Paul Kagame: Rwanda's redeemer or ruthless dictator?
President Paul Kagame, the Rwandan hero who united a country torn by genocide, defends his uncompromising approach to democracy
The presidential chair, lean and straight-backed, awaits its occupant in a big, hushed room with long, beige curtains drawn against the African sun. After some delay, His Excellency is announced and Paul Kagame enters the room with a brisk loping stride – a tall, thin, gangly man with small steel-rimmed spectacles, a narrow moustache and a blue suit hanging off his bony shoulders.
His eyes have a keen, piercing intelligence, and he radiates a quality of intense seriousness that is both impressive and intimidating. Kagame, the president of Rwanda, is widely considered to be the most dynamic and effective leader in Africa today, and also ruthless, repressive and intolerant of criticism.
Like any African strongman who depends on aid from Western democracies – Britain is the single largest donor to his regime, giving £70 million last year – it is necessary for Kagame to cry foul when he’s accused of abusing human rights, but his self-professed model for Rwanda is Singapore: a small, tightly controlled authoritarian state that has achieved a vibrant prosperity based on trade, banking and communications.
The interview begins with Kagame asking the questions. 'Tell me your impressions of Rwanda,’ he says, 'a) before you came here, and b) now that you are here.’
Like most foreign visitors, I have been impressed by the cleanliness, order and efficiency of the country. Sixteen years after the genocide in which Hutu fanatics orchestrated the slaughter of more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, leaving the country a nightmarish ruin, with the treasury looted and corpses stuffed down the wells, Rwanda is now the safest, cleanest country in Africa, with no slums and virtually no begging or street crime. It has one of the highest sustained rates of economic growth on the continent, the least amount of corruption and red tape, and it is the only country in the world to have a majority of women in its parliament.
Plastic bags are outlawed for environmental reasons, and in Kigali, the capital city, skyscrapers are rising, and the streets are swept clean every morning. The death penalty has been abolished, and English adopted as the official language. There is a national health system, 19 out of 20 children are now in school, and rural Rwanda, while still in severe poverty, has better internet service than rural Britain, and a good network of immaculately paved roads.
Meanwhile the survivors of the genocide are doing something almost unimaginable: co-existing with the men who hacked their family members to death, and so often tortured and raped them. In many cases survivors and killers are now living as neighbours again in the same villages, and while this is a tense arrangement to say the least, there has been remarkably little violence, and some inspiring examples of forgiveness and reconciliation.
'These achievements are extraordinary but they seem fragile,’ I say. 'The country still feels so traumatised and volatile. I have been asking Rwandans what they would like to ask you, and two questions keep coming up: how can we heal the ethnic division in our hearts? And what happens if Kagame drops dead tomorrow? Many think there would be another genocide.’
These remarks hang impertinently in the air for a few moments. Then Kagame, who is Tutsi and runs a Tutsi-dominated government, nods slowly and composes his reply.
'For me, this fragility is to be expected. Sixteen years is a very short time, and the trauma runs much deeper than people from outside, however well meaning, will ever understand. Sometimes our partners from other countries ask us why we have not got further with our reconciliation, as if we possess a magic to just get rid of this tragic history of ours. No, we have to find a way to live with it and also to build a new nation. The first phase was to achieve peace and stability, and now we are moving forward with development. And if Kagame, for one reason or other, is no longer there, people can look back at everything that has been done in 16 years, and they can feel a part of it, and be reassured that this stability will continue.’
Rwanda’s curse has been ethnic hatred expressed as ethnic politics, so Kagame’s government, in typically bold, authoritarian style, has made it illegal. Any politician or citizen who makes a statement encouraging ethnic animosity, or expressing ethnic solidarity, risks a lengthy imprisonment for the crime of 'divisionism’. The very words Hutu and Tutsi are now fraught and taboo, and if you ask someone which group they belong to, they will usually look uncomfortable and reply as the government has dictated: 'We are all Rwandans now.’
To Kagame’s critics, this is simply a strategy to keep the Hutus, who make up 85 per cent of the population, from organising politically against his small Tutsi elite now controlling the country. There are Hutu members and ministers in Kagame’s ruling party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), but the inner circle is all Tutsi. And in the past, whenever Hutu politicians have started to gather power or criticise the government, it has usually meant their imprisonment, exile, disappearance or, in the case of Seth Sendashonga and a few others, unsolved assassination.
According to Human Rights Watch, one of Kagame’s most persistent critics, by denying Hutus a political voice and access to power he is building resentment, bottling tensions and possibly sowing the seeds for the next genocide.
Kagame bristles fiercely at these criticisms. 'There are people who think we will never get out of this, that in Rwanda either these ones will do the killing, or these ones will,’ he says. 'I do not accept this. I cannot accept that there is something wrong with us in this way. It will be a long, difficult process – we are under no illusions – and development is really the key. We must create economic opportunity, build a culture of entrepreneurship, get people to take responsibility for improving their lives, rather than putting them in a position where they sit back in their poverty and blame others for it.’
To Kagame’s fans, who include Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Bill Gates and the CEOs of Google and Starbucks, the tinderbox nature of post-genocide Rwanda, and the results he has achieved so far, justify his strong hand and poor human rights record. The fact that Rwanda is ranked 183 out of 195 countries for freedom of the press, for example, is outweighed by the fact that the per-capita GDP has tripled. Also, the West lives with the guilty knowledge that it was Kagame and his rebel army who stopped the genocide, while we dithered and blundered, and Kagame has been skilful and relentless at using this guilt to his advantage.
Like so many rebel generals who have made the switch to civilian leadership, Kagame places a high premium on loyalty and discipline, likes to operate in secrecy, is comfortable using violence and threats of violence against his enemies, and tends to equate criticism with treason. Unusually, he doesn’t appear motivated by wealth or luxury, either for himself or his relations. One of his sisters runs a small dairy. Another operates a souvenir stand at the airport.
When I ask Kagame to sum up his political philosophy, he says, 'Pragmatic, doing what is doable,’ and adds that fighting war is more to his liking. 'Even with all the hardships and hunger, war is straightforward and clear-cut,’ he explains. 'But building a nation from nothing? A nation that has just experienced genocide? There is no strategy manual for this. There is nothing that is not a priority, and the priorities are always conflicting. I try to look at problems very clearly and think, “How do we get out of this? What will work? What will be the consequences for the people involved?”’
Kagame has very little formal schooling, so his ideas and solutions are formed by his life experiences, which have been harsher than most of us can imagine, and his voracious reading. Having put in a 12-hour day dealing with affairs of state, taken his exercise (gym or tennis), spent time with his wife and four children and said goodnight to them, he then stays up reading for three or four hours a night. 'Mainly it is books about economics, business management, development issues, politics, international affairs,’ he says. 'I get newspapers from Britain and other countries twice a week, and read them almost page to page. Sometimes I find I’m reading things I don’t even need to read, because my mind is still hungry. I don’t need much sleep. Four hours is enough.’
Paul Kagame was born in 1957 into an aristocratic Tutsi family that fled Rwanda when he was a small boy. His earliest memories are of houses burning on a hill, shouting and commotion, his desperate mother, the family scrambling into a car as a Hutu death squad came running down the hill towards them. This was in 1959 and again in 1960, during the first of the Hutu pogroms against the Tutsi that some historians now interpret as 'warm-up genocides’.
The Kagames were among tens of thousands of Rwandan Tutsis who ended up living in refugee camps across the border in Uganda. 'You will always hear me talking about the importance of dignity,’ Kagame says. 'It is really the key to people’s lives, and obviously for me it relates back to the refugee camp, the lining up for food every day, the rationing. When we started primary school, we used to study under a tree. We used to write on our thighs with a piece of dry, hard grass, and the teacher would come over and look at your thigh, and write his mark with another piece of dry grass. You develop some sense of questioning, some sense of justice, saying, “Why do I live like this? Why should anybody live like this?” There was also a hardening that is still there in the way I approach many things. You can’t shock me, because what can be worse than what I have seen and lived through?’
As a young man he joined the leftist Ugandan rebel army led by Yoweri Museveni, the current president of Uganda, and spent five years as a guerrilla fighter in the bush. Intelligence was Kagame’s speciality, gathering information about the terrain, the enemy, the villagers. It suited his observant, analytical, conspiratorial mind. When Museveni took power in 1986, he sent Kagame to Cuba for training with 67 intelligence officers under his command.
On his return, Kagame and his closest boyhood friend from the refugee camp, Fred Rwigyema, started building a clandestine army of Rwandan exiles within the Ugandan national army, with the aim of invading Rwanda and overthrowing the Hutu regime. It was one of the most audacious covert operations in military history, involving thousands of people, and it was how the Rwandan Patriotic Front began.
In 1989, through relations in the Rwandan Tutsi diaspora, Kagame met and married his wife, Jeanette, then living in Nairobi. Soon afterwards the newlyweds went to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where Museveni had arranged training for Kagame at the prestigious US Army Command and Staff College, to complement what he had learnt in Cuba. Kagame and Rwigyema continued to plot their invasion by telephone, as the Ugandan military became increasingly suspicious of the Rwandans in their midst.
In October 1990, with Kagame still in Kansas tidying up his affairs, the RPF detached itself from the Ugandan army, ripped the insignias off its uniforms, and crossed the border into Rwanda. By the time Kagame got there Rwigyema had been killed, and the RPF had been routed. Kagame took command of the remnants and led them to the remote Virunga mountains. There he rebuilt his army in secret, and began a four-year guerrilla war against the Hutu government headed by President Juvénal Habyarimana and backed by the French.
It was Hutu Power extremists in the ruling elite who conceived of genocide against Tutsis, imported the machetes from China, trained the Interahamwe death squads, and then used the radio to whip up hatred and paranoia among the Hutu population, and coordinate the killing district by district. As the horror began, Kagame was in close contact with the UN commander on the ground, Romeo Dallaire, whose superiors in New York ordered him to stay neutral and not get involved. Kagame was also in contact with the Clinton administration, which justified its inaction by claiming that 'acts of genocide’ were taking place, but not genocide itself. Furious and disgusted by the international response, Kagame and the RPF took matters into their own hands and marched on Kigali.
The night before the RPF reached the city, the genocidaires fled, leaving the streets heaped with corpses, government buildings stripped down to the wiring, the treasury and banks emptied. Moving into the countryside beyond Kigali, the RPF found more horror, stench and eerie silence. It seemed impossible that so many people had been killed with machetes and clubs in such a short time, and indeed the Rwandan genocide, with 800,000 dead in 100 days, was the fastest genocide in history.
When the self-styled 'international community’ did finally intervene, it did nothing for the survivors, and chose instead to help the perpetrators of the genocide. The French landed 3,000 soldiers and created a protected zone for the fleeing government army, death squads and general Hutu population, which included many genocidal killers. From there, a great exodus of Hutus crossed into the Democratic Republic of Congo, or Zaire as it was then, and a massive international aid campaign was launched to feed them, shelter them in refugee camps, and bring them medical supplies. Neither the television coverage nor the televised appeals for money by the aid organisations made it clear that these people had just committed genocide. In accordance with the principles of humanitarian neutrality, they were described as 'refugees from the genocide in Rwanda’, and most viewers naturally assumed they were innocent survivors.
Kagame’s blood starts to boil when he remembers this time. 'They had armoured personnel carriers, anti-aircraft, armouries and ammunition in the camps, and the human rights people, and the humanitarian people, were feeding them, and telling us they were feeding refugees. And, as they very well knew, these so-called refugees were selling most of what they were given so they could maintain their military machine, because they wanted to come back and overthrow us.’
There were two important long-term consequences. One was that Kagame developed a deep contempt for the international community and its claims to moral authority. The second was that his army invaded Zaire/Congo (while he strenuously denied that an invasion was taking place). Fighting alongside a Congolese rebel army, it scattered but did not defeat the Hutu war machine, committed a series of brutal massacres against fleeing, unarmed Hutus (also denied, even when the mass graves were discovered), deposed the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, and set in motion a horrific cycle of violence, upheaval and pillage in Congo that has been dubbed Africa’s World War. Depending on whose figures you believe, it has caused three million, five million or seven million deaths, mostly from war-related disease and privation.
The gravest charges against Kagame’s regime relate to the actions of his army. There is clear evidence that the RPF committed systematic massacres of Hutus both in Rwanda when they took power, and then in Congo. According to UN reports, the Rwandan military has also plundered some $100 million worth of gold, diamonds, tin, coltan and other minerals from war-ravaged eastern Congo. It is not a defence of Rwanda but a point of context to mention that eight other African nations, and a dizzying cast of Congolese warlords, have also been fighting over the vast mineral wealth in this region.
Kagame has only this to say on the subject of Congo: 'The problems there are so enormous and many decades old, so I think it is a mistake to say that the problem starts with Rwanda’s hand in it, and this is where it ends. Even if we were to take Rwanda away, and put it someplace else, Congo still has a lot of problems to contend with – corruption, bad governance, lack of effective institutions, and so on. But at least for those problems related to us we are gradually overcoming them, and are doing so by working very well with the Congolese.’
Regarding the RPF massacres of Hutus in Rwanda, he offers a more spirited defence, saying that it was extremely difficult to restrain his troops, especially the new recruits who had just seen their family members raped and butchered. 'You can imagine trying to stand between people who are so seriously aggrieved, and having the desire to settle it because there was no justice infrastructure at that time. Then you have the ones being accused, and some felt justified and thought they did right in killing, and others said no, we weren’t a part of it, even if they were involved, and trying to sort all this out was probably the most difficult thing of all.’
There were still thousands of unburied bodies when human rights activists made their first calls for free and fair democratic elections in Rwanda. There were millions of displaced people, and a genocidal war machine reassembling itself just across the border. There was no currency in circulation, and the trauma of the survivors was still in the first stage of shock. 'You would look in their eyes and see a blankness,’ Kagame says. 'They were just wondering how it was possible to cope with everything they had seen.’
Some 200 humanitarian NGOs (non-governmental organisations) arrived in Rwanda to help rebuild it, and while Kagame was grateful for the goodwill, the money and the services they could provide, he rankled at the mixture of naivety and entitlement that came along in their cultural baggage, and threw 80 of them out because they refused to register. 'Of the rest, you would be lucky to find five in 100 that are doing it altruistically. The others will choose for you where you should put their money, and try to control what you do in other areas. They come here knowing almost nothing, understanding almost nothing, and they judge and criticise and tell you what you should do. A big part of the misunderstanding is that they expect us to be a normal country, like the ones where they are from. They do not understand that we are operating in a very different context.’
In the Great Lakes region of Africa – Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Uganda – it is normal for presidents to seize power at the head of rebel armies. Ethnic violence and ethnic patronage are basic tools of politics, and if you lose power there is a serious risk of death, imprisonment or exile, and perhaps a wave of ethnic cleansing or genocide against your people. In Kagame’s case, his electorate is 85 per cent Hutu. Many of them were involved in the most committed attempt at genocide that Africa has ever seen. It is not hard to understand why his government lacks enthusiasm for genuinely free and fair elections, or why it clamps down so hard on the slightest suggestion of ethnic politics. Nor does it ever admit mistakes, apologise or show any other sign of weakness.
Another basic requirement for politicians in the region is to present a facade of democracy to keep the donors happy and the aid money flowing. In this spirit, the RPF wrote a parliamentary constitution for Rwanda after it took power. To show Rwandans and the West that they were not a military dictatorship of Tutsi exiles, they appointed a Hutu president, Pasteur Bizimungu, and a Hutu prime minister. Kagame was vice-president, minister of defence, general of the army, and the one who took important meetings with foreign heads of state. Bizimungu proved obstinate, greedy and ambitious. In 2000, having resigned while drunk in public, he was then arrested and sentenced to 15 years for divisionism. The crime was committed in a magazine interview, in which Bizimungu predicted Hutu violence and civil war unless the RPF started sharing power in a genuine way.
Kagame assumed the presidency. He started devouring books about Singapore, South Korea, China and the other 'Asian Tigers’, which had managed to leap out of poverty in less than a generation by means of disciplined, authoritarian leadership and entrepreneurial capitalism. Rwanda is a small, landlocked, overpopulated country with few natural resources, and long, expensive trade routes. How was it going to develop? Kagame announced an ambitious plan to turn Rwanda into the high-tech commercial, banking and communications hub of east and central Africa by 2020.
The region is rich in resources, especially Congo, but it has been crippled by corruption, inefficiency, political instability, poverty, disease and ignorance. Kagame’s government began tackling these problems with a harsh, bullying, unwavering determination entirely new to the region. Government employees were required to be at their desks by 7am, and quickly fired if they didn’t produce results. The anti-corruption tsar was given real power, and used it zealously. The rebuilding of Rwanda’s infrastructure and institutions, especially in health and education, has been largely financed by foreign aid, which provided 100 per cent of the government’s budget in the immediate aftermath of the genocide, and is now at 42 per cent. Kagame wants to reduce Rwanda’s dependency on aid, regarding it as a trap that stifles entrepreneurship and dignity, but it has been integral to his progress so far, and for the donors Rwanda has been a rare success story. Here at last is an African government that doesn’t embezzle or squander the money, but uses it efficiently and gets results.
The government has also been effective at courting influential friends abroad (Clinton, Blair et al), and bringing in foreign investment, mainly from America and China. The World Bank has named Rwanda the top business reformer in the world, and the region’s most business-friendly country. The coffee business is booming, thanks in no small part to Starbucks, and tourism, unimaginable after the genocide, has grown into a $200 million a year industry. Another important part of the Rwandan economic miracle, but hard to measure, has been the secret flow of illegal minerals from Congo.
The other African countries involved have plundered minerals for the personal enrichment of a few individuals, with the profits banked in Switzerland or London. In Rwanda’s case, the mineral wealth appears to have been funnelled through government channels, with most of it spent on the military, and the rest of it helping to finance Kagame’s vision of an African Singapore.
The dream is still a long way from coming true. In Kigali there is a prosperous elite, most of them Tutsis returned from the diaspora, and an emerging middle class, but nine out of 10 Rwandans are still subsistence farmers. Hope rests on the generation currently in school, who are growing up with laptops and the internet, speaking English, and moving towards the universities and the new technical colleges. Rwandese society has always encouraged obedience to power (this is one reason why so many Hutus followed their orders to kill Tutsis), and younger Rwandans are being pounded with exhortations to study hard, work hard, take responsibility, be entrepreneurs.
No one is watching the Rwanda experiment more closely than other Africans. Kagame is widely admired and respected on the continent, and considered a shoo-in for the presidency of the African Union if he ever wants the job. But the Rwanda model is not easily replicated. It requires a Kagame, and men like Kagame do not come along often. There has never been a shortage of autocrats in Africa, but very few of them have been so driven and determined to better their countries, and most have concentrated on enriching themselves and shoring up their power with patronage. Kagame has shown Africa that strong leadership can turn a country around, and that a strong leader shows no quarter to his opponents.
He faced his first presidential election in 2003. Opposition candidates proved hard to find because the likeliest were either in prison, dead or had fled the country. Finally the former prime minister, a Hutu named Faustin Twagiramungu, returned from exile, announced his candidacy and made a speech accusing Kagame of running a dictatorship. The majority-female parliament promptly voted to ban his political party. Twagiramungu persevered, even after two of his most prominent supporters disappeared without trace, and Kagame won 95 per cent of the vote. He insists it was a free and fair election, saying, 'You cannot blame me for the weakness of the opposition.’
Now he has another election on August 9. The government has closed down two critical newspapers, and arrested a journalist for defamation (he compared Kagame with Hitler) and divisionism. A dissident general has survived an assassination attempt in South Africa, and a newspaper editor who linked it to the Rwandan government was murdered in Kigali. Two opposition parties have been prevented from registering, and the vice-president of one, Andre Kagwa Rwisereka of the Democratic Greens, has turned up dead from machete wounds. Political rallies have been been broken up violently by the police, and two Hutu opposition candidates have been arrested, one for divisionism, the other, Victoire Ingabire, for the Orwellian crime of 'genocide ideology’.
Ingabire had been living in Belgium. On returning to Rwanda to announce her candidacy, she went straight to the genocide memorial in Kigali and asked why there was no memorial for the moderate Hutus who were killed – her brother was one of them. She was announcing herself, in RPF eyes, as a Hutu candidate, and challenging the government version of the genocide, which is a strict morality play involving Hutu villains, Tutsi victims and RPF heroes. To raise questions about the RPF atrocities against Hutus, or draw attention to the moderate Hutus who were killed, is equated under the law with denying or diminishing the genocide.
All in all, it seems a foregone conclusion that Kagame will win re-election and remain in power for at least another seven years. Then comes the big question. Will he abide by the Rwandan constitution, which limits presidents to two terms? Or will he devise a reason to hold on to power for longer? Kagame insists he will step down, and says that if there is no peaceful democratic transfer of power in 2017, his presidency will have been a failure. He insists that Rwanda will become an increasingly open and democratic society, but not to impress the international community, or because meddlesome foreigners are demanding it. 'No,’ he says, 'we must do it because fundamentally we believe in it, because these values are universal and we share them, and because it is good for us.’
Is this deceitful rhetoric, or does he really intend to open up political space once development has got further, as the donors and many Rwandans would like to believe? Is Kagame a benevolent dictator, the strong hand needed to pull Rwanda forward into a better future, or is he an incurable despot? If you hold him up to the light in the right way, you can see both facets glinting at once.