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

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.

As a commander of the Rwandan Patriotic Army, and then as president of Rwanda, you have had to deal with five French presidents. Your relations with these counterparts have had their ups and downs. Does the mandate of Emmanuel Macron mark a definitive turning point?

It is a crucial turning point. To be quite honest, we had constructive exchanges with Nicolas Sarkozy. I remember that when he was halfway through his mandate, we met in New York. It was the first time we talked. We looked each other in the eye and talked about the difficult relationship between our two countries, about this very complicated history. He then came to Kigali, in February 2010, and we visited the Genocide Memorial together. This was a small break in the relationship between France and Rwanda in which he played an important role.

Unfortunately, this beginning of rapprochement was never completed. When he was elected, Emmanuel Macron set out a very clear path to advance the relationship between Rwanda and France. This is what made possible the establishment of the Duclert Commission, whose conclusions met our own. It is also what opens the way for further rapprochement.

It takes courage to start this kind of process. Courageous people are not only those who are on the battlefield. They are also those who make decisions that go against what others expect of them, decisions that expose them. Emmanuel Macron had that courage.

Despite this rapprochement, only three people have been tried in France for acts related to the genocide, and French courts still refuse to extradite others who were indicted. Is this a lack of political will?

Over time, I have learned that these things necessarily require political will. You may have all the tools at your disposal, but it requires taking risks. If people are willing to take them, out of conviction, I think a lot can be done.

You do with what you have at the moment. I think the political side of our relationship, where we can do something, is going well. The judicial aspect, which is very often confused with the political, remains for the moment in a grey area. When we have turned the page on political rapprochement, which remains the most important, perhaps we will address this problem. We are moving forward step by step and I am confident that we will eventually address the rest of the issues we face.

Many major media outlets, many NGOs and, more recently, the UN Human Rights Council have denounced the lack of freedoms in Rwanda, be it political freedom, freedom of expression or arbitrary detentions… How do you respond to these accusations and how do you explain their recurrence?

What do you want me to say? It is like a broken record that keeps repeating itself. Rwanda has been used to this for 27 years. Sometimes I think that what explains it is either that these people are too lazy to see the reality of things on the ground, or that it is the effect of some form of guilt, for what happened in Rwanda during the genocide did not involve only Rwandans.

A significant number of actors, including rich and powerful countries, played a role during this period, but they refuse to be held responsible. It is therefore necessary for them to reverse the responsibility by accusing the Rwandan authorities of being the source of Rwanda’s problems. This is a form of racism and contempt that began during the genocide, when part of the population was systematically murdered.

At the time, the UN just saw it as poor Africans killing each other. The Hutus were killing the Tutsis and vice versa. They didn’t even call it genocide. The responsibility of external actors, who had chosen their side, for some the side of those who had organised these massacres, was already ignored at the time. According to their reading of the situation, we were no longer Rwandans but English-speaking invaders from Uganda who wanted to take power in their French-speaking corner.

All this has shaped the reading of the situation that we see today among these NGOs in the United States, Canada or Europe. They act according to the interests of their country. Today, it is taken for granted that developed countries are not hurting anyone. They just want to save African countries.

But how do you explain these reactions that are aimed at you personally, often in a passionate way?

It is true that we are attacked daily, whether it is me or the Rwandan Patriotic Front. However, you have people who are in France, in Great Britain, in Belgium, some of whom are murderers who killed in 1994, during the genocide. In most cases, we have difficulty bringing them to justice. Whether they are found innocent or guilty is a matter for the courts, but these countries do not even try them, they protect them. Some people would even like to see these people come back to power in Rwanda to run the country. It’s cynical, but we live with it.

At the beginning of the year, the British journalist Michela Wrong published Do Not Disturb, a book that received some media attention and that is very critical of the trajectory of your party, the RPF, and of your regime. Have you read it?

I don’t need to read this nonsense. But I want people to read it and make up their own minds. The purpose of this book is only to destroy what we have built.

LISTEN PODCAST: Michela Wrong on her book ‘Do not disturb’

But the truth is getting harder and harder to distort. They may attack us from all sides, but they still see a country emerging from destruction. These are undeniable facts.

The case of the opponent Paul Rusesabagina, who was arrested in August 2020 and is currently on trial in Kigali, has caused a great deal of reaction from the international community. How do you respond to those who say he was kidnapped?

There are two distinct aspects to this case. The first is the process that brought Rusesabagina to Kigali. The second is whether Rusesabagina is guilty or not. We must stop mixing the two.

If it were established that he was arrested illegally, then it would be possible to argue this point, to make it a separate procedure and to debate it. But if, on the other hand, someone tells you that this same Rusesabagina has been a member of a terrorist group attacking Rwanda for several years, and that this is supported by evidence presented in a court of law right now, this cannot be ignored.

There are even statements where he boasts that he is the leader of one of these groups operating in the DRC or Burundi. If the United States or Belgium, where he had been living for several years, had wanted to prosecute him for these facts, we would have provided them with the same evidence.

Because he was supposedly arrested ‘illegally’, he should get off, while this terrorist group killed people in Rwanda? I would prefer that the two cases be treated separately. Let those who want to prove that he was illegally arrested. If a case is opened, fine, we will argue. But he must also be tried for what he is suspected of in Rwanda. If he is innocent, he will be released. If he is guilty, he will pay the price.

If people think that he was arrested because he is a hero, a status that was granted to him thanks to a film that was originally intended to be a fictional film, this shows their level of laziness.

But do you confirm the version according to which he was trapped during a trip from the United States to Dubai by a Burundian pastor who, in collaboration with the Rwandan services, made his arrival in Kigali possible?

What do I have to do with a pastor who is in contact with Rusesabagina, who lied to him and convinced him to go to Burundi? What does that have to do with the facts of the case?

After five years of tension, normalisation seems to be well underway with Burundi. What has allowed this new approach?

Perhaps the change of government played a role. Or perhaps time has also made them ask the right questions. Why continue on this path? Why continue to fuel these tensions when a calmer relationship would benefit us more than a conflict?

Does this mean that you no longer see Burundi as a potential threat?

No, that is not what I mean.

When a neighbour is a source of tension for your country, you try to deal with that problem, but also with what is behind it. If someone supports one of my enemies, then that means I have two problems to deal with. The one who crosses the border to attack me and the one who, in the shadow, supports him.

The Burundian authorities are calling for the extradition of the alleged coup plotters who took part in the coup attempt and who are said to have taken refuge in Rwanda. Do you intend to do this?

People focus on only one aspect of our problems. There are people here in France, even more in Belgium, others in Scandinavia, who were part of this group of coup plotters in Burundi. The Burundian government has not asked these countries to extradite them and has certainly not made its rapprochement with these countries conditional on these requests.

We know that these alleged coup plotters are here because some of them passed through Rwanda before going to Europe. These people who had nowhere to go are now being treated as refugees.

We told the Burundians and the UN: ‘If you want these people, we will give them to you. If you want to come and get them yourselves to bring them back, we will also give them to you. But that will become your problem.’ As far as we are concerned, we cannot unilaterally hand over people who have come to us for refuge.

What we can guarantee is that as long as they are here, none of these people will be able to organise themselves from our territory to attack Burundi. Now, if someone wants to take them back from us and hand them over to Burundi, then they will take the consequences. We have told this to the Burundians. What more do they want?

On the other hand, despite a promising start to mediation, the situation with Uganda is not improving. Have you lost confidence in Yoweri Museveni?

This story is not just about trust between Museveni and me. It has been going on for a long time, maybe more than 20 years. I’m never very comfortable talking about this, but I’ll sum it up this way: for us, it’s not acceptable to be anyone’s subordinate. We do not accept to be controlled or used.

We are a small country, but we are too big for that. This is the problem between the two of us. If you can read between the lines, you can understand what I mean. In this relationship, there can’t be a ‘big brother’ telling the other ‘do this or do that’. We have a country to run. If a neighbour wants to attack our sovereignty, to destabilise us with armed groups, we cannot accept it.

Your relationship with Félix Tshisekedi is undeniably better than the one you had with Joseph Kabila. Is it based on a more solid foundation?

I think it was not very difficult to do better than in the previous Congolese administration. We did everything we could to improve things with Kabila, but it never worked. With him, it worked for a few days or a few weeks, and then after a month or two, we had problems again. It has been like this for years.

Now there is hope that things will improve on the ground. If we listen to each other, especially as a neighbour with a common history like ours, good and bad at the same time, it allows us to better protect each other on both sides. That is what is happening today.

Will the state of siege across the border in North Kivu be enough to stop the armed groups?

It may not be enough, and I think there are other decisions to be made. This is certainly not an easy problem to solve, since it has been going on for more than 25 years and involves several neighbours, including Rwanda.

Some are friends, others are enemies. Solving this situation takes time, but it is a good starting point. Terrorist activity in this part of the country has increased, so something had to be done. This is not an end in itself, it is a step to build on.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Denis Mukwege is campaigning for the creation of an international criminal tribunal on crimes committed in the Congo, based on the UN’s ‘Mapping Report’. Why are you opposed to this approach?

I don’t know if you have studied the mapping report. This report was created to give credibility to the idea of double genocide, a theory that transforms victims into executioners. A report like this should have shown the perpetration of crimes committed by parties other than Rwanda.

The people behind this are funding Mukwege. It’s part of this new NGO narrative, this new narrative around these events. It doesn’t take away from the good things that Dr. Mukwege has done, treating these women who were raped.

Do you feel that Dr. Mukwege is being manipulated?

That is not what I said. Draw your own conclusions.

In a recent interview, President Tshisekedi said this ‘Mapping Report’ was written by “objective” UN experts, and that it would be a “positive attitude” on your part to “collaborate” with justice on what happened in the DRC during those years. What is your reaction?

President Tshisekedi has the right to believe the experts, and I have the right not to trust them. We are legitimate, each for different reasons, to have our own opinions, and there should be no quarrel on this subject. Time will tell. Our two countries have suffered tragedies and we can only overcome them by working together. This suffering has continued and we can help end it. But experts from the UN or elsewhere will not help us do this.

Many people died in Rwanda and Congo, there is no doubt about that. But where the experts are more political than anything else is when it comes to saying who, what and how. I have been in this situation long enough and it has reinforced my skepticism of these so-called experts. The fact is that my country and the DRC have suffered a lot together.

There have been too many deaths. We cannot give up the search for peace, security and even justice. But justice is precisely the most difficult goal to achieve. It will not be achieved by experts. I have spoken about the mapping report so many times in the context of our relations with the DRC. This is the last time I will speak to journalists on this subject, especially when some of them have no other objective than to aggravate the situation.

You have troops engaged in the Central African Republic as part of the UN mission, but also on a bilateral basis. Why this double commitment?

We went to the Central African Republic to serve in the framework of the UN mission. We were approached by the UN for this purpose.

In the Central African Republic, there are complicated dynamics: several rebel groups are present, some are fighting each other, some neighbouring countries are involved and are part of the problem. From our point of view and given our own experience during the genocide, to see such a situation deteriorate is not acceptable.

There is a force on the ground that is supposed to keep the peace, but it is bound hand and foot, as in 1994 in Rwanda. At times, the rebels are perfectly free to move around or shoot at UN troops. This led us to ask ourselves the question: what is the point of our involvement on the ground if we are to flee as soon as the rebels arrive?

As a result, part of the Rwandan contingent that is engaged on a bilateral basis is fighting alongside Russian contractors who are often described as mercenaries. Isn’t this problematic?

That is not true, we have nothing to do with the Russians. We do not work together. But they are there. What I wanted to say is that if the Rwandan forces engaged under our bilateral agreement had not been there, the elections in the Central African Republic would not have taken place, that is a certainty, everyone will tell you that.

We sent our troops for two reasons. First, to protect our UN contingents, whose hands were tied. Secondly, to protect the integrity of the country and to ensure that the elections that the government wanted could be held. That is why we are fighting the rebels with our troops who are not in the UN Mission in the Central African Republic.

Your son Ivan was appointed a year ago to the board of directors of the Rwanda Development Board (RDB). Your daughter, Ange, is involved in philanthropic activities and serves, for some, as an informal advisor. Are you preparing your children for a political role in Rwanda?

No. First of all, RDB is not political. It is an agency that is in charge of attracting investments to Rwanda, and it acts as a link between the government and the private sector. That’s all it is. Secondly, my son is not the president of RDB, he is just a member of the board. He lives in the United States, where he studied, and only comes two or three times a year, when the RDB office asks him to be present.

Aren’t you afraid of being accused of nepotism?

If I were in this logic, my son would be RDB president or minister. So at least I can be given the benefit of doubt. My daughter got married and lives in Rwanda. She found it easier to work with me than to be appointed somewhere where she would probably be treated differently, based on her status as the president’s daughter. Here, she’s on a team of nine people that she doesn’t manage, she just gets involved in the areas that are hers, in a technical aspect. She has no authority over this group.

It’s not an easy situation to deal with, I agree. I can’t distance myself too much from my children. If I involve my children too much, I will be accused of giving them privileges. If I don’t, keeping them away from the country would be denying them their right as Rwandan citizens.

It is a dilemma, so we are looking for something in between. But you won’t hear here the kind of outbursts that you see in other countries and that make headlines in some newspapers. Rwanda is not a monarchy.

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