In the midst of a crisis over an army rebellion in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which the United Nations has accused Rwanda of supporting, Rwandan President Paul Kagame allowed TIME unprecedented access into his working and daily life. Africa bureau chief Alex Perry interviewed Kagame four times over five days, at his office in Kigali, at home with his family and at a regional summit on the DRC in Kampala, for a total of seven hours. Excerpts:
TIME: I’m not here to portray you as a saint but I wonder how you assess the recent press coverage, calling you a despot and a dictator?
Kagame: I don’t want to be a saint. I don’t even attempt to be. It wouldn’t make any sense. It would divert me from my responsibilities. Concentrating on being a saint would end with me doing nothing that I was supposed to.
But reading the newspapers, watching the television, it has been really ridiculous. It has no sense of justice, fairness or logic. They are talking about the situation in Congo. But they are never talking about Congo; they are talking about Rwanda. Which betrays everything about their intention: not to pay attention to the problems of Congo, not to solve these problems, but to abuse and kick Rwanda. We have the U.N. now engaged for 10 years. They have thousands of soldiers in the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo]. The whole mission consumes $1.2 billion a year. But where are we after 10 years? How have you made not even a dent in Congo’s problems? The origin of the problem is linked to Rwanda – the FDLR [Democratic Liberation Forces for Rwanda] and genocidaires who live in the Congo and have been there now for 18 years. Have we come anywhere close to resolving that problem? Or should we just sit back and say that just by the mere presence of the international community and the UN, everything has been addressed?
These are enlightened people, people who always tell the world how well intentioned they are and how they want to see global security and fairness and justice and who are respected by all. And they are the ones who are turning everything upside down. This is the law of the jungle.
But bad as it is and shocking as it is, it is not surprising. It’s the same world we know, that we have come to try to understand how we might live in it, despite all the injustice and unfairness. It’s like living in a hurricane zone. The hurricane hits Rwanda and we take cover and hold our breath – and then it passes and we pick up the pieces and move on. We keep moving forward. We keep building our own lives.
(BEHIND THE STORY: TIME’s Alex Perry Discusses Rwandan President Paul Kagame)
TIME: What’s your response to the allegations of support to the M23?
Kagame: In March, after elections in Congo, we were being accused of being too close to Kabila. All of sudden it changed and we were No. 1 enemies. There was talk and press about how we must arrest CNDP [National Congress for the Defense of the People leader] Bosco Ntaganda. “He is dangerous. He has violated human rights to the highest level. He is a criminal.”
We said: “Wait a minute. If you are interested in this man, we do not mind or care, go and arrest him. You have forces in Congo. What does it have to do with us? Since we have Nkunda [Laurent Nkunda, former CNDP leader, detained by Rwanda in 2009 after Rwandan troops, with Congolese permission, intervened in eastern Congo to stop an earlier CNDP rebellion], we must also take this guy? Rwanda becomes a prison for fellows they throw out of Congo? Are you really saying that these people are not really Congolese but Rwandan?”
I actually called President Kabila on April 4 or 5.
I said: “We are getting a lot of people coming to us talking about the arrest of Bosco Ntaganda. Are you involved? You should be the one asking us?”
He tells me a story, how these people have also been coming to him. “I am not going to give Bosco Ntaganda to the ICC,” he says. “But Bosco Ntaganda is indisciplined and I want to arrest him.”
I said: “But why all this international outcry and pressure? Why don’t you send some officials that you trust and deal with the matter so that we don’t lose trust in what we are doing together.” Because we had already started discreetly deploying our forces. These forces were working with his people to hunt down the FDLR. We didn’t want to lose track of that.
So he sends people there. They asked if we can call the leadership of the M23 and our people accepted and they met just across the border in Rubenyi. And they [the M23] spelled out their problems. “They do not pay salaries. And we are hearing that the government and the international community wants to arrest Bosco Ntaganda. Ntaganda has flaws, but we think if they get Ntaganda, they will come for another, then another, then another. Some of our fighters have already disappeared. Is this all another way of eliminating us?” And the Congolese said: “Most of these things we are aware of and they are legitimate and we are sure the President will address it.”
Our people at that meeting kept insisting: “Address these legitimate issues. You need to avoid anything that will escalate these problems to a level where you have to turn against each other and start fighting because it is going to take us back maybe 10 years.” Because had good information that the CNDP was preparing to resist.
The next day President Kabila comes to Goma with money for the soldiers: $10 to this one, $5 to this one, $1 to this one. He says: “Now I have resolved the issues of salaries, I want Bosco put aside from the army. Understand that these issues have been resolved.” That’s when the fighting started. And I talked to Kabila again. He said: “We are seeing these things escalating.” And I said: “But President, you are the one escalating it.”
And all of a sudden an accusation comes up Rwanda is now supporting this M23, giving them weapons, uniforms. A number of them speaking English. They must be Rwandan. These stupid, wild things. And the whole world believes it. It goes to the Security Council. And the [U.N.] Group of Experts comes up with this whole thing… I’ve never seen such a stupid story like that. I do not think it’s because people are stupid. But I do think they want anything that implicates Rwanda, whether it is wrong or right. The M23 is [made up of] deserters. They go with their weapons, right? [Plus] the government soldiers were just running away and leaving weapons. The deserters were picking up what they wanted.
And the whole thing starts spinning out of control. We are trying to explain: “Look this is how this started, these are the facts.” But nobody is listening. They wanted Rwanda always to be seen as the culprit in the problems of Congo. Congo is a victim, always. The President, the government, everybody is a victim of Rwanda and Rwanda is the culprit. It doesn’t need a rational story, it doesn’t need facts or logic. It’s just how they want it.
TIME: Do you think that’s it?
Kagame: I can’t find any other explanation.
TIME: I read it like this. You come out of the genocide, which the world did not help you with. Then the genocidaires go to Congo, and the world feeds them. Then you have chaos in Congo for 18 years, the world puts its biggest ever peacekeeping force in – and it doesn’t work. And that builds in you a very robust self-determination. The flip side of that is that you question the world system [of international intervention] and the effectiveness of, say, the U.N. and the prerogative that an organization like Human Rights Watch assumes when it pronounces on human rights in Rwanda. You question what these people do for a living. You’re questioning their existence. Or you’re certainly questioning their right to define the narrative on Rwanda. And so it becomes a very personal fight.
Kagame: That is a very big part of it. Is this what the international system has been reduced to? Another question is: What’s wrong with self-determination? I understand some of these [aid] groups on the ground try to create an environment where they become indispensable. But how about countries? How do they not see?…