not that we developed or grew up under normal conditions,” Mr Kagame says with some understatement during a three-hour interview on the eve of his inauguration for a third presidential term. Sitting in his presidential mansion in what was, in pre-genocidal times, an upmarket hotel, he is spidery thin but with an unmistakable authority. Though he speaks in little above a whisper, each word hangs potent in the air.

Officially, he won this month’s election, which he fought against a few little-known candidates, with 98.7 per cent of the vote. It was a pulverising — sceptics say unlikely — victory, about which he deadpans: “There is nothing that is 100 per cent, maybe except this vote.” Considering where Rwanda has come from and where it is now, he insists, the result should be taken at face value. “Now there is stability, there’s a sense of security, there is hope.”

Supporters of Paul Kagame’s Rwanda Patriotic Front walk to a campaign rally in Kigali © AFP

A tiny, landlocked country where 12m people are squeezed on to a thousand hills, the new Rwanda is a “development state” with echoes of east Asia. It is Mr Kagame’s record of producing rapid growth and of extracting maximum social gain from minimum resources that has endeared him to development agencies, even if human rights organisations accuse him of stifling political debate and running a police state.

Rights groups have accused Mr Kagame’s administration of killing tens of thousands of Hutus in refugee camps in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, assassinating political opponents abroad and even of rounding up street vendors and prostitutes at home.

The president brooks no criticism from westerners who, he says, abandoned the country in its darkest hour and who fail to understand that pluralist prescriptions could be fatal in a country where the majority recently attempted to expunge the minority. In poor countries, democracy is more about access to calories, schooling and healthcare than about periodic voting exercises, say his officials. Foreign critics, adds Mr Kagame, can “go and hang.”

“I’m not British. I’m not American. I’m not French. Whatever thing they practise, that is their business. I am an African. I am Rwandese,” he says. Attempts to impose cookie-cutter forms of liberal democracy on countries from Afghanistan and Syria to Libya have proved disastrous, he adds. “You think these countries will be countries again? Not maybe in our lifetime.”

When Mr Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front took over in July 1994, there were bodies piled high in Kigali, the capital, that were being eaten by rats, cats and dogs. The priority was pacification and to organise a traumatised society to prevent crops rotting in the field.

Rwanda has come a long way since then. Kigali is now among the safest and smartest cities in Africa. Since he formally took over as president in 2000, growth in gross domestic product has averaged 8 per cent a year, among the best on the continent, according to the World Bank, though the economy has recently slowed significantly. While some critics quibble with the numbers, poverty has fallen sharply, as has child and maternal mortality. Unusually in rapidly developing countries, inequality has narrowed, partly because of social programmes, including the provision of a cow to the poorest citizens. Rwanda has developed smart new road and fibre-optic networks and several industries including tourism, coffee and tea, light manufacturing and mining.

Yet, as Mr Kagame, 59, embarks on a new seven-year term, questions are being asked about the durability of a system so apparently dependent on one man. Under the new constitution, he could theoretically stay in office, subject to elections, until 2034, though he has indicated that this should be his last term. Even admirers wonder whether he might be Rwanda’s equivalent of General Josip Tito, who kept Yugoslavia together only for it to shatter after he was gone.

“That’s the central question that envelops Rwanda,” says Stephen Kinzer, who wrote a favourable Kagame biography. “It is the question that divides the people who support Kagame and those who oppose him in the outside world. Some think he is laying the foundations for peace, others think the opposite.”


President Pasteur Bizimungu and Paul Kagame, then vice-president, share a joke in Kigali in July 1994 © AFP

1957: Born in Rwanda

1959: Family fled their village after it was attacked by Hutus, eventually ending up in a Ugandan refugee camp where Kagame spent his childhood

1981: Kagame becomes a member of Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army, fighting in a rebellion that eventually overthrows Milton Obote and installs Museveni as Uganda president

1990: Kagame is training at a US military academy in Fort Leavenworth when he is called to Rwanda after the death of a comrade who was leading an invading Tutsi force. He takes control of 2,000 rebels

April 6 1994: A plane carrying Rwanda President Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, is shot down triggering the genocide that left nearly 1m Tutsis and Hutu sympathisers dead in just 100 days. Kagame’s forces take over the country and halt the genocide

July 1994: Kagame becomes minister of defence and deputy president in the new post-genocide government

1996: Rwandan army attacks Hutu refugee camps in the eastern part of then Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo

1997: Rwandan troops help to topple Zaire’s dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and install Laurent Kabila

1998: Tensions between Kigali and Kinshasa blow up leading Rwanda to invade Congo again, prompting other rival armies to vie for influence over the vast mineral-rich country and triggering what came to be known as Africa’s first world war, which left several million dead

2000: Kagame becomes president of Rwanda in a transitional arrangement

2003: Constitution amended and Kagame finally starts his first seven-year term after winning 95.1 per cent of the vote

2010: Kagame re-elected president with 93.1 per cent of the vote

2015: Constitution amended to allow Kagame to stand again, theoretically for three more terms

2017: Re-elected president for a third seven-year term with 98.7 per cent of the vote

Critics say efforts to stop talk of ethnicity provides cover for Tutsi rule. But Mr Kagame sheds only faint light on that question. In a rare flash of anger during the interview, he says he finds it “bizarre” that analysts personalise the issue. Yet he quotes an anxious Rwandan businessman exhorting him to stay on because the social trust created since the genocide could evaporate without him. “If you go too early, I’m afraid things will fall apart,” the man said.

Security is paramount. Rwanda’s genocidaires — those who organised the 1994 killing under the slogan “Hutu Power” — must never be allowed to regain a foothold, physical or ideological, say defenders of the state apparatus.

It is this sense of precariousness that led Mr Kagame, in 1996 and in defiance of international critics, to send Rwanda’s army to the east of what was then Zaire to attack refugee camps where former genocidaires were plotting raids into Rwanda. He also integrated former members of the Hutu regime into the Rwandan army in an effort, ultimately successful, to win over Hutu support. Today, it is the same conviction that makes his government wary of untrammelled free speech in a country where genocidaires once took to the airwaves to urge Hutus to hack their Tutsi neighbours to death.

Stamping out ethnic divisions has led Mr Kagame to take radical measures. He ordered schools to switch from teaching French to English, though French and Kinyarwanda remain official languages. He also pushed for fellow exiles, many Tutsis who had picked up a first-class education abroad, to return. In an effort to create a new sense of identity, he has made it virtually taboo for Rwandans to identify as either Hutu or Tutsi. The new national anthem, written by repentant genocidaires, proclaims that “our common culture identifies us, our single language unifies us”.

During the interview, Mr Kagame says it matters little whether there are real physical differences between Hutus and Tutsis or whether these were arbitrary distinctions codified by race-obsessed imperialists. “We are trying to reconcile our society and talk people out of this nonsense of division,” he says. “Some are short, others are tall, others are thin, others are stocky. But we are all human beings. Can we not live together and happily within one border?” Mr Kagame has taken a DNA test that, he says, reveals him to be of particularly complex genetic mix. The implication, he says, is that he, the ultimate symbol of Tutsi authority, has some Hutu in his genetic make-up.

If Mr Kagame rejects the imposition of western democracy — “is there something called democracy without putting the ‘western’ thing [first]?” — he argues that his government is creating a participatory system rooted in tradition. Rwanda has been a sophisticated centralised state with its own tax and legal system since the 16th century. His ministers cite regular consultations with citizens and target-setting for officials as evidence of a consensus-driven system.

The genocide memorial in Nyamata, at a Catholic church where thousands were killed in 1994 © AFP

Depending on your perspective, Rwanda can feel stifling or socially cohesive. In the hillsides, where more than two-thirds of its people live, there is little sense of private life and “recommendations” from the government — whether on crop selection, living arrangements or relocation — can feel like edicts. Survivors and perpetrators of the genocide live cheek by jowl and resentment can erupt over something as simple as who gets a state-gifted cow.

“Nothing is perfect,” says Mr Kagame, “but I find [here] the principles and ingredients of a democratic society that answers to its people.”

Not all Rwandans agree. Diane Rwigara, daughter of a prominent businessman and would-be presidential candidate, criticises what she calls the lack of political space. “We are controlled in all aspects of our lives from politics to business to agriculture,” she says. Ms Rwigara, who alleges that her father was murdered by the state in 2016, saw her presidential run cut short when nomination signatures were declared invalid. Of Mr Kagame’s overwhelming presence, she says: “They fear the president more than they fear God.”

Will Jones, an expert on Rwanda at the UK’s Royal Holloway University, takes a more benign view. “It’s not a perfect Swiss watch,” he says, but there are no parallels of Rwandan efficiency elsewhere in Africa. Mr Kagame, he says, combines the Marxist ideology he imbibed in Uganda with a self-appointed role as “CEO of Rwanda Inc”. The government is “an extremely serious bunch of technocrats”, obsessed with collecting data, setting performance targets and fine-tuning policies.

A central part of the strategy to eradicate ethnic divisions is nation building. Jean-Paul Kimonyo, a presidential adviser, says the idea is underpinned by a strong sense of Rwandan nationalism. That explains, he says, the pull felt by exiles in refugee camps to return home and the willingness to make personal sacrifices in the interests of national progress. “If you don’t understand that, you can’t understand Rwanda, why people are giving up some freedoms for a greater goal.”

Rwanda’s continued progress is not guaranteed. Some describe gains, though impressive, as low-hanging fruit. One of the most densely populated countries in the world, Rwandans struggle to be self-sufficient in food, let alone to earn scarce foreign exchange through exports. Squeezed between much bigger nations, Rwanda is a blip on the border of the mighty, dysfunctional Democratic Republic of Congo, and heavily dependent on the co-operation of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda for access to the outside world.

The Kagame government is responding with a risky investment strategy designed to turn Rwanda into a conference-cum-tourism destination and high-tech regional hub. It is banking on everything from cargo delivery drones to wired-up villages to boost development. That has meant making heavy investments in infrastructure, a state of the art convention centre and an initially lossmaking national airline.

Early investments in five-star hotels and telecoms, since divested, came good, but that is no guarantee Rwanda can repeat the trick. The country’s current account deficit last year was 14.5 per cent according to IMF forecasts and it remains dependent on aid for at least a third of its budget, says the World Bank though that is down sharply from previous years. There is also criticism, rejected by the government, that heavy state involvement is stifling the private sector, necessary for the next stage of development. Even the World Bank, a strong supporter, noted in a quietly shelved report that foreign direct investment was lagging.

Mr Kagame says his government is taking a calculated gamble, much as he has done in politics, in pursuing what he calls an integrated strategy where, for example, the airline feeds the tourism sector and investments in alternative sources of energy support manufacturing ambitions. “In any case,” he says, “I don’t see the alternative.”

If Mr Kagame gives the impression that everything is under control, more than once during the interview he betrays concern that things could unravel. The problem, he says of who might succeed him, is preventing someone from “bringing down what we have built”. Above all, he says, he wants to “avoid leaving behind a mess”.

The president insists it was never his intention to stay on, but the party and population insisted. “We are not saying, ‘We want you forever until you drop dead,’” he says, imitating the voice of the people. “We’re only saying, ‘Give us more time.’”