Since you became African Union chairman, what are you most proud of [and] any regrets?
When I became chairman, some work was easier because I was building on some of the things that were already decided by the African leaders. The reforms we were to carry out came from the leaders when they were meeting here (in Kigali) in 2016. I was tasked and there was the team that supported me.
The achievement of the continental free trade area has been significant. Forty-nine countries have signed up. That is followed by ratification. To put it into effect requires 22 countries to ratify. So far we are at 18 or 19 countries, and we are hoping that the three or four countries might [sign soon].
We have also created a unified air transport market across Africa — opened the skies for airlines to operate from country to country across our continent
East African countries have problems implementing regional protocols. How will they implement continental ones?
We know there are problems. Those challenges should not discourage or hold us back because there are no other ways that you are going to apply where you will not meet challenges...you still want to push against them and see what progress you make.
What did you do to convince the rest of the African leaders to rally behind you on this free trade area?
Apart from applying all my personal efforts — and we had a very good team that we were working with — matters of trade and the African Continental free trade area were the responsibility of the President of Niger (Mahamadou Issoufou). He was the champion. I have been lucky in the sense that I have built on other people’s efforts
You have said the AU must benefit African people. How will the free trade area benefit the low of the lowest?
The continental free trade area allows seamless interactions and transactions. Of course, bigger companies will benefit more, but it really starts with these small companies, which represent the majority of our people on the ground.
So, this free trade area in a way answers to that problem for it touches the ordinary people who are trying to make ends meet through small business.
The open skies and African passport initiatives are supposed to support the free trade area. How have these gone?
I think there is progress. If you look at the East African region, we have already made some progress using an identity card to travel instead of being required to carry a passport or have visas. There is no way we are going to have the real integration unless we allow freedom of movement of people, goods and services.
You have always advocated for the AU to be self-financing. Some countries are reluctant to make a contribution from the imports levy you proposed. What is the way forward?
I don’t think we have seen many arguing against that self-financing principle. We can’t keep shelving everything, unless we are not serious about dealing with these problems. Self-financing means independence; getting rid of these people who finance everything for us and then come up with a whole list of demands that really go counter to the very principles we stand for or believe in.
When you took chairmanship, the AU theme was ‘fighting corruption together’. Do you think Africa has made any progress? What can African countries learn from Rwanda?
I would not be correct to say that you cannot find corruption in Rwanda and there is no situation which is corruption-free, because corruption is a complicated animal. But you can reduce it.
We have created an environment that tells us you are not free to get involved in corruption, and if you are caught, then accountability. We are holding everybody accountable and it doesn’t matter at what level.
You have talked about corruption and how it affects investments. How has Africa fared in attracting investments?
Africa hasn’t got sufficient investment money flowing to the continent. We should be having much more than we are getting.
Sometimes the investors will say there are issues of conflict, the corruption we are talking about, or governance generally not being conducive. In some cases, that is true. In other areas it is exaggerated, or there are double standards.
What is your view on Africa and the debt question?
There is nothing wrong with taking debt; it is part of the whole equation. If you are borrowing for productive purposes, where you gain and you are also able to make the payments, then it is a good thing.
China is about to auction some countries. What do you think about China’s relationship with Africa?
I am not an advocate of China, but I think people don’t need to attribute so many negatives to China that it doesn’t deserve. Why do I keep borrowing from you if in the end I am going to collapse under the weight of this debt?
The main accusers of China are on another side. They say China gives money to Africa without asking questions. But that means the ones accusing China don’t realise that China is very present in Africa because the Chinese are meeting needs that the others are not.
You have just assumed chairmanship of the East African Community (EAC). What are your plans?
The EAC exists and we want to strengthen it. My job is to work with other leaders. The last time we met in Arusha there was emphasis that we really need to take the ideals of the EAC to the people. They need to buy in, they need to understand it and own it, so that it is not just leaders talking about it.
Sometimes the East Africans don’t understand some things we talk about because they don’t experience it. EAC is about the feelings and experiences people get when they travel to other countries.
It can’t just be on paper, but practice. People want to do business, they have families in all these countries and if you stand in their way, it defeats the purpose.
You are taking over at a time when the issue of non-tariff-barriers is a frustration for the business community; the Economic Partnership Agreement with the European Union is still pending. Do you have any deliberate plans to address these issues?
Yes, we need to press hard. This is a matter that took a lot of time when we met in Arusha. We need to find a way around it where everybody is comfortable. You can’t be complaining about something and then you don’t want to discuss it. Then the problem is something else. I don’t think there is any problem that we can’t address.
The last EAC summit had a rich agenda...what did you agree on issues like the plastics ban and textile importation?
People were given tasks to do, either to investigate or put the information together and when we have the next sitting we will deal with them.
Do you think your chairmanship will be affected by the relationship between Rwanda and Burundi or Uganda?
Well, I don’t think so. If that is to be said of bad relations between Uganda and Rwanda, how then was it affecting Uganda’s chairmanship? You could start from there. If Uganda’s chairmanship was not being affected, then my chairmanship will not be affected.
But, seriously, whatever not-so-good relations between countries of the East African Community, there have been and there should continue to be efforts, to try and find out how to resolve whatever it is, so that this stops being in the way of good progress of the East African Community.
I cannot give you a formula but, in my mind, even before I became the chair, and even more so that I am chair, it’s on my mind.
I hope it’s also on the minds of other leaders — that, whatever it is, it is not necessary and it is not good for us.
We need to figure out how we can resolve those issues. And, at the same time, not allowing them to stand in the way of the progress we should be making as East Africans.
Surely there has to be a way of dealing with that. I’m sure the other leaders are thinking about [it]. I’m thinking about it for sure. We’re better than this. I think we can do better.
Do you think things are getting worse or improving between Uganda and Rwanda? I thought the two countries’ history would prevent such tensions?
Yes, there is a good foundation from which we should be building a very good relationship. There is no question about it. Therefore, it is very intriguing, to find that, even with that history and a good foundation, we have something like this going on. And it goes on every day, even as we speak.
It is hard to just put it in one word or even a few words. All I can say is that it’s a matter that can be resolved. That must be resolved. Because the alternative is not something that we should even be thinking about, or entertaining; that we can stand in the way of our own progress or the progress of all East Africans.
Because we have made so many pronouncements, we’ve made statements. When it comes to optics, to the microphones, we are saying the best things and the right things. But we should make an effort to do those things, not just say them.
It doesn’t hurt anyone to keep on trying. What hurts is keeping quiet. And of course things are not improving because of that. Because we’re not doing much. We have had discussions over this for two years, we can resolve them whether it is egos or just wishing that things should be bad.
Would you say the same of Burundi?
The same thing. Actually for Burundi, the situation is simpler and clearer. For example, when Burundi has publicly stated that Rwanda is its only problem. People make their own judgment. Let’s imagine that Rwanda does not exist, is it true that Burundi would not be having problems?
There are people charged with responsibilities for Burundi; President Benjamin Mkapa as facilitator and President Museveni as the mediator and then other East Africans, [and they] have not come up with much success to help Burundi solve their problems.
They could have said that they have found out that Burundi does not have any problems and that problem comes from outside.
….But President Pierre Nkurunziza said as much in his letter?
Yes, that is Nkurunziza, but for me I am trying to put the fact out there, and not defending Rwanda. I will not refer to what Nkurunziza has said, but those in-charge of solving the Burundi problems have not said the problem is Rwanda. If there are any problems coming from Rwanda, then they are not the main problem.
Did you recuse yourself from taking over from President Museveni as the mediator of the intra-Burundi talks?
Yes, it is still President Museveni doing it. For that matter, I said the problems should remain in the hands where it has been. I didn’t want this Burundi issue to stand in the way of anything, not even in the way of trying to resolve the problems of Burundi.
Because being conscious of what Burundi is using as pretext, then I don’t have to play in [their] hands. Let the people handling it continue handling it because East African matters a lot more than Burundi’s problem.
Is there a direct link between a Rwandan group in South Africa, the relations with Uganda, the relations with DRC?
With DR Congo, we have no problem. But between South Africa and ourselves, there are these matters that go around in the media. Some of the things that are said to be believed by Uganda about us, are coming from these individuals living in South Africa.
It is these individuals in South Africa plotting all kinds of things against us [and they] are the ones giving information to Uganda in a way to solicit support from Uganda against us.
Whether accurate or not, the information is designed to create that problem from which they benefit. If Uganda believes in some of these things, it is because they have made a choice to believe them.
We have raised these matters with Uganda; that when they are given information, it is because those people want to buy Uganda’s support.
Since you have many regional and continental issues to deal with, what keeps you awake in Rwanda?
I am only struggling to find time to sleep because of the burden of work. What keeps me awake is the whole history of the struggle for a purpose; a country we can build and advance.
How many hours do you sleep in night? Your officers stay awake because they expect a call anytime of the night.
On average, I make it six, sometimes five. I rarely, but sometimes, try to make it eight. It is true that sometimes I make calls when I wake up even in the middle of the night, depending on the urgency of the matter.
Do you think you could groom somebody to assist?
It is not that I don’t want to be assisted, but there are realities of the matter. Imagine moving from total destruction just 25 years ago! We are thinking about institutions, resources and leadership structures whether they are sufficiently in place. It has been a journey of ‘from nothing to something.’
It is now 25 years since the genocide against the Tutsi. How would you sum up the journey?
It has been extremely challenging but also extremely rewarding in the sense that I cannot see in the 25 years any wasted effort.
I can only say something has come out of it, probably more than we ever expected. So, the word all the time is that can we keep going. Every year brings new challenges, not only from within, but also from the world that we are part of. It changes so fast and we must cope with the changes.
Does the history explain the political system you have adopted here in Rwanda?
Yes, of course. The question of putting women at the centre of politics and economy and the politics of consensus trying to bring everybody in.
But critics say this system stifles democracy, stifles competition?
I don’t know what type of lives these critics live. They have a right to their lives, systems and I have no quarrel with that. I have to deal with my life; my situation.
We criticise ourselves in search of solutions, and this is how we arrive at some of these things we do. I have no quarrel with coming under scrutiny more than anyone. We are not insensitive to remarks made about us. At the end of the day it is our thing. Pay for your mistakes and gain from your efforts.
What do you do for leisure?
I play tennis, interact with people from Rwanda and outside. I have walked into restaurants and hotels to have a meal. I have fun like most people do.
Editor’s note:This interview was conducted before President Kagame handed the rotational African Union chair to his Egyptian counter-part Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on February 10, 2019.