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Rwanda’s Paul Kagame: ‘Tshisekedi, Kabila, Macron, Museveni, my family and me’

By François Soudan
Posted on Wednesday, 26 May 2021 12:35, updated on Monday, 31 May 2021 17:54

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Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, at the Peninsula Hotel in Paris, May 18, 2021. Vincent Fournier /JA

In a final step to normalise relations with Rwanda, France's President Emmanuel Macron will visit Kigali 27 - 29 May, where he will name an ambassador to the east African country. Although relations have improved since the 1994 genocide, Paris has not had an accredited ambassador in Kigali since 2015. Ahead of Macron's visit, we spoke with President Paul Kagame.

“This time, I’m staying in a Parisian hotel without the risk of the police knocking on my door!” It was with a smile and the reminder of a 30-year-old anecdote that Rwanda’s Paul Kagame welcomed us in a lounge of the Peninsula Hotel, on the sidelines of the summit on African economies, of which he was one of the distinguished guests.

On a visit to France one day in September 1991, after having been received at the Quai d’Orsay, the man who was then the leader of a rebel front fighting against the current government in Kigali, was abruptly arrested at dawn in his hotel room, held at gunpoint and taken to an unknown location where he was interrogated for 24 hours before being released.

If he has forgotten nothing of those moments, nor of the more than troubled role played by the French executive before, during, and after the Tutsi genocide, the Rwandan president is hardly asked to recognise that almost everything has changed in the relations between Paris and Kigali.

With more pragmatism than sentiment – it’s not his style – and an acute awareness that, since in this area everything is based on power relations, nothing is irreversible, this head of state, whose tragic history has made him much larger than his size, now stands without reluctance alongside his new friend: France’s Emmanuel Macron. In his eyes, he is nothing less than a ‘role model’ for the African continent.

It is therefore at the Quai d’Orsay that the 63-year old president welcomes us. Public and individual freedoms, democracy, the Rusesabagina affair, relations with neighbours, intervention in the Central African Republic: there is no shortage of controversial subjects, all of which are centred around a personality who seems to love them, so much so that with him, it is either you ‘love him or hate him’.

Paul Kagame responds in his own way, sharp or allusive, as the case may be. But he always answers.

[Editor’s note: This interview was conducted on 18 May in Paris and was completed by telephone two days later from Kigali. It has been lightly edited for clarity]

The Muse and Duclert reports both conclude that France bears “heavy” responsibility, but dismiss the accusation of complicity. Has the truth finally been told and have all responsibilities been established in this case?

Paul Kagame: These two reports were very important for relations between our two countries. But there are different aspects.

First of all, I don’t know what the phrase ‘all responsibilities established’ means to you. You can’t sweep everything away at once. Each responsibility is critical. Second, the two reports do not reach the same conclusion. Ours does not rule out complicity, it just raises questions that, if pursued, would lead to that conclusion.

I stand by what has been established very clearly in these two reports, namely the notion of heavy responsibility. Whether there was complicity or not, we leave that to everyone’s interpretation.

I think that despite slight differences in their conclusions, these reports lay a solid foundation for building a better relationship between our two countries. Today, we have done 85 to 90% of the work to normalise things, and I don’t think we need to waste time on the other 10 or 15%. We will build on what we have accomplished and move on.

During your visit to Paris, you received a delegation of French military and a diplomat involved in Rwandan affairs between 1990 and 1994. Who took this initiative and what did you expect from it?

It happened spontaneously during our exchanges with our French counterparts, as well as with Vincent Duclert, the president of the French commission. This proposal for a meeting was then submitted to me and I had no reason to refuse it. It was an opportunity to demonstrate that we can put the past behind us. If we can use this opportunity to learn from a common past, so much the better.

Furthermore, the personalities involved in this meeting were not, in my opinion, among the controversial officers who were in office during the genocide. They were stuck in the middle of it all. So it was not a problem for me to have a few moments with them, to share our experiences. I told them mine, they told me theirs. This allows us to move forward.

Does this mean that for you, France’s responsibility during the genocide is more political than military?

It is difficult to separate the political from the military. This is the case in any country. Military acts, most of the time, are on orders of politicians. But they can also act according to their own understanding of the mission they are supposed to accomplish or the interests they believe they serve. There is a fine line between the two.