If you look at a map of Africa you could be forgiven for assuming that the actions of the President of the tiny, landlocked country of Rwanda are not hugely consequential on the international stage. After all, Rwanda is a country just 1% the size of its neighbor, the Democratic Republic of Congo. But Rwanda’s President, Paul Kagame, is a political actor of great importance for the whole continent. Most importantly, he is a key playmaker in the politics of central Africa. And it’s for his actions in that role that he is increasingly the target of criticism from the West, from organizations like Human Rights Watch to aid donors and governments, including those of the U.S. and Britain.
Eighteen years after defeating the genocidal militias who murdered 800,000 fellow Rwandans, mostly of a different ethnicity from theirs, in 100 days, the perception of Kagame’s leadership among many Western officials and governments has shifted from one of a celebrated visionary to that of a calculating autocrat waging a proxy war in neighboring territories. The turning point came in June, when a U.N. report into Rwanda’s involvement in the ongoing conflict in eastern Congo directly accused the Rwandan military of backing a rebel group with an appalling human-rights record and whose leader has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on war-crimes charges.
TIME’s Africa bureau chief, Alex Perry, spent several hours with Kagame over five days in early August. In his magazine story (available to subscribers here), which is the cover of TIME in Africa this week, Perry asks a key question: Has the man once heralded around the world as a savior of his people turned into a despot who is fueling a war for his and his country’s own gain? But Perry asks other important questions also, about the West’s own troubling history in Africa and its complicated relationship with a continent whose economic and political power is growing every year.
Before he could sit down with Kagame, however, Perry first set about seeing for himself what exactly the situation on the ground in eastern Congo was. The region has long suffered from instability and man-made humanitarian disasters, of which the rebellion allegedly supported by Rwanda is only the latest.
Perry’s journey, which took him across the surprisingly lush lands of rebel country to the new frontiers of modern Africa in Kigali, suggests that the lens through which Rwanda’s story has been told has long been commanded by aid agencies and international organizations who may not be the best guides for Africa as it steadily rises out of its years of sometimes overwhelming problems. TIME spoke with Perry to reveal the story behind the story:
Why did you want to interview Paul Kagame, of all Africa’s leaders, at this point?
I’ve spoken with him more often than I have any other African leader, and he is one of the most interesting leaders on the continent. There are also some really big themes here: the story of Africa rising is one I have covered since arriving here in 2006. Rwanda’s success on this front coupled with this particular controversy draws those big themes in. And importantly, Kagame wants to talk about this stuff. The trigger point for finally doing this story came when countries started cutting aid to Rwanda. I wrote to my editor as well as to Kagame’s people, and within days I was there on the ground in Kigali.
How do you go about arranging access to a world leader?
As I’ve interviewed Kagame before they knew I was sincere in my interest. I sent an e-mail to his press secretary, and they responded yes straight away, asking when I could come. It took a few more e-mails to establish the schedule, and they were very open with access.
Were there any limitations in what you could and could not ask?
I certainly felt no problems with access. Whenever I have spoken to Kagame, interviews have gone on for much longer than I thought. I had the opportunity to interview many people around him, including his children. He knew we would talk to everyone and isn’t afraid of that. He is a man who is sure of his position and sure he is right — he is pretty convinced therefore that you are going to see the same things that he sees.
You also traveled to rebel territory in eastern Congo. What was that like?
Getting into a rebel area, for journalists at least, is a fairly normal thing to do. I met up with a fixer I have worked with many times before, Albert, a local journalist in the city of Goma. He drove across to pick me up following my journey through Rwanda, and we crossed into the territory together. Congo is chaos; you cross the border from a fairly conventional-looking country to people walking around with rocket-propelled-grenade launchers. That doesn’t mean there aren’t systems that work — you need someone like Albert who knows who is who. He has every commander’s number on speed dial. We stayed in territory controlled by the rebels, who call themselves the M23, for two or three nights. I was not going for a hugely long trip, rather to answer one main question: Were the Rwandans there? It’s also a small area made up of one main road that you could drive the length of in a day. We interviewed around 15 or 20 people, including local villagers. They are not unused to press there — this problem goes back many years, and there used to be many NGOs and U.N. people on the ground.
Did you speak with many international organizations on the ground there?
We bumped into one Red Cross team while we were there; there were not many of them around. It is always good to get on the ground to confirm things; aid agencies are not always neutral. I did deliberately do all the rounds though, spoke with everyone involved, from Human Rights Watch to the U.S. and the E.U. One thing I found striking is how personal this fight has become, how if you took the heat out of it, all these people could perhaps resolve this in a few minutes. It has almost become a fight for identity. For the Rwandans, especially, it is about self-determination.
You drank sorghum beer with some of the rebels. What does it taste like?
Kind of like normal beer, actually. But the beer smell stays on you for far longer.
Did you find that you changed your position on Kagame when working on the story?
I almost always discover something new that makes me write a different story. It’s proof of the value of getting on the ground and finding something out for yourself. In this case, it was getting to the bottom of Rwanda’s involvement — I didn’t know how that was going to go. What most surprised me was how, in the end, both sides were able to present these plausible yet alternating explanations for the same set of events.
What were your impressions of Kagame as a man rather than a political leader?
The real revelation was how close he is with his family — and how much strength he draws from them. Kagame makes an unfortunate first impression; he often wears suits and has this heavy intellectual air. But actually, seeing him in jeans and a T-shirt, joking around at home about how boring international summits are or about his trip to the London Olympics, you see a man that you wouldn’t have known existed.
(MORE: An Interview with Kagame in 2010)
It sounds like you agreed with Kagame a lot. Do you feel you gave him an easy ride?
I had a lot of time with him, so didn’t feel the need to ask aggressive questions. My style is not to go crashing in there like a boulder. I’ve done that in the past, and it shuts people up, and you are not going to find out what you need. I often say as little as I can. But there were many tough questions to ask here — I had to ask him about his precise relationship with the M23 at least three times. As to whether it was an easy ride, it is something the readers will have to decide.