Today, Rwanda marks the 20th commemoration of the genocide against the Tutsi, with the theme Remember, Unite, Renew. In the run-up to today’s events, Rwandan president Gen. Paul Kagame last Monday had a roundtable discussion with journalists from Canada, South Africa, Uganda, US, Kenya, France and Japan. Our political and investigations editor Felix Osike was there and below are the excerpts.
There is a lot of interest in Rwanda’s post-conflict reconstruction. Is genocide never going to happen again in Rwanda? Have you put in place mechanisms that will ensure that the country does not fall apart again?
From everything that happens, good or bad in one place, that should form lessons to other places where such might happen. I think bad things happened here and we are getting out of that history.
As we move out of it, as we learn our own lessons and build on them to develop our country, there are others learning from it. Precisely, for the last 20 years, we have been doing whatever is possible to make sure that tragic history does not repeat itself. For genocide to happen like it did is not an accident. It is bad politics; bad governance. It was not just Rwandan.
External factors contributed a lot to the build up to that genocide. What we have done is to make sure we build institutions and have a society that is educated on the basis of what has happened to us. I do not think it will repeat itself unless there is some madness that I cannot probably comprehend.
I guess the change and development in Rwanda impresses every visitor or people here. But in the meantime, development is happening without real political freedom. Do you think it is the wrong way to see the situation in Rwanda?
That is why I have problems sometimes with journalists or analysts. They just do not analyse. Many of those who say that have not been here. Having been here and you do not see or do not believe what you see is a problem.
At the same time, it is important that you ask Rwandans because this is happening in Rwanda.
Rwandans are the key players in this, so they must have a say. You do not hear it here, but you hear it out there. That is where it plays out all the time.
Why do think so?
Out there, there are people who think they have a right to decide for others or who think they know what is good for others. Out there, there will be people who will give you an impression about Rwanda today as they gave 15 or 20 years ago.
For them, nothing has changed about this place. Another ridiculous part of it is that out there, I see more criticism against Rwanda about the last 20 years than before that, which means the outside prefers the way things were done before genocide. It is just ridiculous.
Development cannot happen in a vacuum. Development is by the people. What you see here is done by Rwandans whom people later turn around and say they are not free, they are not democratic. But they are doing a good development. I just do not understand. I see it as ridiculous.
How has Rwanda been able to gain economic growth in the last 10 years?
Rwanda’s economic growth is based on many things. I think the tragedy Rwanda has gone through has been some kind of silver lining. It has energised people to think about getting out of this kind of situation.
Secondly, we have created a system where every person matters and every person contributes. At the end of the day, every individual gains.
If you scratch deeper, you will realise that it is not only the growth of 7-8% per year for the last 10 years that has been impressive. It is also how this growth has spread and impacted people’s lives.
For example, between 2006 and 2011, one million people were lifted out of poverty.
There are things we do not see immediately, but governance is part of it (Rwanda’s development) — how you govern to the benefit of society, which includes fighting corruption.
For every penny we spend, we make sure we have value for money; this is what fighting corruption means. If we put money in education, we follow up and make sure the value has been obtained. In everything we are doing, we embed a sense of accountability and make sure the input is this, the process is this and the outcome is this.
That is part of governance. This results into growth and development. That is why Rwanda has continued to grow.
President Kagame says the international community is partly to blame for the Rwandan genocide
What is your comment on the progress made by the UN International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda, given that they have spent much, but convicted only a few suspects?
There are things we have done here, you have heard of Gacaca courts. If you have one million people lost in the genocide, you understand that there is an equal number of people who committed the crime.
But how do you deal with the imperative of justice and at the same time reconcile a society? So justice and reconciliation start conflicting. We involved communities in dealing with issues of justice, mindful that we wanted to achieve reconciliation at the same time. And that is how Gacaca came about.
We put almost everything in the hands of the affected people and forgiving was taking place as well as holding people accountable. That allowed the society to move on. If we had gone for traditional justice, we would still be stuck with the problem.
We were attacked by the international community, saying Gacaca did not meet international standards. Is the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) which has used over $2b this far and convicted only 52 cases in 20 years supposed to be what meets international standards?. I just get confused about this.
You cannot be having over hundreds of thousands of people with responsibility and you try only 50 something in 20 years at such a cost and then you are telling me justice has been seen to be done. But Gacaca has processed close to if not over one million cases and allowed people to settle back in their rural areas to live with each other.
A young man in town commented that in 2017, if president Kagame steps down, he will run back to Uganda. Will you match the record of Jerry Rawlings who was persuaded to stay on but rejected the pleas and George Washington who refused to run for the third term? What is your response to the young man’s fears?
There are many things of course I am getting tired of but in any case, I cannot run away from it. It keeps coming up to me. Maybe it is part of the misery one has to face in this job. You gave the story of Rawlings and George Washington.
I hope you are also aware that you are talking about different contexts and circumstances and different times. They cannot apply the same in Ghana, US and Rwanda.
2017 is an issue of the constitution. If I had a contribution in this (constitution) it is almost like any other person’s contribution. I did not write the constitution. In fact, some of the things that I had wanted to be part of it never came to be.
Like which one?
For example, when it came to term of office, I had entirely debated publicly for a different issue. My position was five years, two terms, but it ended up being seven. I wonder why I am always asked because I am not the one who wrote this thing (constitution).
About this young man, I did not send him to tell you that. He is telling you that from his own analysis of the situation and maybe there are many others who are like that. There are others who think differently.
So in short, come 2017, I cannot say I have nothing to do with what comes out, at least at some point, because I am directly concerned and involved. There is a big part that is others; there is a small part that is me. Even if everyone agreed and said 2017 you are staying...
Refugees on their way back to Rwanda from Zaire after the genocide in January 1996
If they say that would you stay?
Everybody may say you are staying. What I am saying is: I have that small part where I can say ‘okay, I agree with you, maybe I see the sense you are making or I have that small part of saying: ‘I understand what you are saying and it makes a lot of sense, but at a personal level, I am not ready’.
And it has to play out. The problem I am trying to raise here is that it is not as if the decision on 2017 entirely rests on me. That is why that young man also told you this.
Because he has an opinion; but he has a role to play too. Maybe I will meet this young man, sit with him and try to convince him and say: ‘You know what, you can still be fine without me’.
Even if he may say ‘no, that is not true’, we can have a conversation. But the point we are making is that it is not as easy as we are discussing. It is very complex.
But still I am telling you I have my small part to also say ‘all this you are saying, even if it makes sense, it involves me, so can I say something?’ We still have at least two-and-a-half years to go.
So I wish I can be allowed some break and I do my job for the two-and-a-half years, then we will see what happens.
Do you think Rwanda can survive without Paul Kagame?
I think it better be ready to survive because even if in 2017 Kagame stayed, there will be another time when he will go. So there is no question about it. It is not an issue of ‘if’. It is a matter of ‘when’.
We have to invest to make sure that Rwanda does not survive because of one person. We have been making that investment.
That is why we are investing in women, youth, strengthening institutions, making fighting corruption a culture... It means going beyond one individual.
You talked about ICTR and the notion of international standards. Often, whenever your government is criticised, it seems difficult to accept criticism from the outside world. Does that mean that Rwanda does not make any mistakes?
The question should be asked the other way round. Does it mean the international community never makes mistakes? Because they expect that their criticism should be the point and must be taken by everybody, but they do not expect somebody else to argue back.
This is exactly where the problem lies. On one hand, they have been part of the problem, on the other, they want to distance themselves from the problem and only criticise.
You cannot create a situation that once the international community has said this, then you must accept. When I talked about external factors in our tragedy, it was not a simple matter - from the colonial history to other factors that happened later on.
We have come under fire from the international community for bringing out these facts because the international community wants to be seen like they are not to blame. T
hey are just people who must oversee everything, how dare you talk about them.
Relations between Rwanda and South Africa are shaky. What is the problem?
In the recent days, there have been ups and more downs in the relationship with South Africa, but we have maintained a good relationship on the big picture.
However, there have been incidents that are around the people who fled to South Africa and have lived there, and have from the sanctuary of South Africa, carried out activities that are directly affecting the security of our country.
In fact, we have had a number of injuries and death of our people inside Rwanda originating from these activities.
There is material evidence which is so implicating. We have shared this with the South African government and institutions, but overtime nothing was done and those activities continue.
This is what has mainly complicated the matters and of course around that, one of these people in 2010 had a problem. I think he (Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa) was shot and the trial is going on.
There is another one who was killed in South Africa (Patrick Karegeya), that even complicated the already very complicated situation and this has affected our relationship.
But why do you sometimes make declarations that seem to legitimise what has happened like in the case of Patrick Karegeya. In that case, what came first?
The very night this incident happened, one famous Sonia Rolley of Radio France International (RFI) even before some us got to know what had happened, she was the one on radio telling everybody how Rwanda had killed somebody. What follows is what different people in Rwanda say.
I said because people were building on what RFI had said — that Rwanda had killed somebody and given all kinds of interpretation- what follows is for us to put things in context.
We said, do you know that this person you are talking about that Rwanda has killed in South Africa, has been killing people in Rwanda? Which means we are saying please do not portray this person as an innocent person who has died.
You have every right to say they are bad guys. But what people did not understand is why you seemed, at one time, to legitimise the right to kill bad guys.
Even now, I would still do the same by saying nobody has a right to go and enjoy protection or security somewhere else while he kills Rwandans.
So you opened the door for people also to say...
I do not give a damn. I am not going to play on this nonsense of interpretation. My business is to protect Rwandans.
And my message is very clear, you cannot even in the public opinion or international opinion, kill Rwandans and then claim to have a right.
This man died. Whether he deserved it or not, who killed him, that is a different issue.
For me, I say what I want to say and have to say for my people, my country and even in my responsibility.
Therefore, I cannot have anybody dictating to me and telling me you know what, this person who was killing Rwandans and has been killed, how can you say something that indicates his death does not mean anything to you. No.
I will tell you that actually he should be dead. I have no sympathies.
So Mr President, you are not unhappy that Mr Karegeya is dead?
I am not even supposed to be unhappy. I am not unhappy.
But did Rwanda kill Mr Karegeya?
No. If you want to know whether it did or not, wait for what the investigations will say, then you can argue with that. But to just play around with suppositions about what Kagame thinks, is immaterial for me.
Whatever happens, however it happens, there are a number of things. I cannot and should not be held responsible.
Secondly, if I say something to highlight how bad this person has been and how he has been connected with what is happening here affecting the people of Rwanda, and have evidence for it like we do, there is nobody who has the right to question why we are not mourning somebody’s death.
I am not supposed to mourn the death of somebody who has been killing the people of Rwanda.
The recovery, healing process and reconciliation efforts in Rwanda have outpaced the ethnic past. How has this been achieved?
There are things we have done and there are things we haven’t done.
One thing we failed to do and we cannot take any credit for, was that we failed to prevent genocide and it shouldn’t have happened in the first place.
Whether we were there or not or whether we tried anything but we never succeeded - that is a gone thing. But that it happened and we did our best and we stopped it, then we had to act differently.
Even with the progress we have made, we are making it on the basis of lessons learned in the genocide, whatever the pressures.
I think the lesson to all of us and more so to those where it has not happened, people don’t have to wait until such a thing as a genocide happens to them in order to start doing the right thing. This is the best lesson people can learn from our situation.
They need to be looking at our case and looking at their own cases and saying what is it that can lead to genocide like that of Rwanda that we can see around us and then act early enough to make sure that it doesn’t happen to them.
The reconciliation and the pace at which we are moving are happening on the basis of lessons learnt. It is like yearly, we are being chased by a threat. We are being pursued by a threat. We don’t want the threat to catch up with us. This is what is contributing to the pace on reconciliation.
Let me say this. There is not a single family in Rwanda that would tell you it was never affected by genocide. This has contributed to getting us together to say we need to avoid this thing from happening again.
Coupled with leaders, the society moves fast and I think the healing process has taken root very fast, but with a caveat, are we where we want to be? Maybe by far not.
We cannot say we have overcome every aspect of this tragedy in 20 years when you know there are people who are struggling with what happened to them over 60 years ago including Europe.
The country has recorded remarkable outcomes in health and there is a health insurance system in operation. How has it been handled here?
Health Insurance here is something every Rwandan contributes to.
The poorest of our people contributes about 1,000 francs every year. We have designed it in such a way that those who have more, contribute more and at the same time those who have more and have contributed more in a sense, contribute to those who have less but also the government comes in. The government has been topping up for the poor who contribute 1,000 francs.
Initially there was an argument with our partners, the opinion which we rejected. The partners in development were telling us these are poor people, don’t ask them anything, just pay for them, in fact we will help you pay for them.
We said fine we appreciate your contribution and we will indeed take your contribution for top up, but the idea of every family contributing is not because we don’t realise that some people face hardship. But we are also dealing with a mentality problem in matters of our development.
If you make Rwandans think they can sit back and everything will be done for them, it is a bad mentality from the start. But we are saying those who have less or very little should contribute little.
But the moment they contribute even that little, they have a sense of pride, sense of ownership. In fact they work hard to go beyond even this contribution.
This is what we said and we found it is working very well. It is covering now beyond 80%, almost the entire population. On the ground, it has worked effectively in dealing with health problems. Everybody has access to health care and time as well.
Together with this, we have done other things, it is technology that is delivering and there is communication and intervention all the time. In the health system, we had also, in six months, trained 47,000 health care workers across the country.
These are voluntary. The only thing we gave them was low cost telephones like a one-time pay for them. Not only do this low cost mobile phones help them individually, but at the same time this is also something they connect with for health activities.
People can call them for intervention anytime they are needed and people still go about their own businesses. This is something they do part time and voluntarily. But it covers the whole country and it has been very effective.
A participant at the international conference on genocide in Kigali that took place on April 6, 2004, examines some of the weapons, including machetes and knives, used during the genocide
Sixty-four percent of the Parliament is filled with women. Was it clear from the beginning that women’s leadership would be so important?
It is not just about women leadership that we are pursuing.
There are many things. Women in leadership comes as a consequence or as one of the many things we have to look at. Even before we look at women in leadership, it is about women participation, it is about women’s rights. It is an issue of rights.
Sometimes we assume that commonsense is common but it is not. Because women constitute 52% of our population, I have never understood what wisdom there would be for people to say that let’s forget about 52% of our population and everything runs on the remaining 48%.It doesn’t make sense.
That is how it started from our earlier days of the struggle. It was about, can we involve all Rwandans in this process, and women for the fact that it is their right, and doing them a favour. It is an issue of giving them what belongs to them as a matter of right.
The second is that this is a social and economic factor that you think about 52% of our population being part of everything we are doing and, therefore, making their own contribution.
Because we were aware of that imbalance in history, that is how we took certain measures and put in the constitution certain provisions that would quickly fill the gap. But we started with one simple thing.
We looked at health and education of the women as a starting point to say, then will they be able to become effective participants in our socio- economic transformation.
That when they even go to position of leadership, they are not only capable technically, but they are also able in the sense that they have good health.
That makes them even more productive in the other role of leadership. That is what has been happening. It means what we have been doing over the years is working.
If you go to local administration, their involvement is around 40%, the judiciary is about the same or slightly more maybe coming to 45%, in business coming close to 40% it is about 38% and this all from almost a single digit percentage.
Something we are doing as matter of right common sense and something that benefits the well-being and development of our country.
What is your relationship with France currently, given their involvement before, during and after the genocide?
The relationship has been warm, lukewarm, sometimes sliding into cold and comes back to lukewarm, so we keep trying to make sure it is good.
There are many genocide cases in France. Our justice department has been engaging with the justice system in France. Our side believes France has got enough material to use to deal with these cases, and then it doesn’t deal with them.
Let me also show you the danger. Someone waits for 20 years to pass, and somebody has been sitting there everything is known about the case then you try this person today and sentence him to 22 years, you see the calculation.
I hope he (suspect) is not just going to serve two years because the other 20 the fellow has been free even when the case has been cleared. This is not serious.
Why did Rwanda change the official language from French to English?
It is part of that soul searching where we are looking at what is it that can work for me and on what basis and the opportunities.
If you look at it simply like this, Rwanda’s economy is more linked with the other three east African community countries Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.
Traditionally, all these years, whether we are speaking Japanese or French or Latin, this is a fact. We have nothing to do with it.
Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania speak English. Our imports, exports go through Dar es Salaam, or through Uganda and Kenya to Mombasa, this is how it has been for so long.
There is nothing you can do about it. If you want to do more business, you must speak their language. You cannot run away from it. Even if you didn’t like it, you are just forced to do it.
We had an opportunity in a sense. We had big Rwandese community that has been in exile for so long; tens, if not hundreds of thousands that lived in these countries. Therefore, they speak English.
That is why my French is very poor because I would meet people and they hear me speak English and they say we thought you spoke French .
The important thing is to educate them. After all, the majority of Rwandans don’t speak French or English, they do not know it. They just speak our own language.
For me, the reason was, I was a refugee in Uganda. I grew up there and I did not have the opportunity to study French, so that is how I came to speak English. If I had grown up in Zaire then or Congo maybe I would be speaking very good French.
It is like in my family, my wife was born in Burundi and grew up there and she happens to speak good French. So at least in the family we are bilingual, she speaks good French and even translates for me sometimes when I am stuck and I speak English . She is lucky she speaks both because she also lived in Kenya.
Because of this big community, which had learned English, those who came back after 1994, coupled with the fact that we do business more with EAC countries which speak English and let us be clear about it also, the world, the way it is, whether it is with technology or with business globally and internationally, there is more use of English than another language.
Again I cannot be held responsible for that. You won’t be able to do much business in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania by speaking French and that is where 90 % our business is. We didn’t abolish other languages which we all speak here.
A banner at the Genocide Memorial grounds in Kigali
What is your position on fast-tracking of political federation?
The customs union which we have already achieved is good for our economy and business and trade.
The other is creating a common market. The others are higher levels that serve that in wider sense- that is monetary union- thinking about currency that can serve the five countries, 135m people, then from there the next logical thing is a political federation.
So it is not easy to say we are time-bound you know on this date we should have this. Even if we may have this as the working time frame which guides us we always find it difficult to say the date we claimed should happen, is the date at which it happened.
So we have again to be realistic. There are many issues to overcome. One country, one part of East Africa is moving at a faster pace than the other, on one thing and the other one on another thing.
But we want to keep moving together even if some people are lagging behind in some cases. So there are many things to sort out.
Tanzania is against the fast-tracking; Uganda and Kenya are moving together for fast-tracking, where is Rwanda?
We have been saying let’s move.
Trauma still fresh for genocide survivors
The Rwandan genocide happened 20 years ago, but the trauma experienced by its survivors still lies close to the surface. Every April, a sadness falls over Kinyaya, a community of genocide survivors, home to Cecile Umurerwa.
“Each time in April, I feel very anxious and sick because I remember the genocide. It is like a film in front of me, because I can remember very well. There was nowhere to hide. We were sitting when the first group of killers came.
They told us to pray, that the next group would come within 15 minutes. After we prayed, the Interahamwe took us to Kabeza where they had dug many holes,” she said.
People pay their respects in front of dozens of coffins containing the remains of victims of the 1994 genocide
The Interahamwe (Hutu killers) forced Umurerwa and her children to the ground. They began shooting but soon ran out of bullets. Umurerwa and her younger sister were the only ones left alive.
The killers made a promise to return.
“They said those we have killed will serve as a mattress for our dead president, you will be the blanket. Instead of me staying alone, I thought, ‘let them kill me’. I have no reason to stay alive,” Umurerwa said.
But before the Interahamwe could come back, soldiers from the Rwandan Patriotic Front came to the rescue of found Umurerwa and her sister and brought them to an IDP camp.
Today, Umurerwa cares for five young people orphaned by the genocide in a home built for her by the government.
Two hours south of Umurerwa’s home in Kigali is the Murambi Genocide Memorial, another stark reminder of lives cut short.
A total of 45,000 Tutsis were killed over three days at the Murambi technical institute. Today, thousands of bodies have been exhumed and now lie covered in lime on desks in old classrooms.
Eric Gatabari, a guide at Murambi, lost his family during the genocide. Now he takes groups of school children through the site.
“Some Rwandans and other people, sometimes deny there was genocide of Rwandan Tutsis.
So that is why we have decided to preserve it, in order to educate the consequences of bad ideology and ethnic divisionism,” he said.
Gatabari said the memorial raises awareness in young Rwandans and ultimately promotes unity and reconciliation.