Q&A: Rwandan President Paul Kagame

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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.

TIME: Most NGOs absolutely concur with the right to self-determination. They talk about it all the time. In theory, you and they agree. What happens is that that kind of discussion is naturally quite heated, quite emotional.

Kagame: Yes it’s emotional, it becomes personal. But I just don’t understand how the rest of the world also gets deceived. And I want to say: we are not going to abandon these years of self-determination or self-respect, of survival and living for our people and our country just because there are people who are getting personal. It will come and go. It won’t stop our way of life. If anybody is questioning our determination to stay the course… This is about overcoming our past, having a decent living for our people. It’s an issue of our rights. [After all] what’s the alternative? People who have given up and surrendered and accept being treated the way they are treated – the way people want to treat us – what have they gained from it? We are better off.

TIME: A lot of people ask: “Why react like that?” After all, Human Right Watch does reports on every government in the world and plenty ignore it.

Kagame: These powerful countries can ignore it and get away with it. Nobody threatens them. But for us it is a different situation. They are building on our weak position as Rwanda or as Africa. The issue of aid comes in. We need to explain ourselves, otherwise we end up in very had shape. I’m not saying that if asomebody is doing something wrong, they should not write about it. But if you are seen to be selective and pursue an objective rather than deal with human rights violations, then it will shatter your credibility. People will think you’re not serious. This woman at the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva, [Navi] Pillay, says: “These M23 are dangerous people. These leaders, they recruit children…” But the FARDC [Congolese army] kill children. They are among the worst abusers. But everyone keeps quiet about it. [And what about these] people [the M23] with legitimate grievances who stand up to their own murderous government, a government which is killing their own people. This is an imbalance in the system.

TIME: I know you realize that if you didn’t react, there would less headlines. But you’re making a point here, right?

Kagame: It is a question of principle. If you keep writing about me in the papers that this is a violator of human rights, and the story of my country and my people is totally different—and it is repeated by people – then it is a question of the right of response.

But it’s not just about principle. This narrative ends up at the UN, even with action taken on it. It turns into a fact and some kind of actionable thing. This has consequences. And I should keep quiet? No. It doesn’t make sense.

TIME: I have a theory: the institutions and structures of world opinion and the international community are set up for an Africa of disaster, of famine, of wars. It’s about peacekeeping, it’s about saving babies, it’s about pointing out where governments are failing. And I wonder whether those structures are poorly adjusted to dealing with a country that demands respect and sovereignty and the choice to tell its own story?

Kagame: You are really putting it in the right way. This is the matter. Look at aid. We agree that it is about helping people to stand on their own. But at the same time [it works out that] they actually they fail to stand on their own. They are dependent.

So you have two tracks. [The international community] talk about self-determination. Human Rights Watch says we are all on the same page. But at the same time it is very clear that you are also creating a situation that undermines all of that. That is what Rwanda is facing. Should Rwanda accept it and say this is the way the international community works and we remain where we are? We say: “No. We have a respect for the international system. But we also have our own self-respect.

Time has already shown the results. You know this place. You know where we have come from. We are making good progress. Even the poorest of the poor will tell you we are in a different place than we were yesterday. From $1 a day we are now $3 or 4 or 5 or 6. And this has happened under this kind of pressure, this jostling between self-determination versus the international system, which says: “There are some people who should stay where they are and we are the only ones who can determine how and why they get out of this.” It’s a struggle every day.

TIME: Are you more able to confront the West as the world becomes less unipolar?

Kagame: Oh yes, absolutely. This old way of doing things is weakening. There are more countries, more people, who are seeing it the way we describe it. And even getting more angry about it and wanting really to challenge. What we are doing, we are not doing it alone. It’s a common thing that’s spreading, particularly among the ordinary people of Africa, civil society and business leaders. They think we are being treated unfairly, we are getting a raw deal, we need to be better than this, we need to be seen to be better and more capable.

I also think we are seeing more centers of strength, political, economic or otherwise. It’s not longer just unipolar, with one part of the world having everything and deciding everything for others. The ground is really being fairly and speedily leveled through innovation, entrepreneurship, technology – all these things are falling in the hands of many, globally. It’s no longer a monopoly of one part of the world.

TIME: One thing that accompanies that diversifying of power is the emergence of the idea that there are different ways to progress. Singapore or China or Turkey follow a different political system to classic Western democracy. Does that apply to you as well?

Kagame: Always it’s a matter of time and process, and an issue of where you start from. In our case, we started from a very low base on everything. We have got to take everything forward and we prefer doing that all together. We haven’t chosen socioeconomic transformation at the expense of democratic governance. We need to make progress on everything at the same time. People imagine that we emphasize one at the expense of the other. But it’s not true. In our case, most of the successes we have had in socioeconomic transformation would not have happened if it was not integrated with the democratic governance that built on people’s right and freedoms. Socioeconomic transformation cannot happen by coercing people to do it. People here tell you how much they are part of the development taking place, how much they are part and parcel of the decision-making, how much they have benefitted. I see no better way of achieving what we have achieved.

When there are reports from outside, there are two messages. That there is significant, good progress, on all fronts. Others see socioeconomic progress at the expense of freedoms. But where are the lack of freedoms? The Western model, whatever it is, I think they are talking about people. If we are doing what people are happy with and are part of, how can what is happening here be without freedom?

TIME: You do draw a line, on political freedom with people who might want to start another genocide, though.

Kagame: In any country, even if it is an advanced democracy, everything is contextual. What was happening in America 100 years is not what is happening there now. If you look at America today, some people have become disillusioned and skeptical. They say: “Phurr… politics! These leaders of ours.” They talk about “Washington.” Even the leaders from Washington are bashing Washington. Sometimes they don’t even want to cast their ballot.

In 2003 or 2010, [in our elections], our turnout was 96-97%. Why? The West says: “These fellows must be on the backs of people.” But can you imagine somebody in hospital begging and saying: “Please bring the ballot box here because I want to vote?” Somebody going to the polling station holding their IV drip because he has the urge to vote? By midday it was all done, 100%. How do you equate that with “Phurr… Go to vote? Why?” You cannot expect things to happen in the same way there as they happen here. It does not make sense, it has no logic. There are different stages. However, there are principles. If you are able to say that you are answering to the wishes of the people, is it the best thing for them at this time, then you have reason to believe: “Yes. This is how it should happen.”

TIME: What do you make of the aid cuts that have come in the wake of the Congo controversy?

Kagame: It’s mainly symbolic. And it’s not cuts, it’s suspension. People excitedly are writing all kinds of things and betraying their attitudes and wishes. They are celebrating, thinking Rwanda is now dead. “This should have happened long ago.” But the story I want to talk about is slightly different. How has all this happened?

It has happened on account of the Group of Experts’ report. But look at it. The Group of Experts wrote a report that is entirely one-sided. Most of it is the government of Congo, military leaders, government officials and different groups. They wrote a report condemning Rwanda and making Rwanda responsible for everything that went wrong there. The UN hurriedly put it out and Rwanda was crucified. The donors jumped on it. They pronounced the suspending [of aid] – really wanting to punish Rwanda for it.

At the end of it, when things cool down, we say: “Aren’t you being unfair? You hear from one side and then you shift the blame on the other side you have not even bothered to hear from. Is it right? If you really wanted to condemn Rwanda, at least try to disguise it. At least you must be seen to have been fair, trying to ask both sides. Why don’t you give us a hearing? You have already judged us and condemned us.” And they send their experts here but at a time when we have already been condemned and sentenced. What on earth is this? Why do you want to hear from me now, when everything that would have happened has actually happened? The full report is likely to come out in November. But I don’t see this Group of Experts changing what they wrote about us just because they heard from us. I think that what they are likely to do is to maintain that they were right. Because they cannot be seen to have made a mistake. The whole thing is just cosmetic. The whole international system is awash with so many blunders and errors.

This so-called free world of ours… When you see how these facts being ignored –we wonder which free world we live in. You, you want to dig out facts. But probably you might be the only one in a thousand.

TIME: The great joy and sad truth about covering Africa is that getting a scoop is really easy – because nobody’s out there. You’re actually catching Western journalism at quite a weak moment. There are cuts. There are not many people around. Most the stories you’re talking about are done from London or New York, without a single Rwandan quoted or any mention of the genocide.

Kagame: These people were coming to us, telling us we had to stop Bosco Ntaganda, posing as people who have values and want to defend human rights. And I ask: “Do you ever feel guilty or foolish that you come to me to talk about this recent problem of Ntaganda and keep quiet about these murderers of our own people in that same situation? These people are living there, raping there, killing Congolese people every day, killing children. You keep quiet. You have forgotten all about that. And you come to me, telling me to help?” This is just an insult, you know?

In Congo, if you look at the government, the President, his ministers, on the radio urging Congolese to kill these Tutsis. To some people it’s normal. Even to these people who are telling us about human rights. It’s normal because it’s Congolese and it’s normal because it’s against these Tutsis. In the end, those who say they are on the side of the victims have turned into perpetrators. It’s pathetic.

From our side of things, there are things we want to live for and are ready to die for. There are things we cannot deviate from. The issue of our rights. We have sunk to the lowest level, we can’t go lower. You cannot threaten us. There is no threat anywhere that can change our minds about how we should be and how we should fight for our rights. People can threaten this or that but we have had worse things. We will do what we feel and what we believe. We cannot be diverted. We have not offended anybody. We haven’t fought anybody’s interests or rights. It’s just about how we survive, how we live on. And nobody is going to do it for us. Nobody is going to do it for us.

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