By François Soudan, Romain Gras (The Africa Report)
Rwandan president Paul Kagame speaks on the next EU-AU summit, coups in Africa, security concerns in DRC and the thaw with Uganda, Israel in the AU, the presence of the Wagner group in Mali, access to vaccines…
Paul Kagame answered questions by videoconference from Kigali, two weeks before the summit between the European Union and the African Union (17 and 18 February in Brussels), a summit which the Rwandan President has worked to prepare alongside Emmanuel Macron, Macky Sall and Charles Michel.
Kagame been president for nearly twenty-two years. He is the interlocutor of Western governments for whom Rwanda is a pan-African player and a model of economic and social governance – but whose democratic performance is still the subject of strong criticism from NGOs and the media. Aged 64, he is now trying to “crack the armour”: tackle the image of an uncompromising man, devoid of empathy, for whom results count more than the means used to achieve them, statistics more than people.
Paul Kagame does not recognise himself in his detractors’ descriptions. This is what he explains in this interview, alongside broadsides on the major regional and pan-African issues of these first weeks of 2022.
You have actively worked on the preparation of the summit between the African Union and the European Union, scheduled for 17 and 18 February in Brussels. What do you expect from it?
Paul Kagame: Today, there are so many summits that, for some participants, it becomes a form of routine. They come more for the event itself than for the results that may come out of it. This summit gives us the opportunity to be more pragmatic. I am optimistic. The AU has understood, I think, that we have to do things differently.
Nearly $35bn have been spent on security in the DRC. What has been achieved?
The EU is on the same line. We appreciate the role played by President Emmanuel Macron, by Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, and by Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the Commission. Together with other European leaders, they have worked to ensure that this summit will bring about a positive change in relations between Africa and Europe.
The two continents share a difficult history. The best way forward is to look at the present and the future, to have a relationship based on mutual respect. Europe can be a good partner for Africa, and vice versa, but we have to do it differently.Africa InsightWake up to the essential with the Editor’s picks. Sign upAlso receive offers from The Africa ReportAlso receive offers from The Africa Report’s partners
One of the themes of the summit will be the link between governance and security. How do you see it?
Very strong. When you have good governance, you can deal with security problems. And when you tackle the causes of insecurity, you very quickly come across governance issues. So we have to solve these two problems simultaneously. We see today, in various parts of Africa and the world, that the difficulties of the populations, when they accumulate, are quickly exploited by extremist groups, whether they are religious or ethnic.
The DRC, for example, has been plagued by insecurity for many years. UN peacekeeping missions have been deployed there for more than 20 years. Nearly $35 billion has been spent. But for what results? We cannot continue to spend money without questioning the return on such an investment.
Within the UN or regional organisations, there should be a mechanism to ensure the effectiveness of this kind of operation. Some of us intend to talk about this during the summit.
Our real problem is not vaccine reluctance, but access to doses
On the issue of vaccine sharing, several of your African peers have denounced the selfish attitude of rich countries, even going so far as to speak of “vaccine apartheid”. Do you share their view?
Everyone is free to use the terms they deem appropriate. For my part, I prefer to talk about “vaccine inequality”. There has been no equitable distribution of vaccines, that is undeniable. While some countries have sufficient stocks to vaccinate the entire population, others have, for too long, received nothing at all. One way to solve this problem would be to give these neglected countries the means to make their own vaccines.
A recent survey by Africa CDC shows that 43% of respondents feel they are being used as guinea pigs by Western laboratories. How can we overcome the reluctance of a large part of the African population to be vaccinated?
This is a problem in many parts of the world, much more so than in Africa, although it is also a problem in Rwanda. But it’s an insignificant number of people. Our real problem is not vaccine reluctance: it’s access to the doses.
We are facing a pandemic to which we initially had no answer. Then science made it possible to create a vaccine. It doesn’t solve everything, there are always variants and new cases, but it helps us fight them. There will always be people who do not believe in science. But while respecting people’s beliefs, we can create a dialogue and make it clear that our best chance [to get through] is still the vaccine. The problem of access to doses will not disappear, however…
Israel’s observer status at the AU should not be a problem
Three years after your mandate at the head of the AU, are you satisfied with the implementation of the reforms you have undertaken?
We have made real progress. The formula we have found, whereby each country contributes its economic share to the AU budget, has enabled us to set up a peace fund of about $200 million. This could enable us to attract other funding, but first we needed an AU fund of our own so that we could not just beg other donors to help us.
On the other hand, we managed to reduce the number of commissions and posts in the organisation, and to launch the AfCFTA [African Continental Free Trade Area], which countries are embracing en masse because they understand its importance.
Some African countries have expressed their opposition to Israel being granted observer status at the AU. What do you think about this?
Every country has the right to have its own opinion on the subject. Some have no problem with Israel being granted observer status, others are opposed. My view is that, firstly, the decision taken by the AU Commission Chairperson, Moussa Faki, was procedurally correct. Secondly, Israel has diplomatic relations with 46 African countries, so granting observer status to the AU should not be a problem. Finally, what observer status offers is an opportunity for dialogue. This does not mean that the issues raised by some African countries no longer exist, but rather that they can be discussed with the parties concerned.
The AU’s insufficient capacity to manage crisis situations remains a weakness. This is undeniable.
The year 2021 was marked by three military coups, in Mali, Guinea and Sudan, and a civil war in Ethiopia. In each case, the AU has been almost silent and ineffective…
In the case of Ethiopia, the conflict could have been avoided, but it is now too late. We need an Ethiopia that is one and united in all its diversity. We therefore hope that a real dialogue will take place.
With regard to the three coups, I think that this type of event occurs above all because there are problems in these countries that have not been resolved for several years. This is the case of Sudan: there were problems under Omar al-Bashir, and they have remained since the transition.
This kind of situation is bound to recur, regardless of the position of the African Union, because the organisation is not meant to manage countries individually, let alone to solve long-standing problems.
Of course, the AU and the international community can provide support. But sometimes the countries concerned find their own solutions, and then foreign powers try to dictate their own. The African Union’s insufficient capacity to manage these situations remains a weakness, however.
How do you perceive the return of the military to the political scene? Is it a democratic regression?
It is, to some extent, the result of a failure of governance. It is not just the fault of the military, civilians also have a responsibility. Of course, it is not the role of the military to carry out this kind of action, but it cannot be ignored that in some cases civilians also commit questionable acts.
If under a civilian government the situation deteriorates and people die, problems pile up and the authorities use the military to rig elections, who is to blame when the military overthrows these governments? I find it inappropriate to criticise only the military and not blame the civilians who used them to stay in power. I guess it is from this kind of analysis that some people say that there are good and bad coups.
Then, even if the army finds justifications for its action and the civilians are initially satisfied with it, the question remains: are the military really working to put in place a transition to solve the problems that led them to make their coup? This is the situation we will be following closely in Guinea and Mali.
There should be a way for the AU and the EU to talk about the presence of the Wagner group in Mali
Do you think a coup d’état is impossible in Rwanda?
I don’t know, but let me put it another way. First of all, it is up to the Rwandans themselves to say what they think, knowing where we started from, what we did and what we are doing.
Secondly, I don’t see anything that could lead either the military or the civilians to a level of discontent and dissatisfaction that could lead to a coup. Our system of governance is, in my view, designed to meet the needs of the citizens. I don’t see any blame on myself or the institutions that would lead to such a situation.
The presence of the Russian Wagner group in the Central African Republic, Mozambique – where Rwanda is also present – and Mali is a matter of concern for France and the EU. It is also a major cause of conflict between France and the Malian authorities. Do you condemn the intervention of these private security groups in Africa, or do you think that their presence is a matter of state sovereignty?
African countries have to choose what is good for them and at the same time what is acceptable to the international community, of which we are all part.
I wish there was a way for two great powers like France and Russia to talk about it directly and solve the problem, because I don’t see how Rwanda could get involved without getting caught in a vice.
On our side, we do what we have to do and stay out of problems to which we cannot make a real contribution. Whatever government is in place in Mali, there should be a way for the AU and the EU to talk, especially about the issue of the Wagner group’s presence in that country.
Neither the DRC nor Uganda warned us about their joint intervention in North Kivu
Are you concerned about Uganda’s intervention in the DRC, in a region (North Kivu and Ituri) where there are many groups hostile to Rwanda?
The ADF [Allied Democratic Forces] terrorist group is a real problem, not only for Uganda. It affects the DRC and it affects us and the rest of the region. Within the ADF, there are Ugandans, Congolese, Rwandans, Burundians, Kenyans and Tanzanians.
Recently, we arrested terrorists here in Rwanda. Originally, these Rwandans were not directly linked to the ADF but rather affiliated with them. We found out that they were being trained and receiving instructions via video from someone based in the DRC and a Ugandan.
Our information is that they were planning to carry out attacks in Rwanda in revenge for our operation in Mozambique, in Cabo Delgado province. All of this shows that this is a problem for the whole region. To solve it effectively, there must be a regional effort.
Did President Félix Tshisekedi inform you of this intervention beforehand?
We were not informed either by the DRC or by Uganda. It was only after a month that we received explanations.
Moreover, before the intervention was made official, we ourselves were in discussion with the Congolese government, with whom we have a good working relationship and with whom we are still looking for solutions to the problems posed by certain groups in eastern DR Congo.
It is precisely because these movements want to destabilise our country that our interests in the region should not have been neglected. Because if the operation against the ADF is not properly conducted, it could strengthen these rebellions. There must be more discussion and cooperation.
I appreciate the words of President Museveni’s son. But the main thing is to come up with concrete solutions
In early November 2021, several attacks in North Kivu were attributed by the Congolese army to ex-M23s based in Rwanda. Doesn’t the presence of these former rebels on your soil fuel instability?
When the M23 disintegrated, some of its elements came to Rwanda, others went to Uganda, and others remained in Congo.
As for those who are in Rwanda, we have regularly discussed their fate with the government of Joseph Kabila, and then with that of Félix Tshisekedi. We made it clear [to our peers] that we had disarmed these people, that they had been put in camps, and that we had to monitor their activities. This situation has gone on too long. So we asked the Congolese to take them back, wherever they put them.
The Ugandans must have made the same request, as many M23 members are still at home. Some are also in camps, but one group, led by Sultani Makenga, has settled near the common border between the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda, on the Ugandan side. He has been there for two years and continues to carry out attacks in the DRC. We have talked to the Congolese authorities about this, and a verification team has been taken to the exact location of these elements. So to say that they are associated with Rwanda is nonsense.
Today, the DRC has to decide how it wants to handle this matter. Some of the rebels’ relatives are in the government in Kinshasa or live in the DRC. Moreover, the Congolese authorities themselves recognise that the M23 elements should be at home.
President Museveni’s son, General Kainerugaba, recently warned those who would fight you in a message. You have also received a Ugandan emissary. Is this the beginning of a reconciliation between Kampala and Kigali?
Any investor has to constantly evaluate what he is getting for the money he is spending. Yes, we are having discussions, but I am waiting to see if it is still worth investing. At the moment, I don’t see the result and I tell the emissaries I receive this. Some people are satisfied with official photos and see it as an end in itself. This is not my case. I appreciate the words of President Museveni’s son. But I hope that we can go beyond that and come up with concrete solutions.
I leave it to the justice system to deal with the Kabuga case in the way it deems most appropriate
Despite some signs of reconciliation, you have still not met your Burundian counterpart, Évariste Ndayishimiye. What is preventing this rapprochement from becoming a reality?
In my opinion, nothing. There is no problem between us. Our security officials and foreign ministers have seen each other. Our Prime Minister attended the inauguration of President Ndayishimiye. This meeting will take place at the appropriate time.
The trial of Félicien Kabuga for genocide and crimes against humanity is due to start in a few months in The Hague. Do you think that the countries that helped this man hide for 25 years should be considered accomplices?
I am not concerned about this issue. This problem has gone on for too many years. The fact that Kabuga is in the hands of justice is good enough. Many, many people were involved in his escape, but I leave it to the courts to deal with the case in the way they see fit.
Have you given up on the case of Agathe Habyarimana as part of your good relations with France?
I have not given up. Justice should be able to continue to move forward in this case as our relationship with France evolves. I don’t think that one of these cases should influence the other. They are complementary.
I don’t know yet whether I will be a candidate. But the Constitution allows me to do so
The presence in Niger of eight Rwandans accused of genocide, who have been acquitted or have served their sentences, has recently turned into an imbroglio. What is the status of this case?
The first lie in this story is to say that Rwanda was informed that these people were going to be taken to Niger. No one warned us! We only learned about it a few days after their arrival in Niamey. Why did you hide it if this transfer was normal?
The second problem is that nothing has been put in place to ensure that these individuals will not be involved in crimes similar to those they committed in the past. What we generally see is that they lead seemingly peaceful lives and then reconnect with the genocidaires they were involved with and resume their propaganda against Rwanda, as they did before. Does anyone find this normal? I don’t, but that’s the world we have to live in.
The trial of Paul Rusesabagina, sentenced last September by a Rwandan court to 25 years in prison for supporting a group that had committed acts of terrorism in Rwanda, has drawn criticism from the EU and the United States, which consider the procedure unfair. Why is Rwandan justice so criticised outside Rwanda?
The first question is why these countries are involved in this case. What this man has done is not acceptable in Rwanda, nor in the countries that defend him. In these countries, the most ‘democratic’, individuals who commit similar acts are heavily convicted, even shot or hanged, sometimes without trial. And it is these same countries that are pitying Rusesabagina today! No amount of lobbying will change the course of events.
His trial was public, not secret. So either people [who criticise us] are ignorant, or they choose to ignore the situation, or they are indifferent to the problems of others. They don’t even attack our judicial system. They are just asking that Rusesabagina be released, whether he is guilty or not.
The next presidential election is scheduled for 2024. Do you ever think about it?
I have to. Whether I get involved in it or not, it is part of my job. I must not only think about today, but also about tomorrow. I want Rwandans to be able to make their choice in 2024 and decide in peace.
Will you be a candidate?
Maybe, I don’t know yet. The Constitution allows me to do so.
Do you know a country where leaders have no detractors? If it exists, tell me
If your detractors are to be believed, you remain an icy, intractable president, and your power is vertical, without checks and balances. Are you tired of this regular criticism?
As with any of us, there is, on the one hand, what I am that I cannot change, and, on the other hand, a whole part of myself that I can work on. I can’t change the genetics. Maybe that’s why I’m seen as a cold person, I don’t know. But I’m always willing to work on the rest.
When I was young, I was extremely impatient. Over the years, I’ve learned that you have to take your time if you want to achieve your goals. I have learned to slow down, to do what is feasible at the right time and to delay when necessary.
Do you know of a country where presidents, ministers and business leaders have no detractors? If so, please tell me. I can’t wait to visit it! I know that these criticisms exist and that I am the object of them. But I also know that I am far from being the only one in this case.
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