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: And your relationship with the M23 is what? You’re an interested party? You speak to everybody?

Kagame: Actually it is more in the minds of others. There is nothing like a relationship between us. It is in the minds of the Congolese and the minds of those associating with the Congolese against us. You see, some of these Congolese of Rwandese origin… There are blood relations. People having uncles, aunties. There is no way of policing it. I hear these stories of Afghanistan and Pakistan – it is blood relationships.

When we talk to Kinshasa government, we say: ‘You seem to be bent on wanting to resolve this militarily when this is actually a political problem.’ But in their minds, they were hell-bent on just saying, no, this is a military issue. They had units that had been trained by Belgians, South Africans – they really wanted to overrun. But they forgot: these are their own citizens, their own army. So when they insisted on wanting to solve it militarily, they failed miserably…

If we had not come to their [the Congolese] rescue, they [the CNDP] would have defeated them in 2009. In fact, you probably remember, they almost overran Goma. We thought, and the whole world thought, this is going to be catastrophic, with refugees and all kinds of people dying. [At that time] we really sent a very strong message to them. We said: ‘Look, we really have been trying to keep out of all this. But if you keep continuing to advance to Goma, we are going to step in on the side of government. And work with them to stop you. And actually fight you. Probably you don’t want us on the wrong side.’ And that stopped it.

This time, we stated right from the beginning: ‘We don’t have to come to that point. This is now a political issue that you need to solve politically.’ So when the government was defeated – and defeated by their own soldiers – they started saying: ‘Oh, these people, Rwanda…’ They were trying to find an explanation for this defeat. The whole army crumbling from within. They were saying: ‘No, we couldn’t have crumbled like this.’ They told the world it happened because a hidden hand came in with muscle and created this problem.’

How do you then say that it’s taking a superior force to defeat an enemy that is actually not fighting? It doesn’t take any force at all. The army is just not fighting. It is just running away. You cannot even say they have been defeated because they didn’t even try. People say: ‘Rwanda is supplying arms.’ No. We are not that generous to start supplying arms where they are not needed.

For this reason, we start calibrating our involvement. And pulling back. If anybody thought that by telling lies about us and trying to fix us, it was going to be an incentive for us to help, they got it terribly wrong. We will avoid doing the wrong thing in terms of taking sides in this conflict. There is no way anybody can force us, by saying: ‘You must help.’ We focus more on our problems. And if anybody crosses our border, they will find that we are not very kind.

TIME: Let me pick up on that, in a different context. You’re firm. Opposition groups, exiles make allegations that there are assassination teams wandering around trying to kill them, that when it comes to opposition, whether it’s expressed in journalism or politics, that Rwanda is a narrow space.

Kagame: We have a very narrow space for people who feel they are not accountable. If there anybody who thinks they are above the law, who thinks they are not accountable to the systems and the laws of this country, and if somebody thinks they can use any means for their political ends, they discover very quickly that this is not going to work. Some of things that happened here will never happen again.

Now, unfortunately, while I’m putting it this way, people build on it and say: ‘He is saying something else. It’s political space.’ But let me say this. If you look at all these people who are outside – all of them who are active, whether it is in South Africa, a couple in the US, and the others – there is not a single one who does not have a serious case, a charge here in Rwanda. In some cases, not even political, outright criminal. If we are going to have people out there claiming persecution of some kind but actually it is somebody running away from a case of, say, corruption, how does that become lack of political space? Nobody here who tried to have a different political view was punished for that.

This one in South Africa, [dissident General] Kayumba [Nyamwasa, former Rwandan army chief of staff, now living in self-imposed exile in South Africa, where two attempts have been made on his life] is saying in the press in South Africa, actually I was trying to make a coupe happen. If you have somebody out there saying ‘I wanted to carry out a coup,’ and later on he is shot, maybe he deserves it. Because a coup means he wanted to kill people here. You are really indicting yourself by saying ‘I wanted to kill people in order to make a change happen.’ It’s like you are really declaring war on a country.

Or take the former prosecutor-general [Gerald Gahima] who is in the United States. This fellow was involved in a gross case of corruption. He was a prosecutor general. He was in charge of an investigation of a bank that has serious issues and took money from the very bank he was investigating. The facts are there and in the end when he was found to have done that – and by his own admission, he used his mother’s name and stole millions – he did not even deny that… When this came out very clearly and he had just been appointed vice-president of the Supreme Court, we actually were obliged to fire him. He stayed a few days here and then escaped. And when he reached there, he says: ‘Oh, politics, RPF!’ It has nothing to do with lack of political space. It is lack of space for space for people to do corruption and I have no apologies for it.

When it come to other political activities, the Rwandan people have the verdict. When millions of Rwandans tell you something, there is no reason for you not to believe it. If they tell you: ‘We are happy with what we have and what we are doing, we are doing it freely…’

TIME: A much broader question. I sense in you that through your time in the RPF, then in government, you have become quite disappointed by … people.

Kagame: In a way, I expected things to be worse. I understood society very well from the beginning, I think, from long ago. That’s why I never get frustrated. Some of things that happen, however shocking, I expect them to be that way. I know people. I think I have understood this my whole life. Betrayals, lies, dishonesties.

TIME: That’s quite bleak.

Kagame: Society is like that. It’s not just here in Rwanda. People have asked me before this question of my life, before, as a soldier, as a commander, fighting battles, and my life in politics… and my simple answer is that the former, the soldier, the commander, these are extreme in a sense, they cause death, you can lose you life very easily. But on the other hand, things are predictable. They are clear-cut, you see? I tend to think this is easier to handle, to deal with, than politics, which has so many nuances, complexities, wrong turns. These are things that effect people beyond the borders. And things that if you get wrong, you can easily set the clock back. It’s very complex. You are dealing with the nitty gritty all the time, society, people, social, economic – their every way of life is effected by decisions you make, short, medium and long-term. It becomes more complex, more engaging, broader, it covers every part of life.

I think my think my kind of life has really prepared me for this. I was not meant to run away from problems. I just wanted to get up and move towards them. Not a problem at all.

These are for me more meaningful people than these people who write about human rights. I don’t think anybody in any human rights organization can claim to have contributed to human rights more than me. There is none. I have saved children, I have empowered women, I have actually fought repression and dictatorship and won over it and powered the people…. These people who talk about human rights, I don’t know what they mean. When I have enabled Rwandans to put food on the table and each can fend for themselves.

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