Kagame: “On Judgement Day, I will get better marks than those who criticise us over human rights”
From the struggle against the coronavirus, to the relationship with France and with the neighbours, and the state of human rights in Rwanda, an interview with Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
“Wakanda is real”, said one breathless blogger after visiting Rwanda in February, and seeing the growth of the Kigali Innovation City, an effort to crowd in technology, biotech and higher education investment.
The country will be leaning into its digital headstart in the economic reset post pandemic; other sector like tourism will no doubt struggle.
There are also political resets underway for Rwanda;
- In its relationship with neighbours Burundi and the DRC, both under new management.
- In its relationship with France, especially following the arrest of Félicien Kabuga, the financier of the 1994 genocide who was caught in France after 25 years on the run.
There are still calls for more political renewal within Rwanda itself, though President Kagame hits back at critics of human rights, saying their accusation are motivated by historical guilt.
The Africa Report: Rwanda has been relatively less hit by coronavirus, but cases are now rising, how are you managing the situation?
Paul Kagame: As best we can. The lockdown helped a lot, we had a rigourous testing, tracing and isolation process.
With the easing of the lockdown, to allow life get back to normal, we found other problems, with cases coming from movements from beyond our borders. These arrived through truck drivers coming from our two economic lifelines, from Mombasa in Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania.
And I don’t think there should be any misunderstandings with neighbours and other friends with the controlling or monitoring, we have even asked them that we work together to test. All of us have a problem but we need to monitor it as we cross borders.
TAR: How have your four neighbours handled the pandemic?
PK: Well really it’s not up to me or a good idea to make any judgments about other people. But I can say generally I think people are aware that there is this problem, and people have reacted differently to this problem.
Some people have been in denial about it, others want to face it to the way they have chosen to face it, others have been transparent about it, some have not — they have recognized there is a problem but they haven’t been transparent about it and that’s why sometimes the numbers of people affected do not easily add up.
TAR: Rwanda bet big on tourism, from high-end visits to the mountains to the conference circuit. These will be hit hard, how will you limit the damage?
PK: We have encouraged Rwandans into tourism, even if they may not have the same income levels – but even a little goes a long way. And we are now putting everything in place for visitors to be safe, we have the capacity to test on arrival, and make sure they can travel to places in our country safely.
TAR: Rwanda has been investing in the digital economy. How has that helped?
PK: Our digital infrastructure helps us grow the economy. We are building on lessons learned from this difficult situation, thanks to previous investments.
We have seen digital solutions applied to the problems we have in this new coronavirus situation: people are being innovative, they are providing solutions to either tracing, or digital mapping of our country to know where the virus is hitting the people hard, or where is the movement of the transmissions and then infections.
TAR: People are calling for debt moratoriums for Africa – is that something you want to see?
PK: If we found a formula indeed to have this standstill repayment of debt, then we can use this money we are using to pay the debt to actually invest in things that are necessary.
Because we are not like the rich countries, the rich countries can have as much money as they want to throw to the problem. For us in Africa or other developing countries, we do not have that capacity or luxury. So that’s why we ask for people we owe money to give us some time, so that instead of paying them we invest and deal with the problem we have.
In our case [Rwanda’s] debt to GDP ratios have really been low, we are not heavily indebted, and that’s why other than benefiting from other possibilities like we have had with the IMF and the World Bank, they are really doing their best to support us.
They could see our fiscal management and were willing to give us more money or there is still space for us even to borrow and people we will be borrowing from are reassured that we should be able to pay back. Because we’ve been very prudent with our fiscal management.
TAR: Burundi, a country with which Rwanda has had a difficult relationship, now has a new president, Évariste Ndayishimiye. Will we see a normalisation of relations?
Well, for us we have always wanted to normalize relationships with Burundi or with anybody, whether our neighbours or countries so far away. In fact, to begin with we’ve been lucky with the DRC for example so far. When the administration changed we have a new situation, we have a new president, President Tshisekedi, he has been open for cooperation.
Maybe in Burundi hopefully it might be the same. But it doesn’t depend on what I think, it depends on what the leadership in Burundi thinks. But that is our objective, for us our objective is to work well with our neighbours.
TAR: Have you ever met Ndayishimiye, do you know him?
PK: Not so closely, but we have met way back, when he was doing other things. So we have met, we have greeted each other but that was it, it was one moment. But this doesn’t matter much, we can know each other going forward.
TAR: Are there Rwandan troops present on the ground in the DRC, as several international NGOs and Congolese civil society groups have claimed?
PK: I think those civil society groups and NGOs are more present in those areas than Rwanda is. And in this problem that relates to Rwanda in a very negative way, in fact they are the ones who have led to that problem never getting solved at all.
But for us as I mentioned to you, there is a new level of cooperation between Rwanda and DRC, so we would not have our troops in the DRC first without even the cooperation with the government of DRC.
Second, when in that cooperation DRC tells us that they are going to address the problem, we are happy with that. What we want to continue doing is sharing with them information to deal with that problem that has affected the region, has affected Rwanda, has affected DRC for the last 20 something years or so.
This is a problem that has never gone away, it never goes away and everybody is just interested in talking about it and talking so much about it, but not talking about how we get rid of. So it has become something to be milked by people who want to play all kinds politics, but it affects real people on the ground, it affects people in DRC, it affects us, it affects Burundi.
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TAR: What level of danger do those rebel groups FDLR and RNC still represent for your national security?
PK: These groups unto themselves may not be a big problem, they don’t even have a lot of capacity to cause problems as such. But their existence has fed into the politics and all kinds of misunderstandings in the region.
So if those countries don’t associate with the groups, wherever they are based, and use them against us or for their own politics, they would not constitute a problem.
Or if we had worked with these countries where they are, to actually address the problem of their existence in those areas they would not be there at all.
But they are there, as if preserved to serve some purpose for some people, including by the way to serve the purpose of — you said, you talked of the groups earlier, the NGOs and then some countries that are not in this region but so far away, but either there are people associated with these groups in the region who live in Europe, America, wherever, other parts of Africa.
Anyone who runs from any country but particularly as related to this case, everyone who is making whatever noise, even criminals, criminals of all kinds — there are criminals who got involved in the genocide during that time in the past — they go wherever and start saying, “They are opposed to government so they are opposition. They’re fighting for democracy, they are fighting for human rights.”
Even when they have just murdered people themselves and then the countries, some organizations are ready to embrace them. People who are corrupt, who have been involved either with the leadership of say our country and stole resources that would have helped people, and they ran away then they immediately put on the hat of opposition politics and democracy and human rights. When the other day they were being pursued by justice because of theft.
It says a great deal about the way Africa in general and Rwanda in particular is seen by some parts of the world: none of them would tolerate a genocidaire or crook to rule them, but when it comes to an African country, they don’t see a problem.
TAR: Rwanda has always struggled to get cooperation from the South African authorities when it comes to the extradition of Kayumba Nyamwasa, will you just give up or do you hope one day to get their collaboration on this?
PK: Well, if it happens well and good, but it’s not a priority for us. Our priority is to have good cooperation with South Africa, we have good cooperation with South Africa now irrespective of what happened in the past and so on.
What we actually have communicated in South Africa or other countries where these people are, we’ve even gone beyond asking them to hand over these people to us. We have communicated that if these people are there with you, either they are there as the refugees, keep them there as refugees or whatever status you have decided to give them.
What we have a problem with is to have such a people and support them in their activities, or allow them to be involved in those activities on their territories against us, that is where we have a problem.
TAR: How do you explain the de-escalation of the tensions between Rwanda and Uganda, which seemed almost at a war footing at moments in 2019?
PK: Well, I think its mainly because we have had other areas or things to pay more attention to than this other problem, which is very hard to explain why it was even there or why it never ended with all the efforts that have been put into it.
The problem is still there but its a little bit more quiet. I hope we can continue the quiet and even normalize in future.
I have always said it didn’t have to be there in the first place, but we have it on our hands, neighbours, people who would have otherwise a lot to do together and with each other and benefit each other but …
TAR: Were you surprised by the arrest of Félicien Kabuga, in France, the most wanted of the perpetrators of the genocide, on the run for 25 years.
PK: Well, over time I have learned never to be surprised by anything, I take things as they come and that’s okay. I don’t get excited, I don’t get surprised. I think it is better to take things as they are, calmly as you can, it costs you not so much. So the fact that he was arrested, good enough, let’s see what happens next.
TAR: He obviously benefited from high-level complicity in African countries and European countries; he had many passports. He lived in France for the last 5 or 6 years. Do we have any idea of such complicity, do you want to know the truth?
PK: I have always wanted to know the truth, we always try to know the truth. So we hope the truth will come out during the hearings. Its always going to be good to know the truth.
TAR: But do you really believe he can be tried and judged in Rwanda?
PK: That would be the best, whether he does is a different matter that is not in my control.
But if it happened, I think it would be the best thing. But already one step at a time, I think a good step has been taken, the court to have decided that he be tried in Arusha by the residual court, the ICTR. So I think it’s one good step.
Now from there if — for the justice to be fully done and his case to be tried before the people of Rwanda… but I also don’t have to raise my expectation too much.
TAR: What of the other ‘big fish’ still on the run, Protais Mpiranya, the commander of the presidential guard in 1994. Do you know where he is hiding?
PK: We have information from different sources that he’s in mainly in Southern Africa, he has established himself there, he has networks, he has people who support him and have supported him for a long time.
He has businesses, but sometimes they say he moves to other places, including West Africa and then sometimes Europe and back. So he must be somewhere, maybe one day the very long arm of justice might catch up with him.
TAR: What are relations like with France?
PK: I think since the election of president Macron we have seen continued progress in the relationship between our two countries; France and Rwanda.
It is definitely a work in progress, you can imagine the surrounding political environment is going to dictate the speed. It’s not just two or three individuals who decide that, I think the wider political environment will also contribute to the pace at which things move.
TAR: What would you say to those in France who believe that you do not like them, or the French language, because of the role played by certain French actors during the genocide?
PK: Well, maybe they have reasons they want to think like that. But why in the first place am I supposed to or why do people expect me to like anything? Or why do they expect me to like France or the French language? They must be having grounds on which they have that expectation.
But I would ask the other way around, do the French like me? If they like me or like Rwandans or like Rwanda then why don’t I ask the same question? Maybe I’ll ask some of them why they don’t learn Kinyarwanda?
What I’m saying sounds simplistic but I’m doing it really for a reason, that I have difficulty in being where I am and the history of my country, of Africa and everyone wants just to say, no, you must be predisposed to us as a ‘must’ and the way I have grown up in these struggles, in my DNA, I don’t like that kind of thing. I don’t like somebody saying you must look to me, you must appreciate me, you must see me as your saviour. No, I don’t like it.
My attitude is with all us human beings — and most of those people are Christians, they say we were all created by God and supposed to be equal and that’s what they tell me at the same time. But then later on they say no, no, you belong down there and for us we belong up there.
TAR: The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda is reaching the end of her mandate. What fresh impetus could be given to the court as it turns over leadership?
PK: The ICC right from it’s beginning should have been created as a result of consensus, the global consensus, and it should be able to treat people on equal basis. But really in the end in practice it is as if it was created by some people for other people, not for them.
It’s not just about the people maybe the prosecutor changing is one thing, but the set up, the way it operates.
And I always told people openly and it was my view that they are here trying to say this is something that is global in nature and operations, but actually it is just going to end up being a court for these poor Africans and for others in that category. And up to now nobody has disproved that point.
TAR: Human rights bodies regularly criticise your record, and your vision of democracy; how do you explain the persistence of these critics?
PK: I think the consistency comes from these people’s own guilt. I think everyone has guilt associated with our situation here in Rwanda.
Because from the beginning, whether it is the history of Rwanda since the colonial times, throughout up to the point when we had this tragic situation of ours in our country, does any one of those want to tell me that everything bad that happened or the history of this genocide that happened was purely and exclusively by the hand of Rwandans? Can anyone of those people say that without — unless they are just shameless?
Remember Habyarimana; praised as a democrat because of his friendship to some in Europe, despite being behind the genocide. And then those who tried to do something about [the genoocide] are accused of being the violators of human rights. This is absolute stupidity.
When it comes to Judgement Day, I will get much better marks than those people who criticise us, when it comes to judging us for what we did in the name of human rights and defence and protection of freedoms. I’m way ahead of these fellows who think they are better than anyone.
TAR: Victoire Ingabire complains to be persecuted by the police and judiciary. What is the problem with her political activity?
PK: This woman Ingabire, it’s not so long ago, she was successfully convicted of the crimes she had been committing, by the way associated with those other groups you were talking about, the armed groups that are in the region.
There was unquestionable information of her involvement. So on that basis she was tried in the court of law, convicted, went to prison for it. And the trial was done in the open in the courts of law, everyone had the right to follow it, even journalists, diplomats, everybody showed up.
Now she went to prison, the same noises were being made every day just ignoring the fact of why she is in prison, how she was tried. In the middle of that, two years ago, this woman was given clemency, she was forgiven on my instructions as the head of state and a consultation with the cabinet and everything, and she was released.
As soon as she got out of the prison, she went back and started doing exactly the same things. So we’ve been over time collecting information about it again, direct links, we can see even some links leading to possible violence in the near future and associating those groups outside.
So she will be put in the right place, irrespective of the noise that is being made. I think our government is able to do things rationally, reasonably and contain any situation that is likely to destabilize us and so on.
TAR: What of the musician Kizito Mihigo, don’t you think that the personal trajectory of this talented singer was a sort of a tragic mess?
PK: He is responsible for his own mess. So which we can’t assume responsibility for, Kizito Mihigo or anybody, whether you are a singer or you are anybody, or a scientist or some Nobel Laureate, if you drive yourself into a mess, it’s your mess.
Kizito was brought to me by somebody who was close to him and he told me how he was talented and so on and I actually personally got involved in supporting him. He went abroad, first he went to Belgium then he went to France and studied and we paid for his studies, he finished school, I think he majored in music and so on, then came back.
So when he came back, we even again — the government system helped him to use his talent and so on then at some point I don’t know what happened to him, he drove himself into a mess with these groups and I think he was later on arrested with a number of them and others fled the country.
And so he went, he was also charged in the court of law, he was tried. Later on, around the same time as Ingabire, he was also forgiven. He was released to go and again start a new life. So the other day they arrest him trying to escape out of the country at the border with Burundi, he was brought back. So it was the same path, his own mess which he and only he is responsible for.
TAR: Trump held a rally in Tulsa, the site of the 1921 massacre. As a politician who deals every day with the toxic legacy of Belgium colonialism and French colonialism as well, it can’t leave you indifferent.
PK: Yes, but again it’s the same history also that I wonder that gives people that authority to preach others as to what the human rights means and so on, the earlier subject we talked about.
We have all this history and then at the same time we have — which is by the way still unfolding in those forms you’re mentioning. Whether is colonialism or slavery or whatever.
Some blame the police, no it’s not the police, it’s the way the situation that allows or creates the police to do such things. I really sympathize with the police also because I don’t think everyone is like that, but it’s systemic, and people should just stop handling it by knee jerk reaction and dealing with individual cases.
TAR: You have pushed systemic change in Rwanda since 1994, changed the national mindset – is there anything that could be applied in the US?
PK: We stopped blaming people for our problems, we know colonialism has their hand in it, we know many things that happened from elsewhere affecting us. But in the end we started to say, okay, let’s start — because outside we can’t control outside, we cannot manage what — but we can control our own situation.
Now, what is our situation? If our society is divided, can we focus on understanding what underlies that division and provide the goods that are going to help people overcome their differences, whether artificial or real? And to try to protect ourselves from external influences that actually caused damage to us, by first dealing with our problem, if we understand each other.
Because we would for example ask Rwandans what is the difference between you, if you call yourself Hutu, if you call yourself a Tutsi or Twa?
In the end if there is a disaster like the one we have now, it doesn’t come asking who is Hutu, who is Tutsi, who is Twa– this virus comes killing all of us. Or if it’s poverty, poverty doesn’t know ethnic groups or whether people are short or tall or no, poverty or disease or anything.
So we have a conversation about it. So what is the stupidity of having us divided instead of working together for the benefit of each one of us? We have had this conversation for the last more or less 20 years, we still do.
TAR: Dr. Tedros of the World Health Organisation has been strongly critised by some for his management of the pandemic and for his so-called pro Chinese tendency. What is your opinion about Dr. Tedros?
PK: Well, my reaction to that is let me ask a simple question; since this pandemic has affected the whole world, who can you say has done things perfectly.
Whether it’s the president of a country or a head of an institution? Tell me one you can say, you know in this pandemic we have one person who has done perfectly well and no question about it.
In an organization like the WTO which brings the whole world together, people are always jostling for responsibilities there and so on, who funds what, who does what, who says what, who should have a say — in a situation like that has contributed to having powers in conflict.
What is very clear is that there is a problem between China and the United States, which has translated into WHO being a punching bag, and the head of the WHO is taking most of punches for the whole organization.
TAR: How can African countries navigate this US-China fault line? And it can be seen on lots of different things. It’s not just 5G it’s going to get bumpy over the next decade. How do you see this affair?
PK: I think the starting point for me is Africa must be careful in how they relate with this situation. So that it doesn’t go to the old days where people have to choose between the two, and say I’m with this side or with this country against the other country, or I am with this other country against the other. It would be a very big mistake.
Because one of these powers is capable of subtly, in a very subtly way harming your interests because you took sides. Avoid just being dragged left, right by any side that comes promising you this and against the other, yes we need to do deal with all of them. Africa, Rwanda, we need to deal with China, we need to deal with the United States, we need to deal with Russia.
TAR: The Rwanda Development Board runs sponsorship messages with both Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain. If there is a match between these two teams, are you allowed to say who you would support?
PK: It is easy for me to be neutral but support the march going on in a very good way. I will start judging whatever is happening by appreciating, or pointing out where the mistake is, whether technical or otherwise during the match. And say, ‘Oh, I like this other guy, he played so well’ and then ‘oh this one made a mistake because he should have…’
Because this is likely to happen on both sides, you are going to have some negatives on both sides and positives on both sides, but you would have critiqued and supported both. So you remain like that. It’s like dealing with China and America!