At last count in early September, 3.7 million Rwandans (60% of the electorate) had signed a petition asking their president of 15 years, Paul Kagame – whose mandatory second term ends in 2017 – to run for a third term. The president claims he had no role in this effort to extend his rule, but is “open to the idea,” provided that he can satisfy himself that the campaign is genuinely coming from the people and is not being manipulated by anyone to serve their own interests. Parliament has now set up a 7-member commission to help it review the constitution and bring in an amendment to override the two-term limit. The commission’s findings must first be approved by the two chambers of Parliament before being put to a nationwide referendum next year. If the people vote yes, Kagame will get the green light to run again in 2017. This and other issues were the subject of a wide-ranging interview granted by President Kagame to our contributing editor, Baffour Ankomah.
Q: In 2011, when asked whether you would step down at the end of your second term, your answer was very emphatic: “Our constitution is clear on term limits. I have no intention, and no desire, to disrespect the constitution.” This morning I read in one of the local newspapers that 3.7 million Rwandans have signed a petition asking you to run for a third term when your mandatory two-terms end in 2017. So what has changed Mr. President? Are 3.7 million people now coaxing you to “disrespect the constitution”? What have you said to them?
A: Before I say anything to them, I say something to you. The statement I made in the 2011 interview still holds true for me today. I will tell you why it is so. First, I have not, and you can investigate it by asking anybody, I have not sought or asked anybody to change the constitution for me. No. I am not part of this exercise as you see it. That is number one. So I see people writing that Kagame is seeking a third term. No, I am not seeking anything.
Second, the 3.7 million Rwandans who signed the petition and the many others besides, are the ones who are saying let’s change the constitution, after all we wrote it in the first place. It is not me. Therefore, if, in their view, they think they are going to change the constitution, that is their business. I respect the constitution and will continue to respect the constitution made by the people.
Contributing Editor Baffour Ankomah (L) and associate, Elizabeth Ankomah, interview President Paul Kagame in the Rwandan capital, Kigali.
Now let me work on the scenario of the devil’s advocate and say I actually made the request to run for a third term, and so when the constitution is changed I will fit in there. At that point, when the constitution is indeed changed and I run for a third term, I will have respected its new demands, because a constitution is what people make. But here the difference with other cases is that it is the people who want to change the constitution, not me the president.
Q: So, at the end of the process in Rwanda, when the constitutional commission has finished its work and the people really want you to stay – when they say, “Mr. President, you have done well for our country, we don’t want you to go” – would you listen to them and stay?
A: I have remained open to that. Even with the statement I made in the 2011 interview with your colleague, which you showed to me at the beginning of this interview, I knew in my mind that I should be careful about what I said with respect to the constitution. Respecting the constitution means respecting the constitution [he taps the arm of his chair for emphasis], at that time [still tapping the arm of his chair], and that it has come in the manner it should. Not manipulated. Not tampered with. By people other than those who would benefit. You see what I mean?
So your question about staying if asked by the people, I remain open to it as long as all the things I have described above are legitimate and right. If I discover today that there is manipulation going on, there is somebody playing games to fit me into whatever they want, I will just tell them to forget it. But if it is genuine and convincing and legitimate, I am open to the idea of staying. Yes.
This is why I want these things to play out as best they can, so that I can make my own decision, because I have a decision to make at some point. And I have always spoken to my people, as I said to the party cadres and so on, and I have told them: “You need to act rationally, you need to think properly and always expect that even something you don’t like may happen.” So they must be prepared for all kinds of scenarios.
Q: Let me take you into the arena of geopolitics. You were quite angry about the way the UK and Spain treated your intelligence chief recently, when he was summarily arrested in London, apparently because of an arrest warrant issued by Spain some time ago. You called it “rubbish justice.” Did you get an apology from either country?
A: Well, the most important thing is that our intelligence chief is back in the country and back to his work. He has been released. I think they realized that the case wasn’t going to stand up in court. It was a case that shouldn’t even have been there in the first place. Right from the beginning, the Spanish indictment was not proper. But here again some people distort the argument while our position has always been very clear.
For example, take the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the weaknesses in the international justice system, where, again, what has played out is some people setting the standard and exercising it against the Africans. I would have been the first to subscribe to the ICC from the beginning if I could see, and was reassured, that this was really going to be international justice; meaning it would apply equally to me, to you, and to them. But, as we feared in this country, the ICC has turned out to be a justice system that applies mainly to the African. Yet history teaches us that there have been many crimes committed by the people who set the standards, but the ICC is unable to act against them. So if you tell me that you cannot find a serious case committed against the African by some Western leaders, not even one case, do you want me to take such a court or justice seriously?
So the ICC has just become a court that keeps dragging Africans kicking and screaming into its portals, and this is being done according to their own definition and on their own terms, meaning on the terms of the people behind the ICC. For me, I just cannot accept such a justice system, and on this basis Rwanda did not subscribe to the ICC, and would not.
Q: Was this why you were so angry over the arrest of your intelligence chief?
A: I am coming to that. It is in the same manner, same as ICC justice, that the Spanish indictment, and there are other indictments pending in France, was handled by the UK and Spain. Remember this is the second arrest of a Rwandan official in Europe. The first was the arrest in France of our chief of protocol, a woman. In the end, the case died a natural death. But those indictments still remain. They are just causing inconvenience to our senior government officials. And the cases are just outrageous.
In fact the recent funny one under which our intelligence chief was arrested in the UK actually indicts the West as well. You know there is this “universal jurisdiction” idea where some countries have prosecutor-judges who will indict anybody anywhere for doing anything. So there are 40 people on the list of the indictment issued by the Spanish judge.
The indictment claims that our people in Rwanda have a criminal organization called the RPF which was created in Uganda in 1987, and was supported by the UK and the US to come and destabilize Rwanda, a Francophone country and a place of Hutus. This is how the indictment is framed. So we were telling the UK and the US: “But you are also indicted yourselves, because they are saying these criminals exist in Rwanda only because of you, and your support. So why don’t you show up in the Spanish court as well?”
Q: What did the UK and US say when you told them that?
A: Wait I am coming. The indictment talks about 3 or 4 Spanish nationals who died here. They had been working here over the years, even under the previous genocidal regime. But the whole thing has been distorted because these people died at the hands of infiltrators who came in from DRCongo to destabilize us. But because some of these Spanish nationals had connections with the infiltrating groups, Spain just decided that it was the RPF government that caused the deaths of its nationals.
So Spain drew up a list of 40 leaders in the RPF government that they claim have culpability in the death of these 4 nationals. But how did 40 people all have culpability? And these are top government officials, including party people, generals, and such like. How did these 40 individuals connive to kill 4 Spanish nationals? One person could have been responsible, but 40 top leaders in government? So this shows you that something is sick in the international justice system.
And we even tried to tell them to send their investigators here to work with our investigators and prosecutors. In fact they sent their investigators. And we said if they found anybody culpable, we would try them here. But they rejected our proposal saying they would want to try them in Spain. But, we said, the alleged perpetrators did not commit any crime in Spain, so they should be tried here. That is where it stalled.
Q: And the UK decided to enter the fray?
A: Yes, and in a most disturbing way. For close to 10 years, we have been asking the UK to give up the Rwandan genocidaires living in their country for trial here. But the UK has not been forthcoming. First, they say they cannot try these people because of their laws. Second, they will not give them up for us to try them here. So these people who committed genocide here are free in the UK, they are all over the place.
And all of a sudden the UK is happy to say, “oh, Spain says this about this RPF general, so we are arresting him”. And we said: “Look, why don’t you first arrest and try those genocidaires in your midst who killed civilians here. This general who liberated this country against these same criminals whom you have given refuge, is the one you are interested in arresting on behalf of Spain, which actually accuses you also for supporting the RPF.” Something is definitely not right in the international justice system.
Q: Your government has had difficulties with France too. Is this because you ditched French as an official language and replaced it with English when you came into power?
A: It is part of it but not the only thing. But if you look at how the French were involved in Rwandan politics in the past, they associated with the regime that committed the genocide here. They supported them fully, before, during, and after the genocide. Most of the perpetrators of genocide, including the wife of former President Habyarimana whom we have officially accused of going into the streets and roads commanding people to kill, is living in France, almost free.
France has played around with her case, in fact at one point they put her in court, but they have been playing with the case for the past 21 years. Because of the previous relationship between the Habyarimana regime and France, they have remained defensive. So we have tried to resolve these issues with France over the years, and sometimes we made progress only for it to stall.
Kagame: “If I discover today that there is manipulation going on, there is somebody playing games to fit me into whatever they want, I will just tell them to forget it. But if it is genuine and convincing and legitimate, I am open to the idea of staying.”
But remember – all of this was on TV during the genocide. Some French officials, some of them ministers, were seen on TV saying: “We cannot allow this group of English speakers to go and take over our territory”, meaning Rwanda is ‘their’ territory [laughs]. This is no secret. It was on TV. So they were really devoted to making sure that they fought us here from the start. It was like that before, during, and after the genocide.
So since we came to power, the relationship between Rwanda and France has been characterized by this antagonism, and it is unfortunate because it should not be like that. But we shall see how we move on some of these issues with the intention of improving the situation.
Q: Last October, in your address to Chatham House, you made the remarkable statement that although Rwanda had been a divided country for decades, today the people increasingly trust each other. That is very good news, especially coming from a country that has gone through so much pain historically. My question is, has the country really turned the corner?
A: Absolutely. These stories are true; they are backed by evidence, by facts. The stories about the industriousness of Rwandans, their resilience, the confidence they have in themselves, and the trust that has been built around that, coupled with the results on the ground vis-à-vis where we have come from, and weighed against the context of a continent that is struggling, I think the country has turned the corner for sure. Better things lie ahead.
Q: You are of the view that Africa has to drive its own agenda, and that Africa has a lot to teach the world. But in your Chatham House address, you said when you tried to use Rwanda’s traditional gacaca community courts for resolving conflicts, to try genocide cases here, outsiders opposed it. Yet in the end, the gacaca courts heard almost 2 million cases over 10 years. So why did the outsiders oppose it?
A: You see we live in a world that I think needs constant reforms and redefinition of things and not to assume that some people are more superior to others, and therefore they set the standard and everyone else follows. The world is filled with any kinds of people managing many kinds of talents. What that calls for is for people to work together rather than saying this works for me, I have set it as a standard and everyone else must fit in. That won’t work because people are managing different problems in different places. So what works for you may not necessarily work for me.
So with the gacaca community courts, outsiders opposed it simply because they said it did not fit the international standard. And we asked them: “What is the international standard in trying genocide cases in a society where one part of the population has killed the other part, and there are hundreds of thousands or even millions of cases to bring to court?”
And, to add insult to injury, the magnitude of the problem in and of itself posed a huge problem because of the sheer numbers involved. So while we wanted justice for victims, we wanted to bring reconciliation at the same time. But these two important processes go against each other, and there is always a collision course.
Q: And as the gacaca courts allowed both perpetrators and victims to sit together and resolve issues, it made the work of the government easier, isn’t that so?
A: Absolutely. That is another good thing about the gacaca process. It allows both victims and perpetrators to sit together to resolve their problems. It is not like the normal court system where one side accuses the other, and the other defends itself and then waits for the judge to pronounce judgement. No. With gacaca, the victims and perpetrators are the ones at the center of the process.
As a result, we had perpetrators standing up and saying: “We are sorry, we are actually the ones who killed so and so family, we will take you and show you where we threw their bodies or buried them.” They would literally bow in front of the victims and say “we are sorry.” But this is something that an outsider would simply, by a stroke of his magical pen, say does not meet the international standard so Rwanda is blah, blah, blah. But it worked for us. It has allowed this country to heal.
Q: Let me take you to the matter of corruption in Rwanda. In 2012, I interviewed your ombudsman and I was very impressed by your government’s determination to fight corruption. Are you winning the war against corruption?
A: Absolutely, I think we are. But remember corruption is never uprooted completely from a society. There will always be things that you can relate to corruption. It is almost an everyday fact of life. And by the way, again, corruption is not African [laughs], you can find it anywhere in the world, and plenty of it. But the most important thing for us, which needs to be emphasized, is that you should not allow corruption to prevail or for people to practice it with impunity.
There must be the rule of law, there must be accountability, there must be ways of fighting it even though you know that there will always be residues of corruption around. There must be a system that keeps uprooting it. It is like going to your farm and removing the weeds. After one week the weeds come up again and you go and remove them, then later on you must still go and remove them. You can’t stop because weeds have a tendency to come up again and again.
So we have established that kind of system here where we’ll keep weeding out corruption and making sure that it doesn’t prevail and choke the things we are doing. We are also turning it into a culture, the culture of saying no, corruption should not be our way of life, and we must fight it wherever it is. I think we have already established the fundamentals here and in people’s minds they understand that corruption is not an acceptable thing, although it will happen.
That is why we have the ombudsman. That is why every year, all of us, the leaders of this country, and I am always among the first, are asked by the ombudsman to declare our wealth, where it came from, and how we earned it.
So I am the first to declare my assets every year, and the papers are kept at the offices of the ombudsman. It is one way of making sure that we are not slipping public funds into our pockets.
Q: That is exemplary leadership, isn’t it? Is it true that on the last Saturday of every month, it is clean-up day in Rwanda and you in fact regularly come out and join in the clean-up exercise?
A: Yes, tomorrow is clean-up day, and I will be there. Whenever it happens and I am in the country, I join in the community work. Again, it is an issue of creating a culture that all of us should help clean up our environment. And the good thing is that in some people’s minds, if the president does it, what about me? I should also do it. This is a good thing.
And we are doing it for ourselves really, we are not being whipped to do it. We are not waiting for anybody to come and tell us to do it. I have been challenging our people, saying we don’t need donors’ money to be able to clean our streets or our homesteads. This is a centuries-old tradition, Africans used to clean their homesteads. I told them that even as a refugee in a refugee camp, we would be living in a small mud house, but my mother used to bring us together as children to clean our environment and make sure that this little house that could catch fire at any time and disappear is clean.
Many people do not know this, but as children we used to make a kind of cement paste from the leaves of sweet potatoes. We would crush them in a mortar, and it would come out like a sticky paste, and we would run it on the floor until the floor looked like cement, shiny and very smooth. And you know what? It would keep fleas out of the house because the floors would be smooth and clean.
So I said to our people when we came to power, it doesn’t matter if you are poor, you can still hold yourself proud by doing little things such as cleaning up your house and environment. And by and large, it has worked.
Q: For sure, it has worked. And it is not only the capital city of Kigali that is so clean, cleanliness is in fact countrywide. I saw that even the villages are so clean. You and the people of this country have done very well, and you deserve to congratulate yourselves.
A: Yeah, we’ve been trying, because these are things we can do without money, there is no extra cost to us.
Q: Now let’s look at regional issues. Are you happy with the speed of the integration process in the East African Community (EAC)?
A: Integration is the way to go for all Africa actually, and I don’t see why not, especially knowing that the integration of a continent is very vital for development. When we integrate everything, economies, infrastructure, etc., and allow people to move freely across borders, it will boost our economies many times over. So there is no reason why we can’t do it.
But because of the mental issues we talked about earlier, some of our brothers and sisters in Africa are so interested in being different and staying apart from each other, that they find it easier to keep other Africans out.
I saw a debate on TV during one of the World Economic Forums in Cape Town where an African entrepreneur was saying he had more difficulties as an African to move around in Africa than an American or European. So there is something backward about what we are doing as Africans, and the integration process should be about resolving these issues. For example, why should you find it more difficult as a Ghanaian to come to Rwanda than if you were Belgian or French? It beats me. I find it difficult to understand. So integration should reverse that kind of thing, it should not be there in the first place, and we are seeing it happening.
There is good progress in the East African region, among Burundi, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda. There have been some difficulties and concerns, but they are patiently moving forward and addressing the concerns. We have been telling people: “Okay, if you have concerns, let’s talk about them but let’s continue the momentum of integration. Especially when you have already noticed and seen the benefits. Having a common market of 140 million people is a great thing.”
So it is working. We have seen the regional infrastructure coming together. We have seen people moving freely in many parts of the subregion. We have seen it also happening in Southern Africa under SADC and COMESA, in West Africa under ECOWAS, and in Central Africa as well. Yes, there is a long way to go, but it is a work in progress. But in East Africa, it has been very impressive.
Q: Your government’s decision about three years ago to waive the normally frustrating visa procedures for all Africans visiting Rwanda has been hailed by many as the kind of practical action Africa needs at this point of regional and continental integration. When you meet your colleagues at the AU summits, do you ask them why they are not following Rwanda’s example of visa-on-arrival for all Africans?
A: Well, we tell them why we are doing it, rationally, but we are careful not to offend anyone.
Q: But why should it offend anyone when free movement for Africans is one of the most needed things on the continent today?
A: In fact we try to tell them that, having tested it over time, the visa-on-arrival system works. It has worked for us and has more benefits than any anticipated problems. I know their worries, but I show them how for us those worries have been demystified. You know some people think that crime will increase if free movement of Africans is allowed on the continent. First of all, it is in bad taste because the assumption is that Africans are criminals, and that there are more criminals in Africa than anywhere else.
But I tell them if there are any criminals they should be taken care of by the law. Second, the people they call criminals don’t need to travel to other African countries to commit crime if they are truly criminals. They will just stay where they are. How can we imagine that a criminal would want to travel from Country X in West Africa to Rwanda in order to commit a crime?
President Paul Kagame acknowledges cheers from supporters, as he looks ahead to the possibility of a third term led by his popularity among millions of those supporters.
Travel costs are expensive, and if they are the sophisticated criminals that we think they are, they will get a visa without us giving it to them anyway. They will always find a way to get a visa, either by paying for it somewhere or anything else to meet the visa requirements we set.
So I tell my colleague leaders that impeding Africans from easily obtaining visas to our countries has no basis. And worse, just being worried about Africans and not worried about Asians or Westerners or Latin Americans having easy access to our countries sounds dubious to me.
Q: Talking about integration puts the African Union at the center of Africa’s plans. Yet the AU relies on outsiders to pay for much of its programs, when we have 54 countries on this continent. Does this worry our leaders that we can’t pay for ourselves?
A: It should worry us, and I think the African countries that have the means to pay more, should do it. Even for countries like Rwanda, without so much in terms of what other people have, we try our best to make sure that we are up-to-date with our payments to the AU. Even if it means increasing individual country payments for a good cause, a common cause, we should try and pay up.
So again it is not so much the lack of means or financial resources as it is people not yet committing their full allegiance to the African cause, to say we can do it ourselves and we are capable of doing it ourselves. The mentality of rushing to receive gifts is not a good one. In the end we pay for it anyway.