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: One of your innovations is to combine politics and military, to have a politicized army.

Kagame: We really tried to make the dividing line as thin as possible. In our struggle which, in a way mirrors some other struggles – like the one Fred [Rwigema] and I were involved in in Uganda; and also Ethiopia and Eritrea – it combines these two very well. It grows militarily from the masses, from ordinary civilians who from the beginning are part of the struggle. We always try to maintain this. This fighting capability we developed, we shared the lifeblood [with civilians]. One feeds the other.

Again, it’s really part of this whole philosophy of self-determination, being independent, making sure that the whole essence of the struggle is to make people more free, make them feel they participate in the decision-making, they share problems, they share solutions, they share the benefits together, all the time together. Happily it seems to have worked for us.

TIME: Can you see why people might say: ‘Here’s a political party that has a definite military edge. Here’s a political party with big interests in the economy. This looks like Stalinism.’ You’re saying there is a different, pragmatic explanation for this and people have never understood that.

Kagame: They have never understood. Much as we have tried to explain. That’s why sometimes the understanding of these things conflicts. And some of those who criticize, you find they do the same things in the West. I was asking how they raise money for their campaigns. Well, you find they have godfathers in business. Why wouldn’t any say: ‘But these parties are indebted to these individuals? Don’t they behind the scenes have to pay back? Is this any better?’

It all starts with people who think we have no right to be seen to be doing the right thing ourselves. It is like the world has decided to divide itself into two: the parts of the world that whatever they are doing is what is right and must set the pace for the rest of the world; and the rest of the world, which can only be doing the right thing if they are told what to do it by the other. But then this contradiction comes in. When you do similar things to others, for some reason they say: ‘No, no, no, you can’t be doing that.’ It’s as if it’s only for them.

TIME: You’re saying you came up with something new. You worked out what you thought was the best system for the country and the best way to achieve it – and it didn’t fit anything that came before. In fact, it deliberately drew on Rwandan culture and was specific to this place – and people who come here and try to spot another system are going to misunderstand it.

Kagame: Absolutely. We are sticking to what works for us. Sometimes we get caught up in some double-standards and hypocrisy. Some people will just criticize, even if what they are criticizing mirrors something they are doing themselves. They don’t want you to do it. They say it is not for you. Or they think it is not for you to be able to do it unless you have first had clearance from them. We have been very, very careful, building on our cultures and traditions, and also modernizing them.

We are also very, very conscious of the fact that we are not an island, and very conscious of these universal values and feelings.

But the fact that we are firm on insisting on what we are convinced is right for us causes a lot of discomfort for many. There are people who don’t expect us to argue, to present our case, to even try to convince. ‘We don’t expect this from you.’ It’s like: ‘We expect this and when we tell you this, that’s what you must be doing without any question.’ But if you are really talking about freedoms and values to uphold, then why don’t you listen to my viewpoint as well, why don’t you allow me to also express myself, why do you want to cut me short, why do you want to silence me?

TIME: Human Rights Watch characterizes you as a regime that’s intolerant of dissent. You are saying they are intolerant of your freedom to have an opinion.

Kagame: Absolutely. If you want to make me keep quiet, if you want to silence me and you want me to swallow what you are telling me and not listen, then you are exactly committing the same offense you are accusing me of. They say: ‘Rwanda continues to deny this and this. They should accept it.’ We should accept it because they are the ones saying it. In the end, they really indict themselves.

TIME: Can we go very specifically into the situation in Congo and the M23? How would you characterize your relationship with actors on the ground?

Kagame: Our story starts with 1990 when our struggle started, and then in 1994, when we had the genocide and refugees running to Congo. So that period, when Mobutu came in and helped [the genocidaires], from that time Rwanda found itself swallowed into this big mess of Congo. And then you have the history of the international community and how they messed up and meddled and did all kinds of things. They were feeding genocidaires, giving them help and food in camps that were militarized. They were calling them refugee camps and you would find anti-aircraft guns and APCs and all kinds of weaponry in the refugee camps. And the world wants to tell you these are refugees.

This is not something that people need to analyze or think hard about. But they try to convince people otherwise or even ignore. One failure was adding to another. This constant here for us, which always dragged us into this, was relating to this genocide history and the threat that is always there, one way or another, from these genocidaires. Whatever we have done, has been this. Either working with the government to try to deal with this, trying to deal with it ourselves when nobody is listening, the international community coming in and blaming Rwanda for everything – the whole history of Congo.

But of course there is this other angle. There are these Congolese of Rwandese origin. The way it plays out is very complex. I think even under Mobutu they have always been seen as kind of secondary citizens in that country. It’s like they really belong to Rwanda, they don’t belong there. So to an extent, the problem is attributed to us.

And really this messy international system has been part of it. You know, we gather a lot of intelligence on the ground in Congo. And until recently some of these people – in the media, the NGOs – were discussing among themselves and they were saying: ‘We really want to fix Rwanda. But we have failed. We have been failed by Congo. We are helping people who are incapable. We tried to fix Rwanda and do it for the benefit of Congo, but these Congolese they are useless, they run away, they can’t fight.’ Now they are trying to fight it and have another day with us again. It’s no longer the suffering of the people in Congo. It’s just this mess.

We try to manage it by drawing certain lines. Things happen the way they happen but there is a bottom line. There things for our own security, our own existence, we will not have. [In the late 1990s] when certain red lines were crossed, we had to take the bull by its horns, and in a very costly way, in a very, very costly way, with the whole world descending on us. We did what we needed to do and short of doing that, we would not be there today.

TIME: Because the allegations are so persistent, I do need you to state for me in your own words exactly what Rwanda’s actions are in Congo.

Kagame: This situation we are dealing with, we never thought we would have to come back it. We had created a good relationship with the Kinshasa government and, to an extent, succeeded. To a point that they had accepted our forces to go into Congo and work with their forces to eliminate this threat for us that has always been there. That the U.N. and others have forgotten all about, though their presence their today is premised on that.

So this was a very good relationship. This is why we’re really upset, to the point of being seriously offended. Things changed in a matter of days, maybe weeks, but really a very short time. All of a sudden some kind of wedge is being driven between the two countries. [What was a] security problem has grown in other dimensions. It is now political, diplomatic, it keeps feeding into these human rights groups, then the media.

We are trying to stay the course and say: ‘For us the problem has always been that nobody is going to come and sort out this problem. We only have to sort it out ourselves, and especially by working with the Congolese.’ Because we have gone back to almost where we started from. These [genocidaire] groups are now part and parcel of government forces. Yesterday we were hunting them down together, now they are back to the Congolese side. It’s so confusing, it keeps changing. But for us, we stay the course and say: ‘Our problem is this.’ We will work with the government to eliminate this problem. If something good happens for Congo, in the end we also benefit because Congo becomes more responsive to our problems and we work together and so on. But it takes two to tango. You may have the best intentions, you may have certain capacities to deal with issues but if there are issues you share with others people, it is just a 50-50 thing. There is no way you can do 100%.

Take this man, General Nkunda. We took on the burden. And you know, when we held him here, normally human rights groups would be very hard at us. ‘You are violating somebody’s rights, you are holding him.’ But they are quiet. Actually, they are happy. So they are sectarian themselves, in a sense.

[But our actions] can contribute to a bigger problem. By doing what we did, we allowed some sense of stability in eastern Congo and for government to build on from there – which they didn’t do, unfortunately. And they thought this was the way to solve their problems. Before we are done with this case [Nkunda], they want to bring another one [Ntaganda]. And maybe a third. It goes on like this. In the end, we turn out to be a prison for these Congolese which are not wanted by their own government. Why these so-called human rights groups don’t see that as a problem? It just indicts them.

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