Home Special Reports President Kagame, An illuminating Conversation with the Press

President Kagame, An illuminating Conversation with the Press

by Vincent Gasana
10:15 am

“Home grown solutions” is what Rwanda calls an approach that is rare in Africa, development that is channelled through African countries’ own culture and history. Unnoticed, one suspects even by himself, it is also an approach that President Kagame takes to his regular press conferences. This month’s an example of what we may now term, the home grown press conference.

Rather than the usual cagey question and answer affair, the Rwanda head of state holds ikiganiro n’abanyamakuru, as Rwandans would put it, or a conversation with the press.

The other unique aspect about this conversation with the press, is the character and personality of this head of state. Press conferences are generally push me pull you performances, during which the media tries to take the politicians in one direction or other, with the politicians resisting, and trying to divert the exchange to where they prefer it.

Meticulous in almost everything he does, no doubt, like every other politician or statesman, President Kagame prepares for his remarks, and the message he wants to put across. Unlike most other politicians however, one gets the distinct impression that the Rwandan President does not feel the need to tie himself to any script.

A question will get what he feels it deserves, either short shrift, often accompanied by an incredulous laugh, or the brow will be furrowed, the steady, penetrating gaze fixed in the distance for a moment, then the features will soften as a carefully considered response unfolds. At the end of it, as in any conversation, he will look in the direction of the questioner, as though waiting for a response, only to remember that this conversation necessarily only has to be one way.

It is fair to say of other press conferences that success is determined by the extent to which the politician manages to put his or her message across, by answering the least number of awkward questions as possible.

President Kagame on other hand seems to perk up at the more difficult questions, and visibly deflated by the mundane ones, as though to say, ‘and I left important work for that?’

“These days” he claimed with a bit of a chuckle “I have learnt to be diplomatic” when pressed on a question. And it is true, there is a reticence, where it has to be said, in the more fun days, like impatient puppies, expectantly waiting for their favourite morsels, journalists would be agog for unvarnished truth after another. But, in truth, beyond a slight nod to diplomacy, little has changed.

One learns much at any press conference with President Kagame, a great deal, if the questions are well thought through. And if they are not, he will sometimes share the information about which the journalists should have asked.

At this month’s press conference, a number of issues at the top of the agenda for Rwanda, and the Great Lakes region generally, were left much clearer.

We know that the extraordinarily ambitious project of a railway line to link Rwanda with its neighbours, in particular Tanzania, with its coastal port, is as complex as one might imagine, but, that it is moving ahead.

It may go further than Tanzania, and include Zambia, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and possibly beyond. Inevitably with such a huge infrastructure project, we know that funding will come from several sources, including the African Development Bank. We learn that several countries, including the United States of America, have expressed an interest in supporting the project.

“The interest” he said, “has been shown by both public and private. To make it easier and less costly we want to use a combination of public and private…we have had experts look at it, the African Development Bank has been central and helpful…”

On fake news and how it might affect Rwanda, his thoughts are that it should not be a distraction, unless it directly perverts the perception of Rwanda’s course, then the impression needs must be corrected.

“You know it’s interesting” he mused, “it’s very interesting in a sense that this [fake news] has been there for many years, but, it never came out, because some people who we know shape the world, had not been affected.”

“As long as they weren’t being affected, they were only affecting others, it wasn’t worth paying attention to…Actually Rwanda has been suffering fake news for the last twenty-five years, but, because it was Rwanda, or some other African country, it wasn’t newsworthy…when it started affecting them, it was as if fake news was just borne a year ago, or two years ago…fake news is a reality, so we have to deal with it…”

He might have added that while the focus is on fake news we are robbed of fascinating stories, like the relationship between Qatar and Rwanda, which has been quietly growing. There is even free, or at least freer movement of people between the two states, and the Qatari Ambassador was one of the envoys to present his credentials to President Kagame, a week ago.

Investments include cooperation on the countries’ airlines and airports. It is safe to assume that Qatar Airlines will figure in some form or other, at the soon to be completed Bugesera International Airport.

You would be hard pressed to find a press conference from which you would walk away with as deep an analysis of bilateral, regional relations, the quest for peace in the broader Great Lakes region. And that from someone at the very centre of events.

We hear much rhetoric of ‘African solutions for African problems’. President Tshisekedi’s initiative for a regional force to rid the Great Lakes of the scourge of armed groups is potentially ground breaking for the region, and we got an insight into its likely fate.

The initiative “was welcome good news” said President Kagame “the approach was to look at a whole history of these problems of insecurity…non state groups that have been roaming the region and causing insecurity, and how we can deal with them…especially working together.”

“There have been meetings bringing together chiefs of the national armies of neighbouring countries, and security organs, they have been working with the UN in Congo, so that we can formulate how to work together to address all these problems…”

“The DRC, the government, the President, wanted to address that problem, but the problem involves different groups in different countries, so the best way to approach it was not to go it alone, and I think they were right.”

We learn that the idea of a regional force to confront these armed groups was generally welcomed, with one or two countries holding back. We got more than a hint that if need be, bilateral rather than regional arrangements may be made.

“Countries agreed on the way forward, and one or two hesitated, for reasons best known to themselves…but, still work is being done to bring others on board…so I think we’ll soon find some way…But the most critical country here is actually the DRC. If the DRC can decide to work with all of us, which is most ideal, if it doesn’t work and they accept to work with one or two or three in whatever form, to address particular problems, still that is much better than doing nothing.”

It is worth noting that the only other occasion when there was such cooperation between Rwandan and Congolese forces, it achieved the objective of combating armed groups, beyond expectation.

President Kagame is current chairman of the East African community, and his analysis of how the community stands, was by turn nuanced, occasionally direct, even blunt, as is his wont, and always illuminating. How for instance does a head of state who likes to put a timeline on proposed projects, cope with the glacial pace of regional agreements.

“I think the East African community has made good progress, and continues to make progress” he confided, adding, somewhat inevitably, given his style of leadership, “and people are right to say the progress is slow. I wish we could move faster myself, I wish we could be over with many things that still stand in the way of us getting where we want to be.”

But he resignedly acknowledged that progress was bound to be slow. “But, integration is not something automatic…naturally people will start seeing things differently, it doesn’t matter whether they are right or wrong, it happens, it’s natural. Sometimes people will bring non issues, or create problems where they not, but that’s what happens with people, with politics, with interests…”

“So the task of all of us to achieve broader and deeper integration is to keep working at it…and understanding that you’ve got to give something, you’ve got to get something, and you’ve got to not just think about yourself. You’ve got to have a level of thinking for others as well, and what they benefit…”

“Overall really…If we have a population of 160million people with more in common than differences, working together, this is a huge force, politically, economically, socially…If we keep that prize in sight…160million people, the strengths, the benefits, the progress, and then continue working on the differences…some of them make sense, others don’t make sense, most of them don’t make sense…it’s not an easy task. For me I understood it from the beginning…things don’t work as straightforwardly as you would wish.”

Responding to a question about the continuing unedifying tensions between Rwanda and Uganda, cancelled, or postponed meetings due to be organised by Uganda, he seemed bemused at the absurdity of it all.

“The official communication about a meeting that was supposed to be taking place on 16th October, now being suggested for 13th of November, did not reach us, until we read it in the papers. After reading in the papers, we received the official letter. Well, that has its own meaning.”

That meaning may well be the apparent chaotic state within the Ugandan government, or their reluctance to resolve the issues. The 13th November meeting was also postponed to 18th November, which will also now not happen, as this time Rwanda has asked for it to be postponed.

But, President Kagame is apparently willing to wait until Uganda makes a decision, one way or the other.

“We are OK with whatever dates, for whatever reasons they have or suggest. Or even if anyone comes and suggests…we don’t need any meeting, we’ll respect that.”

The origin of the problem as far as Rwanda is concerned is Uganda’s support of groups, whose armed wings have launched ineffectual, but, lethal attacks against ordinary Rwandans, who live near the border areas with the DRC, and Burundi. Recently, a number of these armed groups were captured, and are now on trial in Rwanda.

Evidence coming out of this trial supports Rwanda’s allegation that Uganda has become an important base for former Rwandan General Kayumba Nyamwasa’s Rwanda National Congress (RNC). The RNC’s armed wing is the so called P5, a coalition of groups opposing the government of Rwanda, including FDU-Inkingi, until recently headed by Victoire Ingabire. A recent UN group of experts’ report linked P5 to RNC, and General Nyamwasa.

According to Rwanda, the recent wholesale detentions of Rwandans living in Uganda, with some dying in detention, is connected to the RNC’s presence in Uganda. The explanation given by Uganda is either that the Rwandans are in Uganda illegally, or are spies, a suggestion dismissed by Rwanda.

“If you have people who you think are there illegally, or have committed crimes, or are spies, do you really arrest people, pile them up in their hundreds and you fail to put even one in the court of law, and have them charged, and tried. Just one, out of hundreds” he challenged, incredulously.

“The moment you say you are not able to do that it tells a different story. We say to them, we respect your sovereignty, we respect your institutions, but you are arresting Rwandans, and the reasons you are giving don’t add up.”

He gives an explanation he suggests does add up. “We told our [Ugandan] brothers and sisters, we actually know the story where these arrests originate from, even the source. The same organisations that operate in our neighbouring countries and beyond, they started saying, ‘you know these Rwandans know that we are here, or they have accused you of letting us operate from here, how do they get this information? They must get this information from Rwandans who come here.’”

“They are the ones [RNC] who started showing the government institutions there. They would see somebody, and say, ‘this man must be working for [Rwanda] government, this man is not your friend…’”

In an almost Kafkaesque trap, some of the released Rwandans have said they were arrested after they had been approached to be recruited into P5, and told they must be Rwandan government spies, when they refused. It for this reason said president Kagame that the advice to Rwandans remains for them not to travel to Uganda.

“We have had relatives of people who were arrested coming to government institutions, saying you know, we’ve got somebody missing when they went to Uganda…every time we got such a complaint we raised it [with Uganda]. There are hundreds of them. And then we told Rwandans, when it comes to you being arrested in Uganda, there is little we can do about it, other than raise it with government institutions. The only advice we can give, is just don’t go there.”

“Anyway” he concluded on Uganda, “it’s a mess which I still believe we can sort out. We know better than that, we should be better than this, we can definitely do better.”

At the start of the press conference, the President had expressed a preference to confine himself to events home, the region, and if need be Africa. The wider world did however intrude, in the shape of British Parliamentarians who reportedly wrote a letter to him, asking for the release of individuals currently on trial in Rwanda.

The letter it seems must have got lost in the post, or diverted accidently on purpose, because while it did reach the media, it never reached Urugwiro Village, as state house in Rwanda is popularly known. In any case, the intended addressee was less than amused.

He noted that it was inappropriate to ask him to interfere with the justice system. And if the Parliamentarians were concerned with Human Rights, he suggested, they might start by petitioning the British state to bring to justice Rwandans accused of participating in the 1994 genocide against Batutsi, whom Britain has failed to either try or extradite to be tried in Rwanda.

It was a press conference at which President Kagame was at his most relaxed and engaging throughout, but, he was particularly at ease and forthright when responding to a newspaper article, which alleged Rwanda was using the latest spy technology to target some Rwandans in the Diaspora, in particular the UK.

The Israeli developed technology, dubbed Pegasus, reportedly hacks the WhatsApp accounts of targeted individuals, whom the paper, The Financial Times of London, claimed were Human Rights Activists.

“Some of these people same people appear even in UN reports as people who are part of the violence and insecurity in our region, especially in the Eastern DRC” the President emphasized.

And why he asked would Rwanda spend scarce resources to hack telephones of people of such little consequence.

“I actually wish I could have access to this technology” he joked, “I just wish. But, I also know that it’s very costly…I wouldn’t spend so much money over a nobody…I worry about these fellows who enter through Kinigi [Northern Rwanda], and kill people. They are the ones I am concerned with. It is absolute nonsense my dear” he said to the reporter, “that technology was not made for me. It is very expensive from what I have read, I don’t have much money, the few dollars we have we spend on education…”

“But we’ve done intelligence, and we are going to do it for the future. That is how countries operate, I don’t think Rwanda would be an exception. We know our enemies, we know plenty about our enemies, and even those who support our enemies, we know a lot about that, but we use human capacity, human intelligence. We are very good at that, for your information, yes, we really do a good job of that.”

This last assurance he uttered almost to himself, content that the statement is indisputable. High praise indeed from a man who sets especially high standards, a former intelligence officer, who quickly rose to head of intelligence, a man for whom there are few greater sins than complacency. “But” he said with a mischievous, knowing smile, “on doing intelligence, I am guilty.”

At the end of a press conference where he had fielded questions ranging from abortion rights, teenage pregnancies, regional relationships, to letters that perhaps on reflection ought not to have been written, let alone sent, the President was asked to look back, two decades. Rwanda set itself a number of targets to be achieved by 2020, “Vision2020”. Many of these targets have been met, did he envisage what he sees now, twenty years ago?

“There are very few things I would have given you a definitive answer on, if you had asked me twenty years ago…” he responded, “twenty years ago, no one really seemed to be sure Rwanda would survive…people were not sure whether the nation would survive. But, it survived.”

“All we did at that time” he continued with classic understatement, “it’s like drawing a wish list. I want to be here at that time, despite these problems, my vision is to achieve this. And then towards that, you put in everything you have, your thoughts, your actions…to see that you reach there.”

“There were no guarantees that you would be there. But it didn’t have to stop us thinking, or wishing to be there.”

“You set an aim” he said, “and if you didn’t reach it, then you evaluate why you fell short of your target.”

He then gave us a glimpse of the determination it must have taken to stay the course, when at times things must have seemed all but impossible.

“Another lesson for me personally I learnt” he recollected, “some things were seemingly insurmountable. You would even have wished to say ‘no, we can’t be there, let’s be realistic.’ But being ambitious has its own value. It pushes you as hard as it can. If you are there, so much the better, if you are not there, then you fall for the realistic position and accept it, and say, ‘I am aimed too high, I didn’t reach it’ but it was not a bad thing to aim too high. It pushed you to go higher than you would have been otherwise”

“You must do the things you think you cannot do” said Eleanor Roosevelt. One suspects President Kagame would nod in complete agreement.