On Tuesday, President Paul Kagame participated in deliberations at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.
Below is an extended conversation moderated by Rick Stengel
STENGEL: You usually get applause when you walk into a room, don’t you? (Laugher, applause.) Hi. Welcome, everybody, to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting with President Paul Kagame of Rwanda. I’m Rick Stengel, and I am presiding. We are on the record today, very unusual. So glad to have you here, on a very, very busy week.
President Kagame is literally and figuratively a towering figure on the African stage. He—it’s not too exaggerated to say he was the savior of Rwanda. When Rwanda, after incredible wars and devastation in 1994, he brought it back. It’s been an economic success story over the last 25 years, one of the biggest ones on the world stage. And not just an economic success story, but a story of changing and bringing into the modern world increased transparency, less corruption, many, many opportunities for women. In fact, I think you may have the only parliament where women dominate. So there’s a very, very bright picture.
But there are some shadows on that picture too. There’s been accusations by human rights organizations of human rights abuses, of discrimination against political rivals. And President Kagame recently won reelection to an unprecedented third term with 98 percent of the vote. And what I wanted—the first question I want to ask you is how do you win 98 percent of the vote? (Laughter.) And—to folks in the West, that always, you know, brings a little bit of laughter. And depending on your answer, having changed the constitution to allow you to run for an unprecedented third term, are you indispensable to Rwanda?
KAGAME: Well, how do people win by 25 percent—(laughter)—as I have seen in some cases. Indeed—
STENGEL: By the way, you don’t even have to get the popular vote in this country to win, so. (Laughter.)
KAGAME: So, but seriously, I think for us in Rwanda, we saw it coming, that it could have been 100 percent, because this selection—this last we had—came on the basis of a demand that I actually stand again. For me, I was ready to wind up and finish my second term by 2017. And all of a sudden, there was mobilization. There were four million signatures that went to parliament, wanting—petitions, wanting that actually they change the constitution. And funnily enough, not just the constitution in its entirety or to cover broad areas or long-term. It was particularly asked that it be changed almost to suit what they wanted, and that was for me to have another term. That became a complicated issue. In fact, for me, we went back and forth, and I was trying to tell people that maybe we should actually accept change as and when it should happen. And I was for that change to happen, but the people insisted it was completed in a different situation. And I tried to contextualize the political and other problems of Rwanda and history and all kinds of things. And so that’s what followed. So it was more or less an agreed, you know, result for the election. So having over 90 percent in terms of the results wasn’t surprising to people in Rwanda who followed closely the issues of Rwanda.
And who can relate those things happening with the history, particular history and the particular context of Rwanda? If you’re talking about other countries, maybe you’d be seeing different things happen. If you’re talking about Rwanda, it’s not surprising that it can happen. And again, it goes back to the same point in time you alluded to of what has happened in our country—a country that 23 years ago was almost no more. It was not there. We had to build it—to rebuild it right from scratch 23 years ago. Now it is a country that is standing and making some progress, and people in the country are getting more united like never before, because initially—and what led to those problems was the political and other divides that were created for a long time, where we lost 1 million people in just a hundred days. If anyone thinks that doesn’t have any implications on the people’s lives or on society or thinking or even in the politics, I think one would be mistaken. And really, I’m trying to say this is related to that history, to those events and what happened, and even the psyche that was created in the society because of that time.
STENGEL: So the—one of the unfortunate clichés about African leadership—and it’s a cliché because it’s happened so often—are men who won’t leave the stage. As you know, I worked with Nelson Mandela, and one of the most extraordinary things he did in his whole long life was to decide not to run for reelection. And I think he did that in part to give a model to the rest of Africa. What does it say, though, about you—and we chatted a little bit about this beforehand. So you have now—you’ll have another seven-year term, and then you also have an opportunity for two successive five-year terms after that. What does that say to the continent about succession for leadership?
KAGAME: Well, I know quite a bit about Mandela. In fact, I was fortunate at different times to associate with him. And what I know also is it is not entirely true that he left because he wanted to have that as a demonstration of how to deal with power. No, there are other reasons.
But my point here is—in fact, in 2002—I’ll tell you a story that answers the question to an extent. We’re with him in Barcelona. There was former President Bill Clinton. There was the current secretary-general of the U.N., Guterres; he was prime minister at the time in Portugal; and a number of other rulers, and you had a discussion. The same Mandela—and great man he was indeed—brought up an issue, and it was—somebody had just started it by asking Guterres whether the (secretary ?) and whether he was actually ending his—because he was in his second term and he wasn’t coming. And somebody said, but don’t you ever think about, you know, continuing? Because at that time he was doing fine in Portugal, and so on and so forth.
But that sparked a conversation where, in fact, Mandela angrily was telling the people that he says he’s tired of, you know—because it was happening, and there was a case developing—and I’m sure you are aware of this—in Namibia about Nujoma, who was supposed to continue. And there was a discussion and there was external, you know, a backlash that, you know, he must go, he can’t stay, and so forth.
And Mandela said—he said, well, why don’t—aren’t people allowed to make their decisions and choices about how their countries are to be managed? Why is that—why are, you know, some things talked about, and then there’s no, no, no, you can’t stay, you can’t be there, you must go. You know, he was angry saying that.
The discussion went on and on. And, in fact, my viewpoint at that time, and which I raised in that particular meeting, was—tell him, I said, it’s actually partly what you are pointing out. I said, you see, while I appreciate the point that President Mandela then was actually bringing up of always, you know, these dictates coming in from outsiders dictating their countries and the people and saying you can’t have this, you can’t do that, and—I said the danger, indeed, has been at times, when leaders are going to continue and stay in power, it’s not clear whether it’s on the basis of the choice of the people of that country, if it is clear, if they can be identified and made clear, and everyone sees that, then it will be justified, when the people in the country could make any decision and they should have what they want to have.
But that is where the problem lies. Sometimes you are not sure whether it is the people saying they want this to happen or it is the leaders deciding by themselves who say we want to continue. This was the conversation.
KAGAME: So I’m just trying to show you that, you know, some of these things are not just clear-cut, that, you know, when this is written like this it should happen like that; and, of course, this external position.
STENGEL: Yes. Well, and you’ve been eloquent talking about the distinction between Western views of democracy and perhaps what democracy is in Africa or Rwanda. And I think we Americans—until recently, at any rate—
KAGAME: Yeah. (Laughter.) It means a lot.
STENGEL: Yes. It seemed to—(laughs)—you know, we seem to think that our ideas of democracy are universal. But you’ve talked about why it’s not great to superimpose Western ideas on Africa and Rwanda. I’d love to hear you talk a little more about that.
KAGAME: Yeah. See, I will be happy to talk a little bit about that.
Democracy is democracy. Now, this whole thing of adding Western is OK, but what does it mean? Because all countries, all peoples of this world, can hardly fit into this sort of definition. They can’t fit there, because we come from different background, different places, different histories, different cultures, different contexts. It—we all can’t fit into that sort of description.
When there is this word, very important word, democracy, absolutely. That is a principle all of us wish to associate with, but associate with in as far as the history, the culture, the context allows that, and to what extent. And maybe, in saying that, the West is trying to tell everybody to, you know, fit into that sort of demand and restriction comes also with another sort of connotation, that in fact while the West talks about and teaches so much about freedoms that normally are associated with democracy by indeed imposing or telling people how they should live their lives without this context, this history, or values, and cultures that people have been brought up into, is actually denying people freedom.
So, in other words, on the one hand, you are having people prescribing for others how they should live their lives. But the same people who also say they abide by freedoms and they want people to be free, how am I going to be free when you want to dictate to me how I should live my life? So comes the question.
And, of course, you have seen also the consequences in this across Africa in many places, one thing adding to another in history over a long time where, I mean, until recently, even in the recent times, dictation made to countries how they should run money, their politics, and their lives, problems happen. And the same people who imposed what must be done will turn around and blame the same people for the problems that will have developed out of what they imposed.
I mean, we don’t need to look far. You can take a case or recent cases of Libya. Libya was no democracy. Gadhafi had his own problems with all of us and across the continent. He had problems with his own people. Now, some people—well, part of it was created from within on its own, other things happened from outside, and they went to Libya and bombed the hell out of everybody in Libya, and it ended up with Gadhafi dying. The question is, what is happening in Libya now? People who wanted to create a different situation, maybe a better situation, maybe create some democracy in Libya, where are they, and what do we have?
We can talk about many places in Africa, forgetting the way the societies got organized, how they have come to be the way they are. And maybe things, the demands for changes across Africa, but these changes don’t just happen overnight and don’t happen anyhow. If you don’t look at the situation you’re having to deal with and understand it and just say things must change, sometimes to the point of even dictating who must be what, like, let me go back to my case in Rwanda.
You know, it was very ridiculous just before even the constitution was changed and so on and so forth. We have friends all over here in the United States, Europe, wherever, and they would say, oh, no, President Kagame, you must go. I said I’m happy to go. They say, you know, other people are going to come and take over after you and things will be fine. I say that’s OK. I said, how do you want me to do it? Well, they wouldn’t even name names. They would (want this ?). They say no, no, Botswana so can, you know, do it and so on, or you can actually look for somebody, you can groom somebody and have him, you know, take over for you and so on and so forth.
And then I would point out a couple of weaknesses in that. First, I’m saying you are the people who are teaching us about democracy. At the same time, you are actually coming to me and saying: You know, so-and-so can actually be president of Rwanda. So you are making—you are the ones choosing, what, according to that double standard. Of course, for them if that happened it would be democracy because they wanted it. Second, I would say if you are telling me to choose who takes over after me, again, it’s not a democracy you are telling me actually that we should be respecting. Meaning, you are saying either we choose or you choose who takes over from you, and that’s a democracy. And then I asked them, how about the people of Rwanda? I haven’t heard of them in this decision. You are just saying, we can advise you who takes over after you, or you can actually decide who will take over. How about the people of Rwanda?
STENGEL: Good idea.
KAGAME: So it goes—(laughs)—so there’s absolute confusion about this whole, you know, definition and the application of many things. We are told we should be being. And the people of any country are left out of this process and decision making.
STENGEL: No, that’s absolutely fair. To come down from 30,000 feet to a little bit closer to the ground, what is it about what Rwanda has accomplished economically over the last 23, 24 years that can be a model for other countries in Africa? What—I mean, if it was a Harvard Business School study, what would you say here are the—you know, here are the major points that we—that we adhered to and accomplished? And that is what helped change the economy. And finally, because I think it’s my last question before going out here, what role did foreign aid play in all of that?
KAGAME: Well, let me start with the last one. Foreign aid played a big role in the development of our country. And in fact, we tried to engage the aid donors to modify, A, how they understand aid and, more importantly, the use of it. Because we have tried to engage them on the basis that we, the people of Rwanda, should be given some space to decide on how and where to invest these resources they gave us, rather than them bringing the money and deciding where they put it, and how they deployed. And in the end, they are not bothered about the outcome. So we had a long discussion over this.
And fortunately, some of them agreed with us. And we even—to make them comfortable, we decided that we could actually have an agreement, even if to monitor what happens with the use of aid, and also to measure the outcomes. But we wanted Rwanda to remain in the driving seat because, at the end of the day, they give us aid wanting to improve our lives. And it is including how to manage our affairs. This is—we think is part—we always refer to as part of it, and we raise these issues with them. So aid worked very well for us.
Second, this economic progress we witnessed in Rwanda, by the way, is also linked to some of the political issues that we are discussing, we’re talking about, because anyone asking questions about democracy or about freedoms or about this—and many criticisms (you find that ?) will have come under which, well, I think maybe they started to improve us and for us to do things better and move on. If you look at how invested—we had, first of all, a vision for the country that would span 20 years, from 2000 to 2020.
And top of that was how we were going to invest in our people: education, health, food security, and so on. That, we spelled it out and it was clear and even sold to the donors.
Number two, governance. How are we going to govern ourselves? (Inaudible)—involvement of everyone, men, women, all those who have played their part.
Three, infrastructure. Four, development of the private sector, and so on and so forth. It includes regional integration and how we work with others, and with all kinds of implications, of enlarging and, you know, expanding markets and reaching out and, you know, so on and so forth.
And I want to say it here: I’m not going to say we did anything so that we may become a model for others to follow or anything. No. We were really focused on how to improve ourselves and how we can get our country from way it has been, at very low base on everything and, you know, take the people of Rwanda where they deserve to be. This is what we concentrated on. And so we were single-minded in terms of where we are coming from, what we need to do for ourselves, and focused on the results—not getting lost in the processes of getting results—of improving other people’s lives, reduction of poverty, and so on and so forth.
So in the last 15 years, the last 15 years, we’ve seen our economy grow between 7 and 8 percent every year. Now, that also meant inclusive growth, because we are mindful of the fact that this growth shouldn’t just be impressive in terms of numbers, but it really needs to have impact. We need to measure it. We need to see it. And what has been measured in the last 15 years in those areas, by people, either at the World Bank, Gallup Poll, it’s about World Economic Forum—it’s, you know—(inaudible)—they’ve been on the ground. They’ve worked with us. They have seen. They have asked Rwandans. They’ve been anywhere they wanted. They can attest to this fact that good progress has been made, whether it is women in parliament, and involvement, it is in decision-making, it’s how many children go to school. We have the highest enrollment rate of primary and secondary school in Sub-Saharan Africa. Yes. We have health insurance that covers 87 percent of our population. We have full self-sufficiency.
We have—you know, we can talk about doing business, how it is easy. You come to Rwanda, you register company in six hours. It used to take two months. We can go on and on and on and on. So the kinds of infrastructure we have developed—government and the private sector—information and communication technologies, put in the hands of Rwandans, means of communication and of information, to be informed.
Now, if you do this, at the same time, you say people are not free. I can’t be giving you tools to make yourself free and then you say—it doesn’t make sense. So these are things we’ve tried to do in the last 23 years, and by that taking the country from almost total destruction. For those who were in Rwanda in 1994, they know what they found, yes?
KAGAME: All these whole towns of our country, you know, corpses all over the place. Everything was dead. It’s dead people. It’s infrastructure. It’s everything. So where we are today, I think we can afford to absorb any prejudice.
STENGEL: So I’d like to open it up now to questions. We have about 25 minutes. And again, the—wait for a microphone. This is on the record. And this gentleman in the dark blue shirt here who had his hand up first.
Q: Sometimes it works. Thank you. Jeff Laurenti.
Mr. President, you’ve just described the successes in a small, compact, landlocked, densely populated country. Right next door, you have a huge, sprawling, minerals-rich country, traveling under the name of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that has had a very hard time in being able to establish either political or economic success. Rwanda had had some role in bringing the Kablias to power, and that hasn’t really turned out all that well. And the United Nations has been running for 15-some years on yet another giant peacekeeping operation there, great expense, that seems to have no light at the end of the tunnel. What do you think accounts for Congo’s inability to get on track politically and economically? Is this whole U.N. peacekeeping operation kind of a fool’s errand that can never put this Humpty Dumpty back together? And what do you see is the path that the Congolese can realistically hope to take to be able to make something of that vast, sprawling country?
KAGAME: First of all, what has been—what has prevented Congo to make a difference for themselves is between Congo itself and the international community that never learned its lessons, and just—whatever they got involved in or with in the Congo was (immensely tough ?). What you started by saying—when, for example, we had responsibility in the Congo at some point, even if what you said, enabling those who came to power there. It wasn’t—it wasn’t an international mission we had in the favor of Congo. We’re not doing them any favors. It was because we wanted to address our own problem that was originating from—or best in the Congo. That was—one can look at it like that.
But something else you said that is important, if you look at how many billions of dollars that have been spent in the Congo by the international community through the U.N., and for how long, and no results to show for it, then you—it just can’t be the Congo that is the problem. It’s also those who tried first—(inaudible)—with the Congo that, in one form or another, either created or are a part of the problem. We used to ask for the last 10, 15 years. We say, OK, you have 20,000 troops in the Congo. You’ve so far sent billions—spent billions there. Do you ever take stock of what you are really involved in? What is it you are doing? What are you getting out of it? How are you impacting the people of this country, where you are involved and you are said to be trying to help?
In fact, one time we used to argue with the U.N. and others to say, you know, if you spent half of that money, but on assisting Congolese themselves, you probably have a better chance of improving the situation, instead of spending it on the peacekeepers who—so. And just I wanted to end by saying even if theoretically I would have some ideas about what is the problem in the world today, I don’t feel it is my place, my role, to be lecturing people on issues to do with the Congo. If it is my country, I can tell you whatever you want. (Laughs.) But with others, I want to leave it to them.
STENGEL: Although you will become in January the head of the African Union for the next year as well.
STENGEL: More questions. Let’s try this side of the room; the gentleman in the back there in the green shirt.
Q: Thank you. James Heimowitz. I’m the president of China Institute here in New York.
And therefore I’m curious about your views about China in Africa. China’s role has been broad. It’s been deep. And I’m wondering about your thoughts about the positive and negative sides of that recent interest.
KAGAME: That’s true. There are many things to say about that. Again, I would not so much be interested—I wouldn’t be interested in talking about China or others. I’m more interested in talking about ourselves—we, the Africans; we, the Rwandese—because if you’re not sure of what you really want for yourself and how to articulate that and how to design how you go about different things, I tell you, let’s not blame China alone. Anyone else would come and just help himself with whatever they want and leave you lost in your own mess.
So the problem is, can Africa, can Rwanda, raise ourselves to a level where, if we are engaging partners, whether bilaterally or regionally or as a continent, can we have some fair demands about what we expect of this relationship or interaction and bear in mind what others must get out of it?
So unfortunately it doesn’t happen like that. You find most of our countries are not ready and maybe don’t even make much effort to be assisting, to be ready, to be able to articulate what we want in our relationships with other people. We are comfortable with the area sort of relationships we are talking about, where people just come and tell us what to do, whether it is good for us or not, and later on do whatever they want. I think the problem lies there with China or with any other partners.
STENGEL: Actually, one of the first meetings I had at the State Department was with an African foreign minister, not from Rwanda. And at the end of the meeting he said you Americans lecture me about transparency, and the Chinese come and build me a superhighway. (Laughter.)
The young woman right there.
KAGAME: I didn’t want to say that. (Laughter.)
Q: Graciana del Castillo from the— Graciana del Castillo from the Ralph Bunche Institute.
I was at the secretary general’s office. I was a senior economist during the genocide. So I learned of that very closely. Since then I’ve been working on war-torn countries. And as an economist, the only success story I can think of is Rwanda. And I think Richard asked you two very important questions, one on what did you do on the economic side and the other one on aid.
I just published a book where I show that of the 21 U.N.-led or U.S.-led operations, 57 percent returned to war in the first 10 years and the other—most of them ended up aid-dependent. And that’s another big achievement in Rwanda, where aid has been decreasing since ’94.
You mentioned the things you did on human development, infrastructure, and all that. I compare Rwanda with Afghanistan, because they are both landlocked and they had the same income per capita when they started and all that. And the difference is dramatic. And I think one of the things that you didn’t mention, but it’s a very good example for other countries in this situation, is that 75 (percent), 80 percent of the population lived in rural areas. And one of the first things you did was to improve subsistence agriculture so people could have a peace dividend in terms of better lives and livelihoods. And that worked very well. Even the IMF complimented it because it decreased poverty. Even though poverty is still high, it decreased poverty and that was very important for the Rwandan economy.
So I brought you a book where I mentioned Rwanda. (Laughter.) So I’ll give it to you after.
KAGAME: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for adding the very impressive points about that. Thank you, appreciate that. All right.
STENGEL: The gentleman there holding the piece of paper.
Q: Thank you very much. My name is Mahesh Kotecha. I run a small financial advisory firm, but I am from Uganda, a neighbor of yours.
And you have truly achieved a remarkable story in Rwanda. I’d like to pick up on two points that you mentioned, one is infrastructure and the other is the regional collaboration, you used some for that, and you’re going to be at the AU. Could you tell us about the vision that you have for the East African community, for the COMESA, for the SADC, they are trying to do things together, for the whole issue of integration in Africa? Because there is such a degree of fragmentation that international investors who are looking to come in, they get confused there. How do they know how to get to know one country, let alone 54? So could you talk a little bit about integration in East Africa and then beyond.
By the way, I am on the advisory board of East African Development Bank, as a disclosure.
KAGAME: OK. Well, integration, regional integration has been the way to go. More has been said than what has been done. That’s another problem we have to overcome. But I think the benefits of integration are very obvious to many, even those who don’t practice what needs to be practiced. Already now, they have the knowledge, they know the importance of it, but somehow politics of some kind will step in and people end up not doing what they actually ought to have done.
So we started the East African Community, which now has six, I think, or seven partner states. And we’re—if you look at what we lose in not emphasizing intra-African trade, which regional integration would easily facilitate, is huge. The intra-African trade just is less than a fifth of what it should be. And it will give us, if we unlocked that, it will give us more than we are getting from anywhere, whether through aid or by Chinese or by others. So we try to emphasize this and encourage even integrating.
We have, for example, a master plan for infrastructure for the region, for these countries, whether it is the railways, roads, energy, and so on, as a catalyst of other forms of integration. We also insist on the freedom of movement, of people across the regions, and other forms of integration.
For example, we started with the customs union, then common market, and people are talking about these—under way there is a discussion about monetary union, then people are saying no, we cannot form this into one country, six countries can’t turn into one country, political federation. So the fact that people are entertaining this kind of discussion and later on doing some things about certain things that can happen, I think it is already demonstrating their understanding of that importance. But we just need to accelerate things so they happen faster.
STENGEL: OK, back to this side. You’ve been waiting.
Q: Thank you. Excellency, my name is Roland Paul. I’m a lawyer. I’ve been in the U.S. government a couple of times.
You have quite properly referred several times in your remarks to the sad events of 1994 in your country. And I’d like to ask you one specific aspect of that. I’m told by several well-informed—or, reasonably well-informed American observers that many people’s lives would have been saved if the United States would have sent a force of as small as one battalion of American troops to Rwanda. That’s 700 soldiers, as you know. Do you agree with that?
KAGAME: It’s an old story. I think many people agree with that. Maybe even if people had dome simpler things than that, could have happened. If people had even just—even with the threat of, you know—
STENGEL: Something smaller than that even would have—huh.
KAGAME: Yes. (Laughs.) Could have—it could have happened. But the fact was nobody—no, here part of it was, for example, the government at the time used the radios, communicating with the general public, telling them how to kill, who to go and kill. And it went on for weeks and months, and—(inaudible)—this radio. Until, at some point, those of us who were involved in the world decided, you know, to use some crude methods to take them out. But there were better technologies you could easily have. (Laughs.) But I understand there was an agreement. One, I think there was freedom of speech. Secondly, it was too expensive because it was going to cost, I think, $200,000. So one million Rwandese are not really worth $200,000, if I may be sarcastic for that. So I think you all know the answer.
STENGEL: The gentleman right here.
Q: I’m David Crupo (ph).
I’m curious, Rwanda, for all of its progress, is still somewhat dependent on foreign aid to balance its budget and so forth. If you could imagine a day when Rwanda no longer is dependent upon foreign aid, what will Rwanda have to look like? What will have to happen in order for Rwanda to reach that? What’s different—what will need to be different in Rwanda to get to that point?
KAGAME: Well, I think we have many countries that are not dependent on aid. So it would look like those countries. (Laughter.)
STENGEL: OK, we have only three or four minutes left, so if we do two quick questions, how about that? The gentleman in the bowtie.
Q: Your excellency, I’ve served in Rwanda since ’99, but as a whole family since 2003. And in my time there, I often was frustrated because I couldn’t get people to raise hands and say: This is our decision here. And other people raising the side in the majority would win. People always would say, Doctor, slow down. Let’s talk some more. And meeting went very long, but a consensus was achieved at the end. And I’m wondering if this is a better explanation for the 98 percent than many others, if you would agree with that. I think also people look back at ’94 and they say this many people saying yes this many people saying no, that actually can turn us backwards towards ethnic division. And I’m wondering if the 98 percent is really a manifestation of the culture as a whole doing elections in the same way that all decisions are made, which is usually by people coming together at one accord.
KAGAME: I’m not sure—huh?
- : I think it’s about consensus, maybe?
KAGAME: It’s about consensus, but it’s about many things. You know, it’s not one explanation. There is something else. In fact, we have other political groups operating in Rwanda. But the problem they face—I really sympathize with them. The things people run, you know, politics on—to deliver something, to deliver what is not being delivered, to introduce something that is new—they find all these things are being done. And the people themselves are the ones doing that, and they know it is—so you can’t come and say I’ll give you this when they already—either they are having it or they are in the process of achieving it because they are doing it themselves, unless you tell them lies, which would only work for a short time but they’ll get to know that you are telling them lies. So they have that problem.
And also that history. The history, you know, that affected, of course produced victims, but has perpetrators. We have created a situation where the victims and perpetrators have come together and have been soul-searching among themselves to say what is it that went wrong, why did it go wrong. And then they formulated what they needed to do to actually overcome that past together. That has been happening.
In fact, that’s why even the reconciliation process has taken place beyond even our own expectation. And they stick together on this, and it’s like, no, if anything came from outside and said, oh, do this, and they say no, no, no, no, no. For you are taking us back—(laughs)—yeah. So we have found an answer within us and among us, and this is where we’re going to stay.
It’s very interesting. There are many things I think those who study these societies—you are welcome—there are more things you can discover in that place.
Something else: This externalization of our politics in Africa and in Rwanda. You know, the moment somebody from outside says, no, no, no, no, no, this Kagame must go and da-da-da-da, they don’t know they’re making a big mistake. This is one (way ?) to say, oh, no, they actually like him even more. (Laughter.) To defy these fellows who think they can do anything or everything that people—
STENGEL: We know that sentiment here in this country as well. (Laughter.)
So we have time for one short question and one short answer. The young lady back there.
Q: Hi. Hi there. (Comes on mic.) You’ve spoken a lot about democracy. And I would just like to point to the accusations of human rights abuses in terms of the elimination of your political opponents or the oppression of the press, and I would just like to hear your comments towards that.
KAGAME: I would like to hear your comments—(laughter)—because, for me, it’s like—you know, it sort of is difficult to accuse me of anything and then say: prove yourself innocent. I think I want to turn it to you and say: prove me guilty. That’s where the problem lies.
You know, the press or human rights groups, what they say about me personally or about Rwanda, when you are in Rwanda and are dealing with these decent human beings also in Rwanda, and they tell you their own stories, you won’t trust even 0.001 percent of what they’re talking about. Their real life there is completely different from what the (UDHR ?) is talking about, absolutely different. But people will stay here, will be here in the U.S. and wherever, and they’ve never even been to Rwanda. They’ve never met Rwandans, the real Rwandans. They are there. (Laughs.) Rwandans are there. The real people of Rwanda, who are no different from you, what you aspire to be, to have, to do. They are no different. But it’s as if Rwandans—or, Rwanda is treated like a botanical garden where you just go under water flowers and, you know, oh, human beings like anyone in this room, absolutely. So these so-called human you-know-what, I tell you, half of my life I’ve been living in the trenches, not sure of living to the next day.
I didn’t fight to be the president of my country, never. It came by accident, I think. So I was fighting for my own rights, which anyone in any human rights organization could not give me. And even now, cannot give me or cannot give Rwandans. So it’s cynical and absurd that anyone would just be there talking about violations. You know, me as the leader of my own people, to be accused of violating their rights is just an absurd insult. But my answer is simple, is to do my best to serve my people the best way they can be served. That is the answer.
STENGEL: That’s a great last word. Thank you. (Applause.) President Paul Kagame of Rwanda.
For further reading, please see the Foreign Affairs article “Kagame’s Unrivaled Power” by Tom Gardner, the CFR blog post “Empowering Women in Developing Economies” by Melanne Verveer and Mathilde Mukantabana, and the CFR blog Africa in Transition by John Campbell.