Behind the Story: TIME’s Alex Perry Discusses Rwandan President Paul Kagame

TIME’s Africa bureau chief, Alex Perry, talks about how he reported and wrote this week’s magazine story on controversial Rwandan President Paul Kagame

  • Share
  • Read Later
Dominic Nahr / Magnum for TIME

President of the Republic of Rwanda Paul Kagame arrives in Uganda to take part in the a Great Lakes summit in Entebbe, Uganda, Aug. 15, 2012.

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.

(MORE: Alex Perry’s Q&A with President Kagame)

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:

(MORE: Perry’s TIME Magazine Story on Kagame)

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.

(MORE: Rwanda’s Rebel Reformer: Paul Kagame)

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.

6 comments
Long Meingfah
Long Meingfah

Alex Perry's Qamp;A reads like a press release from Kagame's well-oiled PR machine... Kagame is never really challenged on anything attributed to him... and when an attempt is made to challenge him, it is a suspiciously superficial line of questioning... what a joke.

Zaberra
Zaberra

A joke? Never really challenged? The man is constantly asked to answer for what is happening in a country that should have solved its problems long ago if it were not too busy being run by corrupt, and insatiable officials. 

As if it is not enough to turned a failed state into a stable nation, and empower the most vulnerable members of its society in record time to be called a supporter of human rights, it is also not okay to agree with him on any decent point he has to make-if you do, you are brainless sympathizer...

Jesus give your pompous posterior a break! Sometimes people are digging in the wrong place and refuse to stop because they have already gone too deep to climb back out...that's the case with Rwanda.

Go check out Eastern Congo, and/or Rwanda, and then come back to criticize people like Alex Perry who actually do so...

JJ Okonda
JJ Okonda

Rwanda was not a fail state, it's only became a fail state when Kagame and his friends killed Abiarimana.  Soon and very soon history of Rwanda will be written not by the supporters of Kagame's regime but rather from the free people of the world.  Anyway, I only come into a conclusion that peace in Congo is a myth because someone like you in Washington keep praising the killer of millions.  Kagame is not a good president and he is going to end up like Mobutu.  Remember Mobutu was praised by the West until when he was no longer needed! The bible says, there is time for everything...

Kyongire
Kyongire

Yesterday, two another opposition party UDF Inkingi members in Western

province, Rutsiro district, Nyabirasi and Kivumu sectors are arrested

and charged to be members of opposition party. It is Mutuyimana Anselme

from Nyabirasi sector and Gasengayire Leonille from Kivumu sector. There

are detained by police at their respective sectors. What a shame to RPF! Zaberra, do you know about this story?

Long Meingfah
Long Meingfah

DRC is just the tip of the iceberg... add extrajudicial and politically motivated killings; suppression of opposition, political space, freedom of assembly and freedom of press and you have a little bit of the big picture.

Rwanda was not a failed stated before being invaded from Uganda.  Chaos was created due to the constant guerrilla warfare waged by Kagame and its accomplices from and supported by Uganda. 

Rwanda is an army with a state and it only "empowers" those who already have power or are in Kagame's inner-circle.  Mostly Tutsis who came from Uganda. 

Racepoint and/or BTP advisers couldn't have done better...

Zaberra
Zaberra

Long Meingfah, maybe I should not have been as abrasive in my earlier comments, my apologies. I now see by your response, that you may just be ill-informed as opposed to having actual malicious intent. 

When you say that: "Rwanda was not a failed stated before being invaded from Uganda.  Chaos was created due to the constant guerrilla warfare waged by Kagame and its accomplices from and supported by Uganda. "     you are failing to recognize the fact that the "invaders" were Rwandans themselves, (therefore the term invade does not really apply as it suggest a foreign force attempting to subdue another country) who were for decades denied the right to return to their own country. You are also failing to recognize that the government that was "invaded" regularly massacred its own citizens, Tutsis living in Rwanda at the time, innocent civilians, not only politicians, but also simple farmers, school children, AND Hutus who opposed those in power at the time. It is therefore far too simplistic to assume Rwanda was "invaded" by Tutsis and everything went downhill from there. It is clear for those who were there before AND after 1994, that the country has come a long way from its dark history of polarizing the population along ethnic lines for the benefit of a few power hungry people. If Kagame was only empowering a few, recognized figures such as the drop in infant mortality, the highest number of women in parliament, and universal healthcare would be non-existent. Have you taken this information into your blaming account?As for freedom of assembly, and of the press, I believe any "free" nation would not allow/encourage the gathering of terrorist elements, or support widespread publication of hate-filled propaganda. Imagine the New York Times printing a piece titled-Why Al-Qaeda Was Right- and going on to defend its attacks on the country, or even "Why Racism was the way to go". That would not happen in a million years. Perhaps a few low traffic blogs are allowed to float under the radar with this kind of deplorable messages, but this is not freedom of speech, its recognizing that such disgraceful opinions are kept at minimum and at the far margins of society, therefore making it unlikely to invite or cause serious harm to American citizens. When such sites are linked to terrorist attacks, they are immediately shut down.Rwanda has suffered a terrible genocide due to poverty, lack of education, and a very well oiled propaganda machine, if any country should have the right to closely monitor its media, and major news publications, it should be this one. Please keep an open mind, it is too easy to play the blame game, and in this case, it all seems to rest on one man, who serves as a convenient scapegoat for everything that goes wrong in a region where far too many players have far too much at stake.