Exclusive interview: Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda
The United Nations, based in New York City, is the world’s parliament. Metro, as one of the biggest newspapers in the city, today begins a series of interviews with leading political figures on
important) issues. In a world exclusive, Metro speaks to Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, an ally of the U.S.
His government stands accused by a U.N. Group of Experts of fomenting rebellion in diamond- and gold-rich eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a charge Kagame denies. Into this volatile mix of political charge and counter-charge, Rwanda is poised to take up a coveted seat on the U.N.?Security Council.
The last time Rwanda sat as a member of the United Nations Security Council was in 1994. It was between April and July of that year — more than 100 days — that more than 1 million mainly ethnic Tutsis were slaughtered in a genocide overseen by a regime whose representative the U.N. told the world to look the other way.
Almost two decades later, Rwanda, a strong ally of the United States and Israel, is again seeking a seat at the U.N. Security Council.
This time the government is led by President Paul Kagame, who led forces that liberated Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, and brought a halt to the genocide in 1994. Well-disposed Western visitors to Rwanda include former President Bill Clinton, former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair and Starbucks boss Howard Schultz.
Rwanda’s prospective elevation to the Security Council is not without its critics, especially in light of recent accusations that President Kagame’s government is providing illicit support to an armed mutiny in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. Kagame vehemently denies the claims, but this hasn’t stopped several donor countries suspending aid to Rwanda.
Since 1994, when the fleeing genocidal forces escaped to the lawless eastern part of Congo, relations between the neighbors have been fraught. Nonetheless, Kagame insists that Rwanda plays no part in the current crisis in the DRC — claiming he has no interest in ‘costly, pointless foreign adventures’ that divert his country’s progress from the world’s poorest country 20 years ago to one of Africa’s most dynamic countries today.
Metro: On the cusp of your nation’s Security Council membership, an addendum to a United Nations report by the Group of Experts accused Rwanda of unacceptable interference in the mineral-rich eastern part of the DRC, where lawless militia and illicit business interests rule, for failure of control of a weak central Congolese government. How do you respond to these accusations?
Paul Kagame: These accusations are not true. Our national priorities have to be directed toward our country’s development, not toward foreign ventures, in particular illicit ones. The history and national interest of Rwanda and the Rwandan people dictate our national orientation. Our country experienced the horrors of genocide only 18 years ago. On the basis of a policy of national reconciliation, more than 1 million of our people have been lifted out of poverty in the last five years, over 90 percent of Rwandans are covered by health insurance and we are ranked by World Bank Doing Business as the third easiest place to do business in Africa, under conditions of low corruption according to Transparency International. We have established wonderful partnerships with development partners. We’re attempting to rebuild the structures of our society in a way whereby every Rwandan has a stake in our future.
Metro: Many commentators, including the U.N. Group of Experts on the DRC, seem to believe historical and cultural ties to the rebel groups make it inevitable that Rwanda will get involved. You worked with these groups before, and you share ethnic and language heritage with them. Don’t you see how this causes suspicion?
Kagame: There’s a habit in the West to view Africa and our region in particular through the outdated and erroneous prism of tribalism and ethnicity. Because there are Congolese of Rwandan origin, such as those you referred to in your questions, who rebel against the Congolese government, people jump to the conclusions that Rwanda must be complicit in supporting them. Modern Rwanda rejects this primitive outlook. We embrace our Rwandan national identity and we will pursue our national interest irrespective of events in neighboring countries, regardless of so-called tribal affiliations. The new Rwanda is about building an economy that delivers prosperity and opportunity for our citizens based on a robust private sector. Foreign adventures would be costly and counterproductive distractions from these challenging objectives.
We simply cannot support a rebellion outside our border.
The Rwandan people, put to the sword perhaps like no other in the last 50 years, know the value of peace. So do I.
Metro: Rwanda has come in for a lot of criticism from human rights groups for alleged support for rebel groups like M23 as well as broader criticisms over your record on media and political freedoms. What is your response to these criticisms?
Kagame: I understand that human rights groups are locked in a fierce competition for big checks from wealthy donors and they need to generate big headlines. We do not like to be lectured to by unaccountable advocacy groups acting for their financiers about how to protect the rights of our
citizens. Human rights are not the preserve of Western activists: The definition must extend to encompass the right to the dignified life; the right to send your kids to school, for that child to get health care, for access for greater prosperity for generations to come and to have a say in the destiny of your community and country. Under that definition, Rwanda has nothing to learn from advocacy groups who think they own the copyright on what constitutes human rights under all conditions in every corner of the world.
Metro: Your government is reported to view Steve Hege, coordinator of the U.N. Group of Experts — which in an addendum to its own report has accused Rwanda of fomenting unrest in eastern Congo — as having an impermissibly “benign view” of people who carried out the 1994 genocide. Is this still your view?
Kagame: We understand that experts come to the table with a variety of preconceived ideas and opinions. We accept that, in some cases, this will work against Rwanda’s interests. But there is a point at which this translates into outright bias. In the case of the coordinator of the Group of Experts, he has crossed the line from expert to partisan political activist. His anti-Rwandan views are well on the record and both the methodology and falsehoods that have found their way into the offensive addendum to the report conform to his unacceptable views. In his prior writings this coordinator appeared as an apologist for a group of Congo-based extremist militants who have repeatedly been sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council and whose leaders are the same leaders which factually led the genocide and were labeled terrorist by the U.S.?State Department.
It is completely unacceptable for a person with this history to sit in judgment on Rwanda or any other country for that matter. It’s really all quite extraordinary. Rwanda will not let this matter stand.
Metro: Western governments, including the U.S., have withheld aid to Rwanda over M23 claims. What do you see as the consequences?
Kagame: Some countries have reacted to this very flawed U.N. report by temporarily suspending aid funding to Rwanda. This is regrettable, because we place a high value on good relations with development partners. But we are confident that these funds will be unfrozen once we tell our side of the story. It is a timely reminder to Rwandans that we still have some way to travel as a nation before we are truly independent. Strong economic growth, and especially a significant increase in private sector investment, is the only sustainable path forward for Rwanda. The donors as recipients can undermine aid effectiveness just as easily, and this is exactly what happens when countries use the development dollar as a weapon to impose political will on smaller and less powerful countries.
Metro: Rwanda is said to have economic interests in Eastern Congo: You are accused of looting mineral resources in the DRC.
Kagame: This is a persistent myth. Rwanda leads the region in stamping out illegal trade in minerals. We have a functioning mineral certification process. We play by the rules. Recently we handed back to the DRC 80 tons of minerals that had been smuggled into Rwanda. Our geographic position dictates that our economic interests are best served by a stable and prosperous DRC, because under such conditions, Rwanda would benefit greatly from increased trade and legitimate transit of Congolese minerals. To this end, Rwanda supports the establishment of a so-called “Neutral Force” which has been agreed between the 11 member states of the International Conference of the Great Lakes region in Africa. This is a homegrown solution to a regional border problem.
Metro: The New York Times quoted a report by a human rights group accusing you of running a repressive regime. How do you answer those claims?
Kagame: They are mainly talking about laws related to genocide ideology, which I am more than happy to defend. Rwandans will not tolerate voices that promote a return to the ethnic divisionism that precipitated the genocide 18 years ago. To that extent, we place limits on freedom of expression in a similar way to how much of Europe has made it a crime to deny the Holocaust. Aside from that, Rwanda is a very open and free country. Key to our recovery as a nation has a range of grassroots, citizen-centered polices we call “homegrown solutions.” The idea that Rwanda is highly controlled from the center belies the reality, which is that citizens in every village have a powerful say in how things get done. We prize accountability and Rwandans are quickly adapting themselves to the possibilities of a digital economy. A lot of this talk of repression results from outdated stereotypes about Africa.
Metro: Rwanda has been described as the “Israel of Africa.” What similarities do you see between the two? And what lessons can you learn from Israel, especially in dealings with the U.N.?
Kagame: Like Israel, we live in a difficult neighborhood. We understand that national security is vital for economic and social progress. Our sense of national purpose has been forged in unfathomable tragedy. We also have in common critics who attack our fundamental legitimacy, or even our very right to exist. Israel and Rwanda both play an active part in international organizations, including the U.N., but I think it’s true that our unique experiences as nations have shaped a fierce independence that we will not relinquish.
This article was amended on September 7 2012 to reflect the fact that one million people in Rwanda have been lifted out of poverty in the last five years, not since 1994.