Kagame: I am not authoritarian and I have nothing to apologise for

Monday May 24 2010

President Paul Kagame speaks during the

President Paul Kagame speaks during the interview. Courtesy photo.  

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, in the second and last part of his exclusive interview with Monitor Managing Editor Daniel Kalinaki, speaks about his son joining the army, denies being authoritarian, and hints at stepping down after his next term in office. Excerpts:-

What are the key ingredients to building a fair and democratic system of accountability?
Rules and norms have to be in place and we have to make sure that they actually work. The fairness, the democratic nature of these processes will always be as good as applying them is concerned or as the people who are operating in these institutions. If I am sitting in this place today as the President, if my job is not to make sure that there’s creation of these institutions and systems of accountability and make sure they work fairly then I am not doing my job.

If I am here sitting and thinking that these systems and institutions will try those who are not my friends but when it comes to my friends or my relatives then we should try to make sure that nothing happens, then there is something terribly wrong. But you’ll have leaders at different levels who respect that and others who don’t respect it. The challenge mainly lies with leaders; these ordinary people are always the ones bearing the brunt of accountability.

You’ll find cases involving corruption, for example, that where there was wrongdoing they go for those smaller people but how about the minister or the permanent secretary who was actually behind it?

Do you feel, looking at your own experience and the way you came in to power, that leaders who come into a country whose systems have collapsed need to use their political capital at the time when they don’t have to be subject to renewal of authority, to actually use what has been termed as authoritarianism to get systems in place and do you feel that you’ve had to do that?

You see in getting a fair analysis it is difficult to probably give a clear definition of this authoritarianism. If you start by saying there are no laws in place, there are no institutions in place then let’s put them in place and then people get together.


Most of these things that we have created, the institutions and the laws and everything actually have always been generated from a consensus, from bringing people together. Now how can this be authoritarian? Thinking about what needs to be done and then galvanising people around it and mobilising people to give their views and then you decide the outcome. This is what has happened.

Two, once these things are in place, if I say, you are a minister, there are these accusations; the institutions we put there, the auditor general’s report is saying this, the police that investigated the case is saying this, the ordinary people are saying this, what do you have say about it?

There is a tendency to create difficulty in dividing the line between what is authoritarian and what is working. But I think here, it is more in people’s minds than in reality. Now because this is something you are used to, how do you try a general, how do you try a minister? These are powerful people. In the politics of Africa, you don’t tamper. When this comes up, it’s like; this Kagame, he is not giving people breathing space!
When an ordinary person is being looked for for having broken into somebody’s house and he escapes and crosses the borders and runs into Uganda to his relatives, that doesn’t make headlines but when the general who should be held accountable gets to know about that and escapes it makes headlines.

In my view people are just deliberately blurring these lines over accountability with authoritarianism. I don’t think a matter of authoritarianism has arisen other than me sitting here and insisting that accountability be upheld on the basis of what the country has agreed in terms of rules and laws and norms that govern us.

When you look back at your life story are there incidents that confirm to you what righteous path to take when it comes to such issues?
I’ve lived a mixed kind of life but the kind of life I’ve lived and my nature as a person have informed each other and come together to make me who I am. From my childhood, I’ve always grown up with hate for what injustice presents or has presented to me personally or I have seen presented to others.

From childhood, even at primary school, you ask people who I lived with; I’d always be there to say something or to fight for the weak. It is not something that I’ve had to learn from somewhere. I have always had it in me to always say no or why. And again when it comes to responsibility it’s built on this. I will ask questions. I will want to be sure that it is fair or just and I’ll always strive to be as honest as I can.

I am who I am, I do what I do and in many cases, if not all, I don’t do things I later on come to apologise. If there is a mistake I’ve made and recognise that, I won’t hesitate to say sorry but if it is something I am convinced about, it doesn’t matter how you crack at me, I won’t feel sorry about it. I feel there is that that drives and informs my actions that I feel I have nothing to apologise for and I feel firm about it and I will be honest about it and that’s my life.

You are on course to win another seven-year term in office; will this be your last term in office and do you plan to now start to oversee a process of putting up systems that can outlive you?
Yes I have always had the desire to be of good service to my people, to my country and in the end, really to myself as a person and one of the things I’d love to see our country achieve is to have stability and have this foundation on which people come and go and stability stays and institutions stay. If ultimately I could be of good service in this way and contribute to that happening that’s one of the things I’d be proud of.

Yes there are term limits; there are terms set by the Constitution and respecting that and not respecting that either way has consequences, and have a bearing to what and how a country overall comes out in future.

I’ll want to be the one that I am in making the right thing happen and also respecting the views of the people of this country and understanding very well the circumstances and context in which we operate. So I really have no reasons not to believe that the right thing, fitting me and most important the country and the people. So the rest will be judged by what happens then.

Will handing over power to an elected successor be one of the legacies of your term in office?
That’s what I was pointing at, that’s actually what I meant when I said making sure there is a good firm foundation where things happen irrespective of the individual. Absolutely that.

You’ve done many good things while in office; is there an area or something that you think you failed to do or could have done better or differently with the benefit of hindsight?

Not until probably I am told this by the people I serve. I would prefer they judge me finally either openly, privately or otherwise but I don’t find much to blame myself on may be except my feeling that sometimes I have tried to push harder than I should, given the reality of the situation.

In some cases people have felt hurt by it but I feel there is always good intention and honesty behind what I’ve been trying to do and I wish the rest to judge me and I even prefer to be silent about the final outcome and let people who were the recipients or victims or beneficiaries of my efforts and energies speak for themselves and at that time I will be silent about it and I won’t argue about it.
I want at some point to sit down and recall and write in detail about this life, about the pleasure of serving my people and the interpretation of all that has happened.

Many people, when asked, always say their families come first but obviously these are not presidents, they don’t have countries to save. What comes first for you; the country or the family?

That’s a difficult question. I would rather say they are together; I feel passionate about both of them. I don’t want to put one so far above the other because I feel that even when I am serving my country that I am so passionate about I still in my mind have a place for passion for my family so they kind of get mixed up but my family in a sense that I feel responsibility for it, I feel love for it, I feel it is part of me, very much part of me so I don’t leave it behind when I am serving my country.

In fact I find that my family becomes part of the energy I have in doing other things, when serving my country but there is again no moment I feel I am only part of my country and not part of my country, that’s why drawing the line is very difficult.

If any of your children sought your advice on whether to join the army or politics, what would you tell them?
I would tell them to be free and make their choices but that they should be informed choices and they are free to exercise what they feel happy and be passionate about it as long as its not the wrong kind of thing. I don’t want to decide for them, finally what they become. Today I happen to have one of my children, my son, my firstborn, studying at West Point, a military academy in the United States. What I liked about that and I am just happy for him is that he was able to make that choice because making it there is also not simple, on his own. That is of pleasure to me and shows early signs that if things keep well he will be a productive person for himself and for the society.

Will you encourage your son to serve his country for instance in the army?
There should be no reason why he can’t do that. In any case after the academy they’ll come and serve.

Is that something that would make you proud as father?
Absolutely! I will be very happy and if he serves well I will even be happier.

What’s one thing you enjoy most being president?
It gives me privilege, the honour and the opportunity to achieve the best for my country. That being there, making that contribution and not somebody there making it on my behalf, is something I feel gives great pleasure and privilege and pride to me that I wouldn’t miss this opportunity to give my best for my country.

It involves a lot of time and energy, it might even tear you to pieces but that feeling keeps me going much as it keeps me away from my family, it takes me away from private life, there are many things I could do but can’t do so you know I have to make sacrifices.

Is there anyone, dead or living, who inspires you?
I don’t know if I would sound strange, weird or funny on this but to be honest there are people I appreciate, leaders I’ve known, I have associated with, I’ve read about. Let me give an example of Mwalimu Nyerere; if you ask me on the continent the person I appreciate or appreciated, I find a lot in him that I feel proud about for him. There are many others, the obvious ones like Nelson Mandela and others but it never occurs to me that I would like to be like them or be them. No, I just learn so much about them and appreciate them but I have always wanted to be myself and the best I can be in my own circumstances.

It is important to know about them and learn a thing or two from them but in the end I have been shaped more by the problems I have lived through and the challenges I have faced than thinking about or trying to become somebody else or just imitate somebody else.

The election seems to be a straightforward affair. Do you feel that it is simply a referendum on your regime?
There are people going to stand. There are other candidates [from] parties that are allied to us that have decided to front their candidates. And I respect that. It is healthy. It will make it more lively and competitive. They have occupied their better place than being always tied with us or even than allowing the likes of Ingabires to occupy the vacuum.
For just exercising some argument, imagine if Alice Lakwena was still alive and she offered herself as a presidential candidate in Uganda! I wonder if the laws and rules would have let her be. This whole attitude, I link it to how people see us; [that] the Ingabires and Lakwenas are African leaders, fit to lead Africa… We should have better people coming up as opposition. Let opposition or the ones in power be the right people, the right Africans to compete for power and to help the countries move forward. I find it cynical and sarcastic for Africa to be reduced to this.

Aren’t we willing participants by always playing to foreign donors rather than domestic constituencies?
We are willing participants and the mistake is primarily ours. I sometimes also want to blame our governments. We do things that belittle or degrade us. If you are in power, the way you exercise it also matters. Do we feel we are doing the right thing to even raise ourselves to the standard or even create a situation where some of these opposition groups, fit or not fit, become people who have to seek these benefactors. It comes from all sides and that’s where the challenge is.

Some people have argued that in Africa there is an oversupply of democracy and inadequate demand for accountability and democracy. Do you agree?
This is where the issue of accountability matters so much. There is lack of accountability. People take power and use it anyhow. They feel they are the only ones to dispense justice and everything else. Every other day they feel they should be the ones to be there and not anybody else.

Is there dialogue on these matters at the heads of state level maybe through the African Union or NEPAD?
It is very difficult to do it at that level because you are having all kinds of people including those who want to be defensive about it. And then it comes in –who are you to tell me that, I know more about my place, etc. But there is a good attempt through other channels like NEPAD peer review mechanism. There is a sense of wanting to hold ourselves and each other accountable but it faces a lot of difficulties.

How much does the fear of a repeat of genocide drive you to try and do the right thing?
It is part of it. For me, it is part of saying, are we the same people who should have come to this? And why? It belittles all of us. It is so cheap. How do we become a people that would be reduced to this? If this ever visited us again, who do we blame other than ourselves and what is it that is so different about us from others who are so proud of themselves?

Why can’t we be the kind of people who have self-belief and pride in ourselves to achieve what we deserve and we deserve better than this. How can we be the people that would be reduced to this rubble and devastation? Why? Did we deserve it? Do we deserve to be here where we are? I am even angered by being in such poverty and our people being poor. Why can’t we get out of it? We are in it, we have been in it but why? Why do others get out of it but we can’t? It is always a constant question and reminder that comes to my mind. Even if I hand over to other people I will leave a written message and say please ask yourself this question. Can’t we get out of this place? How have others done it? What is it that we are missing and we should have and move on?

Are you optimistic or just hopeful for the continent?
It’s a cautious optimism. There are cases that will give you hope, there are others that you keep wondering why.

On DR Congo you took a decision to reconcile rather than confront, was that the right decision?

It is not a recent decision but an old decision which never worked for us. We only came to confront where dialogue had not worked. But now that it worked, the good results can speak for themselves. Better late than never. We were late to be doing what we are doing today. But that we have come to it is something we should be happy about and only try to get the best out of it.

What about with Uganda?
I think we are happily getting along together. We can always even continue to do better.

Even at the personal level [with President Museveni], is there progress there?
I think there is good progress. We want to continue and encourage it. For very obvious reasons; for the benefits of it. The healthy benefits not only for the two countries and but also for the region.