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: Very few critiques of Rwanda’s actions in Congo fail to claim that Rwanda has large business interest in the east, including farms and mines. Is that true?

Kagame: I do not know and I really do not care. What right do other companies from China, America and wherever have to be in Congo that companies from Rwanda do not have? There are companies there from all over the world. We are probably the first country in the world to be accused of being guilty of having an economic interest somewhere. That’s common practice. How can we be guilty of that?

The relationship between Congo and Rwanda has been there since time immemorial. Why has it suddenly become strange? There is a lot that goes on between us. It’s not about trade or smuggling. It’s a blood relationship. To say this is all about Rwanda’s business interests is very simplistic. People who go to do business in Congo do not have to ask me, just as people who come from Congo do not have to ask me. They are saying Bosco Ntaganda has a house in Kigali. So what? I don’t know anything about that. But I do know that there are ministers in Kabila’s government who also have houses here. Congolese investment here because it is safe here. We have a lot of foreigners coming here and building houses. Maybe, if you looked carefully, you would find that Kabila himself has a house here. I don’t know. But I would not be bothered. We do not differentiate when it comes to money unless it is money that you killed people for or money that is questionable. But if you invest here, what’s the problem?

Who’s making such accusations? The same people. They say: “That’s how Rwanda earns a living. By being in Congo.” And all along this – mobilizing support for their side, raising money for their campaign – it’s actually an economic interest for them. It’s actually how they make a living. So I don’t even understand the meaning of the accusation.

You see, independence for us is in a very broad, including economic independence. The RPF has companies involved in businesses. It’s not something that started yesterday. It’s something that originated with the beginning of the struggle. We mobilized people, they made contributions towards the struggle, people would give us much as they had or could afford. We said: “We cannot just keep drawing money without making sure we do something to actually multiply this money, making it more dependable and sustainable.” In fact, when we took over in 1994, we ran the government here with money collected by the RPF. There was literally nothing here. That’s how we started created economic activities for the country and our companies improved themselves and made business. Many people have talked so much about the source of our wealth but for us it has that meaning. It may not make sense to some people but it makes a lot of sense to us. We have no apologies for it at all. We only have to make sure there is no mix-up [between] what belongs to the RPF and what belongs to the state, to avoid any conflict of interest. And all along what we did was for them to invest in certain areas where other people were shy to put their money so that we achieve another objective: to really stimulate and start another activity which should benefit the country

And if Rwanda’s interest really is economic, as people say, why not call Rwanda’s bluff? Deal with the security problem. Then Rwanda would have nothing to hide behind. Our problem in Congo for 18 years has been a security problem. You are saying we’re interested because of economics. Deal with the security so that it does not exist and then we can all see what crimes we are committing in our economic interests.

These are things that play into how the international system is built. It’s anything goes. It’s no longer justice, it’s no longer fair or has any level of honesty. It’s just the law of the jungle. I am not trying to say that things are clearly black or white, that the developed world is wrong and that the developing world is right. It doesn’t happen that way. Even with the grievances with how the situation is mismanaged and misdirected, even with all these people to blame, whether in human rights groups or governments or as individuals, I still think there are those who are really doing their best, who are adjusting very well to this new dynamic of wanting to see things differently. People are shifting and looking at things differently.

But there are others out there – bureaucrats – who do not want to step away from the old ways of thinking. It’s that attitude of looking at Africa as people who must get in shape and who must be punished when they try to deviate from what has been established as right. We still have many people who think like this. They are continuing with their way of being influential in terms of decision makers and making decisions. They put pressure on the Prime Ministers or secretaries of development to act against Rwanda, and in some cases it becomes effective.

We should not accept to be treated like this. And the best way to resist is not just saying ‘No’ but also to be doing what is right. That will defend you more than just making claims of sovereignty. We must govern and lead our people and do what is right. We have to put our house in order in order to claim our rightful place. We cannot just claim the place. We have to earn it. We do not expect anybody to hand anything to us, At least, I don’t. And then, over and above that, assert ourselves. If we do not fight corruption and govern well, we have no ground to stand and say: “Do not treat me like this.”

That’s why in Rwanda we can comfortably resist. Our people are with us. When you attack one, you attack us all. The rest of the world tries to create discord. They try to make claims and bring divisions among us along the lines of ethnicity. But they have failed. They do not know how far we have gone in our history. They try to bring the country to its knees but they have not succeeded. When people mistreat us, there has not been much success.

I take consolation from that. What you see happening in Rwanda, it’s part of our struggle and our ideology. Everyone in Rwanda shares the view of how we should lead our lives. With self-respect, and respecting others as well, and knowing that nothing comes easily. We fight these battles together. We are really together in this. I have played a part in this but it has developed its own dynamic, a life of its own – it can continue without me.

And with all these challenges, these injustices, I have found they tend to strengthen us rather than weaken us. Out there people are even angrier. People are saying: “What does the world want with us? Why don’t they leave us alone to live our lives?” So I think we are left stronger.

TIME: How significant are the aid cuts?

Kagame: There has been much excitement in the media. But it’s suspension of nothing, really. The Americans suspended $200,000. And the media blows it up and says: “America has turned against Rwanda.” There is jubilation. They wanted to give the world the impression. “We have got Rwanda where we wanted it.” But it’s not true. It’s $200,000 for one year. This is really silly. In fact, this is money that they owe us because for two sequential years they did not pay us. It’s really ridiculous.

TIME: When do you think Rwanda will be able to leave behind aid and move towards, as you see it, true independence?

Kagame: I can’t put a clear date on it. But looking at where we have come from, in another 10 years we should be close to that. We won’t have achieved it but I think we will be very close. As I said, we are stronger every day.

TIME: And that’s a core objective for you?

Kagame: Yes, it is. It not only makes people more independent, it actually puts them in a position where they are stronger in their beliefs, committed to them, and more advanced in things they demand of us. More democratic governance – it will be more entrenched. Prosperity will be more visible. People’s ability to really determine their destiny will become clearer. It’s very important. It’s not the life anybody deserves to live, a life that is controlled by somebody else or somewhere else.

TIME: Your experience of the struggle, you say, makes you stronger. But such an unprecedented struggle, it must have broken some people.

Kagame: Not so significantly. What I see is actually more determination. You go through rural areas and people say: ‘What is this I am hearing on the radio? What do these people want with us? Why don’t they leave us alone?’ It has this effect. I do not think it’s just me feeling like this. Even if it was, I try as much as possible to transmit it. And I have found a good reception.

If you look at Rwandan blogs, when these aid cuts were announced, they set up a fund to replace the aid. They use SMS to collect the money. We are perhaps running into a few million already. This is just self-generated by Rwandans across the world. It shows you, even if it does not promise much money, the idea is something interesting.

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