Rwanda's President Paul Kagame (below) defies standard categorisation. Some see him as the greatest living African leader who has built a shining, virtually corruption-free nation of proud citizens from the ashes of the 1994 genocide; others say he rules with an iron fist and will brook no dissent. Some acclaim him as Mr Africa, articulating and implementing the continent's desires; others say he is divisive and at loggerheads with his neighbours. Who is the real Paul Kagame? Our Editor, Anver Versi visited Kigali recently to talk to the man.
I set off from Mombasa, Kenya, for my interview with Rwanda's President Paul Kagame just after Christmas. The traffic was a noisy confusion of heavy trucks, matatus and tuk tuks. Kigali, the Rwandan capital, was an astonishing study in contrast--not a pothole in sight, painted and beautifully tended verges and although traffic was heavy due to the holiday season, road discipline was immaculate.
The city was festooned in fairy lights to celebrate the festive season. It was a lovely welcome and told me immediately a great deal about what the people of this small nation think of themselves and their value systems.
My meeting with the President was scheduled for after the end of Umuganda. On the last Saturday of each month, all able-bodied Rwandans, including the Head of State, set out to clean and improve their neighbourhoods from 8.00am to 11.00am. Shops and businesses are closed during this period and traffic comes to a halt.
The result is a sparkling city, officially the cleanest in Africa and vying with Singapore as the cleanest in the world. The civic pride that people take in their surroundings is clear to see--made all the more valuable by the knowledge that it is all from their own efforts. It reinforces the sense of self-belief and confidence you will find among ordinary citizens in Rwanda, a faith that their destiny is indeed in their own hands and that even the seemingly impossible can be achieved.
Rwanda's rise from the genocide of 1994 has indeed entered history as an example of a resilience that is nothing short of miraculous. The economy has also risen from the ashes of that period to become one of the fastest-growing in Africa, hitting the high digits over the past few years. The first factory to make smartphones from scratch in Africa was opened in Kigali in October last year and given its reputation of zero corruption, there is a long line of investments in the pipeline.
While there is no doubt that the heroes and heroines of Rwanda's extraordinary redemption are the Rwandese themselves, there can be no side-lining the figure who halted the genocide 25 years ago and has overseen the country's remarkable transformation every step of the way: President Paul Kagame. He was elected for a third, 7-year term following a referendum on the constitutional time-limits in 2015.
Over my nearly four decades as Editor of New African and African Business magazines, I have closely observed and followed the careers of a host of African leaders--many of them remarkable people, but there is no doubt in my mind that Kagame seems to be cut from a totally different cloth.
He is a man of action rather than words; he believes in results rather than promises; he is pragmatic rather than idealistic; he eschews the trappings of power rather than cultivates them; he refuses to kowtow to big powers and insists on being treated as an equal; he has been a fierce defender of not only Rwandan but also African rights and aspirations in international fora; and he is proud to be an African and to celebrate the African genius in deeds and achievements rather than empty rhetoric.
Paul Kagame, dressed in simple civilian clothes, strides in briskly, has a firm handshake and gets down to business. He speaks softly, often pausing to emphasise a point. He has a quiet but sharp sense of humour, often slipping in an ironic twist.
Given the fact that year in, year out, Kagame is voted African of the Year' in numerous multinational polls and seems to have become a fixture in any 'Most Influential Africans' listing, I start by asking him whether the former colonial systems of governance, which most African countries have adopted lock, stock and barrel, are fit for purpose in dealing with the realities of post-independence Africa.
The governance systems in the West, for example, have evolved over centuries of struggle between different classes domestically and constant warfare externally and also reflect changes in social structures as a result of inventions and discoveries.
"Given that history," he says, "it's really up to Africans to try and make sense of this legacy and find out what parts of it fit their purpose to be able to obtain the transformation that we all want."
Transformation and development don't just happen, he argues. "They happen because first, people want them to happen." Secondly, one needs to understand the mechanics, the social, cultural and industrial set-up to bring about this transformation.
The laws, the rules and regulations and the ways of doing things established during colonial times served a very different purpose and needed to change at independence. "Post-independence, Africa has completely different ways of doing things, as defined in the context of the needs of African people and the continent," he says.
"This is why I always have a problem with people being made to just swallow wholesale things that they are told to do. These are not what they think they should be doing, or about the overall circumstances and context, but rather because somebody who used to be the master during the colonial period, thinks it is the right thing to do--therefore, it's what you must do!"
Here, while Kagame reflects the thinking of large sections of Africa's well-educated youth and intellectuals, he also hits a sore point. We are all well aware of African countries that rigidly toe the line from their former colonial masters and are terrified of deviating, even by an inch.
"There is a struggle, if you will, between different schools of thought about whether we should just follow the 'business as usual' line from colonial times--and the period immediately after independence--or whether we have to change and adjust to new situations. I think surely that should be the case."
What he finds most frustrating is that while there are those who believe that things must change and talk about it all the time, "when it comes to practice, you find nothing is happening in terms of what they preach. This may be human nature or perhaps this is how global interests in politics play out," he muses.
He explains that influences from the past and present continue to evolve in the light of current situations so "it's up to people, from each country--or better still as a continent--to keep coming together, getting closer in our thoughts and our beliefs about what needs to be done for this broader transformation that we talk so much about, to occur.
"We Africans have to walk the talk--we have to do the very things we say, or we know, are necessary to do, to get to where we want," he says.
Having raised this issue of the dichotomy between the rhetoric that rings out all over Africa in speech after speech, conference after conference, and the actual implementation that hardly ever follows, I wanted to hear his views on the perceived lack of confidence in African solutions to African problems.
Why is it, I asked...