President Paul Kagame: Rwanda’s Strong Man

Posted by on Sep 24, 2012 in Articles | No Comments
President Paul Kagame: Rwanda’s Strong Man

Rwanda sits at the heart of Africa, Kigali is at the center of Rwanda, and on a wooded ridge bisecting the city sits a single-story complex of government buildings where, at most hours of most days, you’ll find President Paul Kagame at his desk. But it isn’t just geography and hard work that make Kagame an ever more central figure in Africa. The rebel commander who rescued his country from genocide as the world hesitated in 1994 has since led Rwanda to a stunning rebirth as its President. In the past 10 years, economic growth in Rwanda has averaged 8.2%, aid funding of the national budget has fallen from 85% to 41%, child mortality has halved and primary-school attendance has tripled. His record makes Kagame the embodiment of a new Africa suddenly bursting with growth and opportunity.

But lately, Kagame, 54, is attracting attention for other reasons. Human-rights groups have long characterized him as an autocrat. Critics focus on his 90%-plus election victories, the violent deaths of several opponents and the proximity of Rwanda’s economic success to Congo’s blood minerals — rich mines of gold, coltan and other minerals controlled by rebel militias. On June 27 the mounting accusations reached a crescendo: U.N. monitors in the Democratic Republic of Congo accused Kagame of backing a rebellion in eastern Congo whose leader is wanted for war crimes. The allegations set off a firestorm of global condemnation. Human Rights Watch described him as a “dictator” backing “a murderous rebel force.” The rebels’ advance on the city of Goma, said the British aid group Oxfam, had created a “catastrophic humanitarian crisis” encompassing half a million refugees. The U.S., Britain, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands and the African Development Bank suspended varying amounts of aid. Foreign press coverage was ferocious. Britain’s Guardian quoted a former aide to Bill Clinton saying the world was “sick of being lied to” by Kagame and blackmailed for its inaction over the 1994 genocide — and in another article speculated that Kagame himself would face war-crimes charges.

As crisis bore down on Kagame, he granted TIME seven hours of interviews over five days. Charming, engaging and razor-sharp, Kagame’s angry frustration with the allegations against him was nonetheless clear. To his detractors, he is the former star of the new Africa now revealing himself as a very old-African tyrant. To Kagame, the controversy reveals less about an African leader at odds with the world than it does about a world at odds with the rise of newly confident and powerful Africa.

Much rests on the uneasy relationship between Kagame and the West. In its balance lies the future of Congo, where hundreds of thousands have died in war and instability in the past 15 years. It is also a fight for Rwanda’s, and to some extent Africa’s, name: whether the continent is to be seen as a lost vortex of dictators, disasters and babies with flies in their eyes, or an emergent giant whose dramatic improvement grants it new freedoms, new authority and new position in a world in which the West no longer has a lock on any of those.

For Kagame, it is the same fight he has been having all his life: to be free. Consider his life, he says, from exile to rebel to genocide vanquisher to overseer of extraordinary regeneration. “Do I not know what it means to be free, to express yourself, to have justice, to be treated fairly?” There is a moment in our first interview when Kagame trails off and stares into space; when he resumes, he speaks in a low, distant voice. “From our side, there are things we want to live for and are ready to die for — things we cannot deviate from,” he says. “You cannot threaten us. We have had worse things. We have already sunk to the lowest level. [This is about] our rights. It’s about how we survive. And nobody is going to do it for us. Nobody is going to do it for us.”

No Saint
Meeting Kagame is a reminder of how easy it might be to figure him for an autocrat. He is tall, skinny and formal; his English is clipped by a heavy French accent; his natural expression is a down-turned mouth and narrowed eyes. From three previous encounters, I know him as a debater with a keen ear for absurdity, but the initial impression is of cold steel. When I open our interview by remarking that while some of his press coverage may be overdone, I’m not there to paint him as a saint, he replies: “I don’t want to be. That would mean doing nothing I am supposed to. We have done what we needed to. If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here today.”

Kagame’s life, like his country’s, is a story of survival. He was born in a hillside village called Tambwe in southern Rwanda in 1957. His family was ethnically Tutsi, the minority group politically favored over the majority Hutu by Rwanda’s Belgian overlords. The independence movement was sweeping Africa, and in Rwanda, Hutu began violently asserting their claim to power. In 1959 mobs butchered tens of thousands of Tutsi. Kagame’s family fled, settling in the Gahunge refugee camp in southwest Uganda in 1962, the year the Belgians handed power to a Hutu regime. Kagame remembers, as a boy, asking his parents why they were homeless. “I thought they must have done something,” he says. His parents told him about the massacres, and the seed of rebellion was planted. “It’s on that basis that we, young people, thought of organizing. Even if it meant fighting, we would do that.”

Kagame’s best friend was Fred Rwigema. Successful revolutionaries had experience, the pair decided. In 1980, age 22, Kagame and Rwigema were among the original 27 recruits to Yoweri Museveni’s guerrilla army, which opposed the brutal regime of then President Milton Obote. After six years of bush fighting, and with a force that had grown to tens of thousands, Museveni took Uganda’s capital, Kampala, with Kagame and Rwigema at his side. Kagame, an introvert, became Museveni’s head of military intelligence. Rwigema, an extrovert, was appointed Deputy Minister of Defense. By day, the pair defended Uganda. At night, they plotted revolution in Rwanda.

Tito Rutaremara first met Kagame and Rwigema in Kampala in 1987 soon after the three men formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Today a portly, gray-haired Senator in Rwanda’s Parliament, Rutaremara was then a wild-haired dissident in London. On his visits to Kampala, the trio would discuss rebellion. Rutaremara argued there were lessons to be learned from previous struggles: foreign backing could turn out to be a yoke; Western ideology made a revolution inflexible and exclusive; and strong self-criticism was needed to avoid corruption, factionalism and authoritarianism. The RPF, the three men concluded, must be self-reliant, inclusive — incorporating fighters, civilians, Hutu and Tutsi alike — and internally democratic. Above all, it should not slavishly import Western ideas. “Everything is contextual,” says Kagame. “What was happening in America 100 years ago is not happening now. You can’t expect things to happen the same way there as here.”

Once launched on the ground in Rwanda, their revolution was almost over as soon as it began. In early 1990, Kagame accepted a U.S. offer of several months’ military training at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. The impetuous Rwigema decided not wait for his friend. On Oct. 1, he crossed from Uganda into Rwanda at the head of 2,000 men. He was killed within hours. When Kagame caught up with the RPF in northern Rwanda days later, it was disintegrating. Swallowing his grief, he marched his forces high up the Virunga volcanoes, home to mountain gorillas, organized food and ammunition, and drilled discipline back into the ranks. “He was the right person at the right time to save the struggle,” says Rutaremara.

By 1991, a remade RPF was taking territory. By 1992, it had beaten back a national army supported by 1,000 French paratroopers almost to Kigali. Peace talks were under way by April 1994. But on April 6, a plane carrying the Rwandan and Burundian Presidents, both Hutu, was shot down over Kigali. Disputes over who fired the fatal missile continue to this day. But the double assassination acted as a signal to Hutu government soldiers and their allied militias — the Interahamwe — to start the apocalypse that, it soon became apparent, they had been preparing for months.

Around 800,000 Tutsi and suspected Hutu sympathizers died in 100 days. No one can be sure of the exact number — even today, signs marking massacre sites in Rwanda read: “+/ — 5,000 dead.” A frequent genocidaire tactic was to urge Tutsi to seek shelter in churches, throw grenades through the windows, then wade through the pews with machetes. Kagame stopped visiting the massacre sites after a while. “He wanted to avoid his judgment being influenced,” says Rutaremara. “If you saw those thousands of bodies, you could only think about revenge.”

By mid-July, Kagame had taken the country and pushed the genocidaires into eastern Congo. In 2007, Kagame told me he was still struggling with what he saw. “Fathers were killing their own children because [they] resembled their wife, who was a Tutsi,” he said. “How do you explain that?” Human Rights Watch would later claim the RPF did carry out its own reprisals, killing 25,000 civilians. Kagame says the real story lies in how many people the RPF didn’t kill. “We had to battle extreme anger among our own men. So many had lost their families, and they had guns in their hands. Whole villages could have been wiped out. But we did not allow it.”

After watching the world fail to intervene in the genocide, Kagame then saw it smother the killers with aid in neighboring Congo while also neglecting to bring them to account, despite deploying the world’s biggest U.N. peacekeeping force.

Kagame’s response was, and remains, an adamant belief that Africa should determine its own destiny. His goal: true sovereignty and real freedom for Rwanda and, ultimately, Africa. He rejects the West’s presumption of authority in Africa and the notion that underpins it — that the West somehow has a superior grasp of rights, politics, economics and human competence. It is a stance that manifests itself in a disdain of aid and the promotion of an enterprise economy that will, he predicts, wean his country off assistance in a decade; aggressive social improvements that, while assisted by outsiders, are designed and run by Rwanda; and a foreign policy that reserves Rwanda’s right to pursue its enemies wherever they are.

But as convinced as he is of Africa’s need for independent action, he is not, he says in a point-by-point rebuttal that lasts 42 minutes at our first meeting, guilty of backing the rebels in Congo and fueling war there. His critics say he is lying. Don’t be misled by Kagame’s painstaking response, says a U.N. official, whose contract forbids him from speaking on the record. Rwanda’s long-standing plan, he says, is to foment chaos in eastern Congo, then be asked to intervene as a peacemaker. At which point Kagame will argue for an autonomous eastern Congo, which it plans to control for commercial and security reasons. If the recent flare-up shows anything, he adds, it’s that the plan is working.

ReRwandan Puppets?
Before I meet Kagame, I travel to eastern Congo to see for myself the rebellion he is accused of backing. I want to try to find evidence of Rwandan support and see the humanitarian disaster that aid workers are reporting.As it has been through history, eastern Congo’s population is a fluid mosaic of ethnicity; it includes scores of different Congolese tribes as well as ethnic Rwandese, Hutu and Tutsi. Many groups are related; just as many are enemies. It was into this volatile mix that hundreds of thousands of Hutu genocidaires and their families fled in 1994. The foreign aid operation to house and feed the fugitives was a lifeline for the Interahamwe, and soon they were attacking ethnic Rwandan villagers in Congo and Rwandan outposts over the border in Rwanda.

In response, Rwanda invaded Congo twice. “We were finding armored personnel carriers and antiaircraft guns in the camps,” says Kagame. “And they were telling us these were just refugees.” Years of war followed, costing millions of lives and pulling in several other African countries. Though most of those withdrew in 2003, anarchy remained. Today, Congo’s President, Joseph Kabila, has barely any control over the east; if it is ruled at all, it is by an array of rival militias who mix ethnic allegiances and commercial interests with brutal criminality.

One of the strongest is the Tutsi-dominated CNDP (National Congress for the Defense of the People). In 2008 and ’09, the CNDP staged a rebellion, captured a string of eastern towns and seemed poised to take Goma. Rwandan troops ended the crisis by entering Congo with Congolese permission, arresting CNDP leader Laurent Nkunda and persuading his replacement, Bosco Ntaganda, to integrate the CNDP into the national Congolese army.

The deal didn’t hold. Ntaganda and the CNDP are now staging a second rebellion. This time they have named their movement M23, after the March 23, 2009, date of their integration deal with Kinshasa — on which they accuse the state of reneging. The mutineers have captured the same eastern towns as they did in 2009. For many observers, Rwanda’s fingerprints are all over the rebellion. “They [Rwanda] were creating an inherently unstable situation,” says Roger Meece, head of Congo’s peacekeeping force, Monusco, through “a number of M23 leaders who have the most egregious human-rights record, including summary executions, using children and forced recruitment.”

As I cross the border from Rwanda into Congo, I traverse a frontier from a new Africa into the old. Smooth roads, shopping malls and traffic policemen give way to a world of dirt tracks, grass-roofed huts and wooden bicycles, smoking volcanoes and jungles inhabited by gorillas and pygmies. Congo is unchanged in other ways too; it remains a source of as much of Africa’s bloody darkness today as it was in Joseph Conrad’s time.

For the next three days, I drive the length of M23 territory, interviewing rebels and villagers. Signs of fighting abound, from the charred skeleton of a Congolese army ammunition truck to village huts destroyed by artillery. One night, next to a roadside food stall where I am buying a plate of cassava and leaves, a shootout erupts. A man is killed, his body left in the street. A thief, I’m told.

But there is little sign of the calamity announced by foreign NGOs — nor, from what I see, many aid workers themselves, bar a single Red Cross team. Instead of starving refugees, I find lush fields of ripe sorghum, maize and potatoes, and giant plantations of coffee and bananas. Men in the villages near the fighting say their families still work the fields by day; at night, they sleep at a safe distance in a temporary camp. I check the refugee count with the U.N. They say the fighting has displaced 15,000 inside Congo and pushed 38,000 more into Rwanda or Uganda. The same day at a press conference in Goma, Oxfam’s Congo director Elodie Martel says 500,000 people have been displaced since April and that “vast swaths of the east have descended into chaos with no government or security presence.” An Oxfam Twitter message later claims more than 2 million people are displaced in Congo.

Perhaps mindful of the International Criminal Court charges against Ntaganda, which claim he used child soldiers in 2002 and ’03, M23 officers I meet claim — somewhat unconvincingly — barely to have heard of him. They also lay out a long list of local grievances. The Congolese state is inept and corrupt. It routinely fails to pay them. Congolese army generals use soldiers as enforcers to take control of private business. CNDP officers have been integrated at lower ranks. And Kinshasa is still trying to kill them: scores of CNDP soldiers redeployed from eastern Congo before the rebellion have not been heard from again. Over a lunch of chicken and sorghum beer with several M23 colonels, a recent defector, Major Emille Shabani, claims: “When soldiers die on the front line, the national army doesn’t even bury them. They don’t even tell their family. What kind of army is that? It’s a government without conscience.”

So is Rwanda backing the M23? Its soldiers deny it. But villagers who live in the area are insistent. So are U.S., E.U. and Monusco officials. “We are absolutely convinced Rwanda is supporting the M23 at the highest level,” says a Western diplomat I meet later in Kampala. Monusco’s Meece says: “We have a pretty good knowledge of the M23. They’re Tutsi who never accepted central [Congolese] command authority.” Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, calls Kagame’s denials of involvement “remarkable.” “Does he realize no one believes him? Are there local grievances? Sure, but that’s beside the point. The main issue is Rwanda is fueling a conflict led by a guy wanted on a war-crimes charge.”

I find evidence for Rwandan support but none of it categorical. When questioned, the villagers say they recognize Rwandans by their accents. The Western diplomat and Meece both report something similar, based on conversations with Congolese officers who fought the M23. In an area of fluid ethnicity, overheard conversations and foreign accents fall far short of definitive proof. But that’s not the only evidence put forward. To advance so quickly, villagers say, the M23 had to have outside help. Diplomats focus on how, after starting feebly in April, the M23 suddenly became stronger. “They had different tactics and weapons systems,” says the Western diplomat. “They had airburst ammunition.”

On Sept. 11, in a lengthy press release it says was based on interviews with 190 witnesses, Human Rights Watch accused the M23 of numerous war crimes, including the forced recruitment of child soldiers, the summary execution of M23 recruits who try to escape, the murder of at least 15 civilians and the rape of 13 children. They repeat their claim that the Rwandan army is backing the M23, making, says the group, some Rwandan officers complicit in war crimes. But the most detailed account of how the rebels are supported by Rwanda remains the U.N. Group of Experts report that caused such outrage in June. In 48 pages of testimony culled from 80 individuals, it describes M23 troop movements through Rwandan territory, the recruitment of Rwandans inside Rwanda to fight for the M23, the supply of weapons and uniforms to the M23 and the deployment of Rwandan troops inside Congo. The report includes photographs of Rwanda-issued ammunition and uniforms found on the battlefield. The group says it adds up to “overwhelming evidence that senior [Rwandan] officers … have been backstopping the rebels through providing weapons, military supplies and new recruits.”

The evidence is copious but, to my eye, it’s still all circumstantial. There is no smoking gun: a picture of a Rwandan soldier in Congo, perhaps, or a confession from a named, serving Rwandan officer. Most of the testimony is from anonymous M23 deserters. The space given to the Rwandan response is minimal and relies mostly on public statements.

I return to Kigali, where the Rwandans present their alternative account of the conflict. Rwandans are indeed fighting for the M23, they say. The M23 is supplied with men and weapons from Rwanda. Just not from the Rwandan state. “Equipment from Rwanda? People from Rwanda?” asks James Kabarebe, Rwanda’s Minister of Defense. “It’s possible. These people have friends and family in the refugee camps in Rwanda. The M23 go into the camps and recruit. We’ve told the Congolese this. We’ve intercepted people recruiting in the camps.” At our second encounter at his office, Kagame adds: “This isn’t military-to-military relations. It’s blood relations, and there’s no way of policing it.”

Kabarebe and Kagame insist they only want to help stabilize Congo. They give exhaustive accounts of meetings with Congolese officers and attempts to mediate between them and the M23. The Congolese, they say, repeatedly asked for Rwanda to intervene, arrest Ntaganda and stop the rebellion — a repeat of 2009. But wary of provoking more allegations of interference, Rwanda demurred. Instead it advised Kinshasa: Negotiate. Avoid conflict. Address the M23’s grievances or the mutiny will escalate.

Sinned Against
To Kagame, the controversy over whether or not Rwanda is backing the M23 is an affront. A far bigger issue, he says, is why Congo, a country of vast resources and 80 million people, is such a mess. Why, in particular, has a world so quick to condemn him been so slow to have any impact on one of the planet’s most enduring disasters — let alone fix it? The aid groups have had decades on the ground. The U.N. has written endless reports about the country’s legacy of killing, rape, recruitment of child soldiers and the militia-controlled trade in gold, coltan, diamonds and cassiterite. The U.N. set up MONUC, later Monusco, in 2000, and today it amounts to more than 19,000 uniformed personnel from 58 countries costing $1.49 billion a year. And yet for all this effort and expense, asks Kagame, “Where are we? After 10 years, how have you not made even a dent in Congo’s problems?”

Congo exemplifies Kagame’s argument with the West. The West sees Africa as incapable and in need of help, what Kagame calls “that old attitude of looking at Africa as people who must be got in shape.” The reality, he says, is that the international community often blunders in Africa while Africa is increasingly taking care of itself.

And indeed, the continent today is more democratic, less aid-dependent and less awed by a recession-battered West than ever before. African economic growth fell below 5% just once in the past decade. (By contrast, the U.S. last saw growth of 5% in 2006 — and that was an unusually good year for the world’s largest economy.) African Union troops are restoring government to Somalia, the world’s worst failed state, after 21 years of Western failure to do the same. Yet a world community structured to expect only disaster from Africa fails to recognize this rising Africa. At a time when 10 million Rwandans are experiencing rising incomes that increase their freedoms and choices, Rwanda’s image is often defined by press releases from a foreign organization, Human Rights Watch, whose remit is only ever to point out the bad. “Isn’t this a bit unfair?” asks Kagame.

What’s more, he says, it’s actually a contradiction. “If you are really talking about freedoms, then why not listen to me? Are you not committing the same offense you accuse me of?” It’s a point that attracts sympathy from a surprising quarter. “If he’s saying the world is unfair, yes, that’s true,” says Human Rights Watch’s Roth. “We tried to put pressure on the U.S. because of [President George W. Bush’s] use of torture, and it was hard. Rwanda is not as powerful as the U.S. and, yes, is more susceptible to pressure.”

At home for lunch with his wife Jeannette and four children, Kagame elaborates on how anger at Western double standards is spreading in Africa. It is that spirit of African assertion that powers an increasing consensus that the new Africa will not be a collection of copies of Western liberal democracies or even Asian centralized states but something uniquely African: a group of highly devolved states with fluid borders to better suit Africa’s tribes. It is also driving a proposal for a 4,000-strong force of African soldiers to be stationed in eastern Congo. The proposal is on the table at an 11-nation International Conference on the Great Lakes (ICGLR) in Kampala in August to which I follow Kagame. Due to be at the meeting are many of the Western officials with whom Kagame is at odds.

African Union
At the summit in Kampala, the idea of an African force for Congo attracts derision from Western diplomats. “Who’s going to pay for it?” says one. “How effective could it be?” Monusco’s Meece is more tactful: “We want to be as supportive of the ICGLR as we can.” But Meece is missing the point: the proposed ICGLR force is specifically aimed at replacing Monusco, not supplementing it or working under its aegis. It is time, Kagame believes, for the West to acknowledge its failure in Congo and to step aside to let Africans take care of the problem. “Is this any way to run the world?” he asks, referring to the situation in Congo.

Kagame’s views are warmly welcomed by his fellow African leaders at the summit. He is not the only regional leader to express disdain for Western efforts in Congo. In response to a query about working with the U.N., Ugandan President Museveni interjects, to raucous laughter: “Please. Don’t disturb their holiday.”

I see Kagame for the last time in his hotel room during a break in talks. He seems pleased. “The old way of doing things is weakening. The international community have always just parachuted in here and meddled with things they do not understand. Now, at least in principle, people are taking responsibility for what they should.” As ever with Kagame, there is a sense of more battles to come. The thought doesn’t tire him. “I think my life really prepared me for this,” he says. “I never feel like I want to run away from a problem. I just want to get up and move towards it.”

It’s typical Kagame. It is also a reminder of why he is often taken for a tyrant. The price of pragmatism is principle, and Kagame readily confesses to expediency. Political freedom is allowed in Rwanda, he tells me in an earlier interview, unless there is the slightest possibility that someone might be plotting genocide, at which point “they are going to find out that we are not very kind.” In an e-mail interview, Tony Blair says such displays of iron resolve should not be misinterpreted. “I think people do get him wrong,” he writes. “What I see in President Kagame [is] this impatience for a new Africa, not some throwback to an authoritarian past.”

If Kagame’s is a fight to bury the old Africa and forge a new one, remade as free and equal, then a judgment on him also comes down to whether it is made with an eye fixed on Africa’s past or its future. Kagame straddles old and new Africa. He was made by Africa’s bloody past. As a boy, then a rebel, he saw repeated, intentional human catastrophe. Those experiences prompted some dark conclusions about people and about how to survive in a world where human decimation is possible. They also invested him with an unparalleled determination to forge a better future for Africa. And nobody is going to do it for him.