The longtime head of state discussed his approach to governing in an exclusive interview with The National
Longstanding Rwandan President Paul Kagame has criticised “inflexible” modern leaders who resort too quickly to violence against their own citizens, while in the UAE on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, Mr Kagame addressed the World Government Summit, where Rwanda is the guest country, and a day later the Milken Institute Mena Summit, which bring together leaders in politics and business to discuss the state of the world.
Addressing his approach to governing in an exclusive interview with The National afterwards, Mr Kagame said, “Good politics requires being reasonable, it requires simply understanding your society. Sometimes you have to ask, ‘suppose I was wrong?’”
At a time of flux across Africa – where protests have been crushed with lethal force in Sudan and Zimbabwe – and as war continues in Syria, Mr Kagame lambasted “unreasonable” leaders, although he declined to name specific individuals or governments.
“You shoot and kill people thinking they will be afraid, but they actually become immunised,” he continued. Instead of violence, Mr Kagame advises dialogue.
These words carry weight coming from him. The Rwandan leader, in power since 2000, spent his youth in a refugee camp in neighbouring Uganda, as violence swept his homeland. In 1994, he helped lead a Tutsi liberation force, which ended the Rwandan genocide and seized control of the country.
Tall, thin, austere and diligent, Mr Kagame is venerated among many Western leaders and diplomats, particularly the US, for spurring annual economic growth of between seven and eight per cent in Rwanda. On a continent where ageing leaders ossify in power, enriching themselves at the expense of their citizens, Mr Kagame – marshalling billions of dollars of international aid that flooded into Rwanda after the genocide – has turned the country into a bastion of stability, cleanliness and growth. Joseph Kabila, who led the Democratic Republic of Congo until January, famously played video games and drove luxury cars while more than six million children under five suffered from chronic malnutrition.
Rwanda was the first nation to ban plastic bags and achieve gender equality within its cabinet. Squeaky-clean Kigali is among the continent’s safest cities. It is for this reason, many argue, that Western nations have overlooked some of Mr Kagame’s more autocratic tendencies. Some baulked, nonetheless, when he won a third consecutive seven-year term in 2017 with 98.79 per cent of the vote. Meanwhile, rights groups have expressed concerns about the tactics used by security forces to keep Kigali clean.
In a 45-minute interview with The National in his Abu Dhabi hotel room on Wednesday, Mr Kagame, who was the Chairman of the African Union – the continent’s answer to the GCC – until Sunday, when he handed the mantle to Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi, presented a vision of a united Africa, capable of solving its own problems without importing the problems of world powers.
During his tenure as AU chief, he worked to establish a historic Continental Free Trade Area to render borders irrelevant in terms of trade and spur growth on the continent. He told The National that Guinea Bissau, Zambia and Botswana would soon ratify the agreement, completing the 22 countries required to bring it into effect. Doing so now falls to the Egyptian president, but Mr El Sisi “has the desire, I know from him, to see most of the work that has been done take hold,” he said.
Mr Kagame also worked to improve self-financing within the bloc. “In the past African Union activities were being financed by people other than the Africans themselves,” he said. “Someone is paying your bills and there are other demands that you do not wish to come your way.”
It speaks to the perennial problem of autonomy for the continent, where Europeans arbitrarily carved up land and inflicted their often violent rule on nascent African nations.
“We need to have a strong African union, we need to have the African continent working together,” he said, bemoaning the tendency of world powers to import their problems onto the continent.
During the Cold War, Africa became a playground for Soviet and American expansionism. Today, Russia, China, the US and others focus plenty of attention on carving out influence on the continent. “It is something you cannot wish away, it is always going to be the case,” said Mr Kagame. “But it helps to deal with these problems when you are a strong country and a strong continent in unison.”
When asked about the DRC’s recent fraught election – with whom Rwanda shares a border and over which the UN condemned Mr Kagame in 2012 for backing a rebel insurgency, a charge he denies – Mr Kagame was pragmatic. A constitutional crisis is currently unfolding in the DRC following a vote widely deemed to be fraudulent, Mr Kagame was pragmatic. Under his leadership, the AU called for a delay in the results, but its advice was not heeded.
Ultimately, Mr Kagame favours the stability that has become his trademark. “You don’t want what is being disputed to divide people, and then even end up in the sort of violence that we have seen,” he said. “There is the potential to lose more than you gain by having a more open approach.”
On Sudan, where the government is violently suppressing protests calling for the departure of President Omar Al Bashir, Mr Kagame rejected the impulse towards precipitous intervention, although his comments about violent crackdowns are illustrative.
When asked if the demonstrations were getting out of hand, Mr Kagame smiled, and pointed to the so-called “yellow vest” protests sweeping France. “We have seen protests across the world,” he said.
Citing positive relationships with China, Russia, the UK, the US and France under Emmanuel Macron – despite previous accusations by Mr Kagame’s government that French officials exacerbated the Rwandan genocide – Mr Kagame is rare among his peers.
Reacting to the suggestion that Rwanda’s transformation – since as many as one million people were killed in less than four months in 1994 – could offer an example for nations emerging from conflict across the Middle East, Mr Kagame resists the parallel.
“I always avoid thinking that because something worked for us, that it is going to be the remedy for everybody,” he said. “But you will find in telling our story, that many people will find parts of that story that is similar to theirs.”
“Peace or the lack of it is about people,” he said. As a result he advocates dialogue and allowing conflicting parties to air their grievances. “Some of it might be political, some of it might just be rights – recognising that this group has rights, just as much as any other,” he continued.
The impetus therefore falls on modern leaders to unify their populations, to reason with different groups, to hear their demands and to work with them towards peace.
After 19 years in power, Mr Kagame is still preaching the great value of unity, for Rwanda, for Africa, and, indeed, for all societies emerging from violent conflict.