11 May 2011

“When leaders kill their own people, we are all concerned.”

Ivory Coast, Libya, RD Congo, France, human rights, opposition… The Rwandan head of State tells us his truth in his way. Sometimes harsh. Always straight forward. An exclusive interview with the “Iron man” of Kigali.

It is definitely another kind of Africa. An Africa with no thatched huts, no plastic bags, no beggars, no sandals as shoes, where motorcyclists wear helmets and fluorescent jackets, where appointments are honored in time, where the police require nothing but your papers, where the environment is protected as a national treasure, where smoking is frowned upon, where there are no landfills, no gaping potholes in the roads, where you can walk safely in the middle of the night, where one goes to bed early so as to rise early, where workdays are days of work, where power outages are as rare in the capital as traffic accidents.

This austere bee-hive of ten million souls that is tiny Rwanda has a thin-faced man as head of state, whose daily life is as synchronized as a Swiss clock and who dreams of making Rwanda an African Singapore. Paul Kagame, 53 of age, was reelected in August 2010 for what should be his last seven-year mandate.

This friend of the Clintons, Tony Blair and Bill Gates, darling of the Davos Forum, a fan of Twitter and Facebook, who came to power seventeen years ago, after the Rwanda of thousand hills was turned into one of a thousand mass graves, has never shown leniency towards those who obstruct his country’s forced march towards progress.

Towards the corrupt, but also towards opponents, who are promptly accused of ethnic divisiveness in a country where any mention of belonging to Hutu or Tutsi communities is officially banned, Paul Kagame can sometimes be ruthless. The consequences: NGO reports often very critical of the respect for freedom of expression, and an impression of unanimity which sometimes dominates. The regime puts forward achievements which are obviously undeniable: an 8% growth rate, self sufficiency in food and a definite attraction for investors. Now connected by daily flights to Europe, Kigali knows an impressive real estate boom and aims to become a hub. After Serena, Hilton, Marriott and Radisson hotels are getting ready to open, with their profitability assured since the last report “Doing Business” of the World Bank ranked Rwanda fifth among African countries.

If one also considers the impressive energy prospects opened up by the exploitation of methane gas from Lake Kivu, and the role played by Rwanda as a technological hub in the context of the East African Community, one can understand why successive official delegations from Gabon, Togo, Benin, Burundi, Burkina Faso and elsewhere, are coming to study the Rwandan “model” in Kigali.

This also means that distinguishing between Paul Kagame the Head of State and CEO of Rwanda, Inc is sometime difficult. Since hedeclared that his country would now be speaking English – a directive that is meticulously applied –  the following interview was conducted in English, the first foreign language of the country. It is true, for a long time now, Paul Kagame has given up on learning French. “Due to lack of time,” he said. But also due to lack of motivation: “Chinese would probably be more useful to me” …

Like almost everyone else I guess, you watched TV images of the arrest of Gbagbo and his wife on April, 11 in Abidjan. What was your reaction?

A kind of sadness about how politics in Africa is being played out and conceived.  These images have something tragic, but they are also artificial to a large extent. They claim to show that it is the forces of Alassane Ouattara who conducted the arrest, but the more I look at the images, the more I see the shadow of the foreign mastermind behind. The fact that fifty years after independence, the fate of the Ivorian people, but also its economy, currency, its political life, are still controlled by a former colonial power is a problem. Before anything, this is what these pictures prove.

If France has intervened in Ivory Coast, isn’t it also because of the inability of the African Union and Economic Community of West Africa [Ecowas] to solve the Crisis?

Absolutely: This is the consequence of our own collective and individual failures. When some African states create the conditions for external interference in their affairs, the consequences are their responsibilities. If your weakness and your bad governance expose you to be manipulated, it is useless to complain.

You had a good relationship with former President Gbagbo. He visited you in Kigali at the time your relations with France were severed. Do you feel compassion for the fate that is his?

You’re mistaken. Those who come to visit us are not automatically our friends. When a Head of State expresses the wish to come and see us, he is welcome. But associating friendship with this is ridiculous. Rwanda’s relations with Côte d’Ivoire are not simply about Mr. Gbagbo and Mr. Ouattara. These are state to state relations, people to people, interest to interest. Sentimental considerations have nothing to do with it.

In the eyes of the international community, Alassane Ouattara is legitimate, and
Laurent Gbagbo is not …

That’s another problem. On one hand, and we know it very well in Rwanda, the international community is not synonymous with the law. On the other, all elections will not lead to open conflicts. Finally, I repeat, Mr Gbagbo and Mr Ouattara, are not my primary concerns. Are Ivorian people masters of their destiny? As Africans, what is our share of responsibility? What image of itself is Africa giving to the rest of the world? Do we think seeing a foreign army, even under UN cover, intervening in the streets of an African capital is a good thing? Why have we Africans, allowed this type of situation happen? Let us have the courage to look ourselves in a mirror.

Yet you’re one of very few African leaders to have publicly endorsed the Western intervention in Libya. Isn’t there a contradiction in that?

No. I said what I had to say in response to a tragic situation where civilians, entire populations were victims of a mass assault. What could be done since Africa has neither the means nor the influence to stop it? Just keep track of who is winning? I know very well the “double standards” argument: the West and NATO intervene where it suits them and not elsewhere. It is true, undoubtedly. But having said that, even if it falls within the “double standards”, anything is better than sitting passively watching massacres.

Another argument advanced by some of your peers: what happens in Libya is a civil war, a purely internal matter in which the Americans, the French and the British should not interfere.

This is not my opinion. When a government is killing its own people, it affects us all.

Does Gaddafi have to go?

I think Gaddafi is at the heart of the problem.

So, no solution will be possible as long as he is in power …

I leave it up to you to interpret my comments

The speed with which you seized Libyan assets in Rwanda is surprising. Did you have to go that far?

It is a coincidence that the current crisis only crystallized. For months, we asked the Libyans to meet their contractual commitments in both the mobile phone sector and in their hotel asset. Rwandatel was on the verge of bankruptcy and Laico was visibly deteriorating. We gave them a choice: either you invest or we will buy back your shares. Their response: promises. One way or another we had to get to this point.

Foreign intervention in Libya, but also in Côte d’Ivoire, is based on a new concept: the “responsibility to protect”. In summary: human rights are universal. Each state must respect them. If one of them does not, it’s up to others to take responsibility. Do you agree?

I can only agree with the principle of an international community responsible towards the people of this world. Genocide experienced by Rwanda in 1994 is there to prove the contrary. The same community had a moral obligation to intervene and we know it failed in its duty.

These are the same principles and the same doctrine underlying the action of the International Criminal Court [ICC]. Yet you criticize it…

The reason is simple: there is the principle and the application of the principle. The implementation of the responsibility to protect must be based on an assessment, analysis and correct knowledge of the situation. Otherwise, it smacks of interference. That is why the case of Libya and Ivory Coast are different in my eyes. As for the ICC, I am all for international justice as a principle, but I am against the way this justice is exercised and against how the ICC operates, particularly in Africa. I have repeatedly explained myself on this subject.

Early in April, you had harsh words against the French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, whose appointment has been criticized by your government.  Rwandans, you said, “have been insulted by his attitude and stance” during and after the genocide. Since then, Alain Juppe sent a message to appease his Rwandan counterpart. Isn’t it time to turn the page?

I do not withdraw a word of what I said before that message reached us. If there’s a different approach to Rwanda on his part, and a new assessment of the situation, we will review it. Otherwise, his appointment does not alter the commendable efforts made by President Sarkozy since he came to power, towards improved relations between France and Rwanda.

Would Alain Juppé be welcome in Rwanda?

Not to my knowledge.

What do you expect from him exactly: an apology? Repentance?

It is not up to me to put myself in the place of individuals exercising their responsibilities. It is not my business, it is his.

During his visit to Kigali in February 2010, Nicolas Sarkozy has invited you to go to France. Will you go?

It is possible. It still depends on circumstances, timing and the formalization of this invitation.

Is Alain Juppe a barrier to this visit?

No. France is not just about Alain Juppe.

With your neighbor, Congolese President Joseph Kabila, it is now honeymoon …
Let’s not exaggerate. Things are better between our two countries, it is true, insofar as the root cause of the problems that separated us are now addressed In this context, good relations between the two heads of state is an incontestable advantage. Of course, peace is not restored in North Kivu, where negative forces continue to operate and recruit. But progress is evident.

It has now been two years since former Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda has been under house arrest in Kigali. Why don’t you decide to give him to his country’s authorities, or simply release him?

This issue is much more complex than that in political, diplomatic, legal, and human terms which can’t be reduced to this alternative. We talk, of course, with the Congolese and together we are trying to find the best solution. The important thing is that it does not affect our good relationship.

You were re-elected in August 2010 with 94% of the vote. You know that nowadays, it is not politically correct score…

The 82% of Jacques Chirac in 2002 was then politically incorrect! Would you have preferred a 54% – 46% as in Côte d’Ivoire, followed by a quasi-civil war? Let’s be serious. Each country has its own context and specifics: considering Rwanda the same way as France, forgetting the 1994 genocide and its million victims is an aberration. We are practicing democracy based on our history, our environment and our experiences, which are not the same as in Europe. We are building a new country. Do not expect us to reach some sort of universal ideal overnight. And then, why would I compare the quality and sincerity of expression of my people with those of others? Yes, in Rwanda, we vote with a turnout of 96% without forcing anyone to go to the polls and without any need to falsify the results. Here, people vote for safety, living standards, justice, reconciliation and education. For what is essential. Obviously in the rich world, where electoral abstention is increasingly worrying, these figures and motives are sometimes regarded with pity, even contempt. My God, what ignorance!

For most observers, the level of democratic development in Rwanda is far from reaching that of its economic development. Is there not some truth in this?

I do not think so. Just ask the Rwandans, not just in cities but also in the smallest village. Democracy and development are at the same level and moving in the same and right direction. Of course, in detail, it depends on the criteria, and we can always say that one fulfills 80% of its roadmap and the other 90%. But the pace of progress is the same. Many supposedly independent NGOs come here and see our success in the economic, social and human fields: one must be blind not to see them. The problem is that they do not say it and seem unwilling to believe what they see. Why? I do not know. My conclusion is that progress in a country like Rwanda does not please everyone.

Don’t those who criticize you have of a problem with you rather than with Rwanda?

I think they have a problem with history, with the past, with genocide, with their own guilt, with Africa as a whole. I do not accept, the government does not accept, the people of Rwanda do not accept that others decide in our place. This is the essence of the problem.

Several ex-generals of your army and dissidents of your own party recently founded the Rwanda National Congress, expected to consolidate the opposition in exile. Does that worry you?
These people have no basis or legitimacy, or future. For me, this initiative is simply nonexistent.

However, grenade attacks took place in Kigali and there have never been so many policemen and soldiers in the streets …

Yes, but it is not contradictory. The lack of basis and popular legitimacy leads small groups to terrorism.  The fact that these people have contracted alliances with patented genocidaires based outside Rwanda speaks for itself, and also shows who they really are: a nuisance. How many of the ten million Rwandans, identify with them? Again, what surprises me is the ease with which some Western circles get caught up in the games of these criminals masquerading as democratic opponents.

Former Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramungu, who launched from Brussels the Rwanda Dream Initiative, believes that the shock wave of Arab revolutions can reach Kigali. What do you think about that?

Rwandans make their revolution every day. But they are doing it to support the ongoing process in this country, not the reverse.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch believe your opponents Victoire Ingabire and Bernard Ntaganda, detained for months are political prisoners. Your opinion?

Everyone has their own concerns. Ours is to help Rwanda progress without being held hostage by this type of considerations. Ingabire and Ntaganda broke the law. They will be judged impartially.

Your current and final term ends in 2017. Can Rwanda live without you?

The opposite would be a failure for me and for us all. Many prophets of doom have had their say about this country, you know. They announced a destiny of failed state for us, predicted our experience was going to collapse after two years, said progress was good for the cities but the countryside remained in poverty, they swore that the dark side of our economic performance could only be oppression and dictatorship. On all these points, we have proven them wrong. The latest speculation is about post-Kagame times. Some say there will be chaos, others that I’ll hang on to power. In fact, you’ll see and even be surprised: leadership will change hands, but the path and direction will remain the same.

Proust Questionnaire

What is the main feature of your personality?

I take my responsibilities and I take them seriously. I do not accept that my conduct or that of my country be dictated. Respect me, just as I respect you.

What quality do you prefer in a man – or woman?


And the flaw you hate the most?


What is your major quality?


And your principal failing?

Not knowing my weaknesses.

Your main personal success?

Having remained who I am.

Your idea of happiness?

Reaching my ambitions.

Your idea of misfortune?

Genocide, though it surpasses misfortune.

In another life, what would be your profession?

Airplane pilot or engineer. Either way, would be as a free man.

Latest books read?

Naked Economics, Charles Wheelan, and Competitive Strategy, Michael Porter.

The hero that you would like?

I do not see any.

Your favorite food?

None. I eat what people with me are eating.

Your favorite drink?

Water, tea. Half a glass of wine when the circumstances dictate, that I taste more than I drink.

Do you enjoy it?