Breaking bread with the President

Monday July 12 2010

President Kagame, wife Jeannette and their children. Photo/COURTESY

President Kagame, wife Jeannette and their children. Photo/COURTESY 


On the evening of June 18, I ran into an old friend in the lobby of the Serena Hotel in Kigali.

Looking astonished, he asked; “My God, what are you doing here; aren’t they going to arrest you?”

It all started with my column in The EastAfrican, which an editor who can squeeze wine out of rock gave the title “There’s something rotten in the state of Rwanda” (April 26-May 2, 2010).

It got the attention of the Rwanda government, and it responded with several rebuttals and an interview by Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo.

My friend was surprised to see me there, because the common view is that President Paul Kagame eats critical journalists for breakfast.

I had, so to speak, taken myself into the lion’s den.

Of course not. I have covered the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Army/Front since late 1990 when they were in the bush fighting to return home.

And they have squabbled many times with me over my reporting of Rwanda while I was still at The Monitor in Kampala.

However, like the proverbial mangy dog, I kept showing up at their doorstep with my notebook and tape recorder. It paid off.

It gave me valuable access during the war, and over the years offered me glimpses into one of the most fascinating — as well as troubling — African political stories.

President Kagame’s take on reading my article was that I, of all journalists, should know better.

So I was in Kigali, among other things, to check how much the landscape had changed since I was last there, and to hear his side of the story.

I had been told in an advance of leaving Nairobi that President Kagame was not looking just to have an interview.

He wanted a no-holds-barred debate on both my, and the international media’s, view of Rwanda today.

Moreover, The EastAfrican article wasn’t the only one on the table.

There were other articles I had written that had appeared elsewhere in the international media where I had argued that the many things that Kagame had pioneered were a product of the 1994 genocide in which nearly one million people, mainly Tutsi, were butchered — and the fact that he is Tutsi.

My argument was that because he is Tutsi, his government’s admittedly impressive delivery on public services was a partly a “bribe” to the Hutu majority to accept Tutsi-dominated RPF rule.

Secondly, that precisely because of the genocide, the price of failure (and therefore possible collapse of the RPF) would be too high — possibly another genocide.

That very high penalty for failure drove Kagame to try to succeed as president, basically as a strategy to avert a future genocide.

Now, many leaders would not be too concerned by such a fine splitting of hairs. But it is revealing about Kagame that he was.

His view, as he sent an emissary to tell me, was that he and the ruling RPF, like all other African leaders and parties, had a choice.

That they are not just robots merely responding to the forces of history.

You can see where Kagame is headed with this.

His view is that human beings can break through the prison of history; that if the genocide was caused by tribal politics run amok, it was possible to deliberately choose to build a different society – one that rises above ethnicity.

If we explain away everything as a result of historical forces, then it means you cannot give people who choose successful options credit for it — and you cannot blame those who fail or do wrong.

Therefore, to understand Rwanda today, one needs to also understand Kagame the man, how his mindset is reflected in the RPF, and what the Rwanda society the RPF is building says about the delicate “Tutsi-Hutu pact” which underlies everything in this country. So, we shall begin with Kagame.

It is said that if you don’t like Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, then don’t visit him privately, because he will impress the shirt off your back — or charm the blouse off your chest.

Likewise, if you detest Kagame, don’t go to Rwanda, because it is very likely to make a deep impression on you, or, at worst, leave you ambivalent.

There are strong elements of former South African president Thabo Mbeki and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi (whose works the Rwanda president says he admires) in Kagame.

He has Mbeki’s distaste for platform politics and campaigning, and loves policy wonking.

And Zenawi’s no-drama approach, sternness, and cocky self-assurance.

And I think he is the president who has a greater addiction to his Blackberry than US President Barack Obama.

As the day wears on, he can barely spend 10 minutes without laying his keyboard-happy fingers on it and checking the flood of e-mails and alerts that come to it.

Little has changed about Kagame since he was an officer in President Museveni’s rebel movement, the National Resistance Army, and subsequently an officer in Military Intelligence after it took power in Uganda in 1986; and since I used to interview him when he was leading the Rwanda rebellion in the bush.

He has probably not added a kilo, and remains the tall, thin, 6 fit 2inch unexcitable man he was.

Only his spectacles are more elegant, and suits better cut.

But he is still fond of his khaki trousers, polo shirts and T-shirts, sneakers, and baseball cap.

On the Sunday when we meet, he is in a faded polo T-shirt, sneakers and corduroys.

His Muhazi home must have one of the best lakeside views in Rwanda.

The original building in the compound that was done in the late 1990s is an upscaled African hut. It is one of a kind.

The ceiling was sewn by a group of women weavers.

It is a massive upturned basket that had to be hoisted in place by some kind of crane. It is finished off inside with matting.

Kagame says it is a hugely popular house with the many VIP guests who troop to his farm — particularly Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

The computer billionaire so loved the house, Kagame says he offered him “anything” for it.

Another fan of Muhazi is former US president Bill Clinton.

“I think Clinton has been here twice,” Kagame says in a matter-of-tone. So has former British prime minister Tony Blair.

Kagame is a popular guest at the Fortune 500 company events in the US, and quite a few of them have visited him.

So far, so good. However, one gets the sense that because he is so admired and has close personal relationships with some of the most influential and richest people in the world, Kagame has a contempt for the “mob” – human-rights organisations, journalists, and other “busybodies” who dismiss him as a dictator because they don’t have the do-it, go-getter attitude of his friends.

That, and the support of the “ordinary Rwandan people” as he likes to put it. He believes he has this under wraps.

The jury is still out, but even for a cynic, the changes that have happened in many areas of Rwanda since 1994 cannot be sneered at.

For example, between 1962 and 1994 when the RPF took power, Rwandan universities had graduated a total of 1,926 students.

In just 16 years, Rwanda’s output of university and advanced technology graduates from the Kigali Institute of Technology (which was built by the RPF shortly after it took power) is nearly 10,000 a year!

Rwanda easily has the most transparent and generous programme to send students overseas on postgraduate study and specialist courses in Africa.

Every year, it sends an average of 300 students to study IT and engineering to India.

On a continent where state programmes for international study collapsed in most countries years ago or are doled out to children of regime cronies, Rwanda sends 600 students to graduate school every year on taxpayers’ money.

In 2008, it sent 57 students to do masters degrees in medicine, and 2009, another 58 doctors.

The thing about this is that when it took power in 1994, Rwanda had only one specialist surgeon and less than 30 doctors.

There were few in the first place, but most had either been killed, or had joined the genocide bandwagon and had fled.

At that time, the RPA rebels had 36 doctors in their ranks, more than the homeland they had just returned to.

Perhaps because it does not want to be suspected of sending mostly Tutsi students to graduate school (although references to Hutu and Tutsi are banned), the list of the students selected to study abroad; the details of the students, the cost of their courses; how much personal money each of them is getting; when it is disbursed; and what they are studying, are all available on the website of the Rwanda International Students Loan Service.

Such things have made Kagame very assured of the rightness of his cause and his ways. And a poor listener.

When I put that to him, he agrees that he can be hardheaded.

That he will not listen to a different opinion just because it is the right thing to do: “I hold my positions very strongly. And you must work very hard to convince me that you are right. I cannot just let you win the argument to make you feel good,” he says.

Therefore if Kagame thinks you are just a talker, a heckler in the market who has not done important things that have made a difference to people’s lives, he is not likely to take you seriously.

And in press conferences, he will ooze contempt for such people from every pore. Quite a few people find him insufferable when he digs in.

That only makes matters worse, because Kagame is a remarkably thick-skinned politician and former general.

Five years ago, I asked him what he had to say to those who called him a despot.

He fixed his gaze on me, and told me a story of one of his closest Cabinet allies.

At a hearing of the traditional courts for genocide perpetrators (the Gacaca), it had just emerged that a close ally, a minister who sat across from him at the Cabinet, had been accused of having led the attack in which some of his relatives had been murdered in 1994.

He did not pursue him. So he repeats the same answer he gave five years ago: In recent years, lots more people have been implicated in the genocide, but the RPF had just decided to close the door on that chapter and move on, he said. It had even become one of the few African countries to abolish the death penalty.

“How many of the people who say we are dictators would continue to work with people who they know murdered their relatives, and even remove the penalty so that if they were arrested and convicted they would not hang for their crimes?”

“Probably none of them,” he answers.

And what about press freedom? The arrest of journalists, and the closure of newspapers? This question seems to amuse him.

He reminds me that the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders called him one of the “predators of press freedom” in the world.

(This conversation took place before Rwandan journalist Jean-Leonard Rugambage was shot and killed in Kigali.)

“You make a mistake, because you think the journalists and newspapers in Rwanda that incite ethnic hatred are like Daily Nation in Kenya,” he says.

They are two- or three-person affairs, he offers, which sell a few hundred copies a week and are funded by NGOs.

They are not interested in fair journalism that is credible with readers, because they don’t make their living through selling the papers.

They make a living through getting themselves in a victim position, so that they can get international money.

Kagame realises that that is not a particularly persuasive argument to a journalist like myself who also went through many years of persecution.

So he gets more reflective, and says: “We have one of Africa’s most ambitious IT programmes. We have distributed hundreds of laptops to students and teachers, and in a few years the whole of Rwanda will have fast Internet access.

“We are not censoring the Internet, which is full of content that is very critical of me. Would a government that is against press freedom do as much as the RPF has done to expand the Internet?” he asks. I say nothing.

Soon, it is time for a very late lunch and we go upstairs to the public, visitors’ wing of Kagame’s country estate.

I panic, because I am vegetarian and I fear that I am going to have some presidential chicken put before me and be in the awkward position of saying “No.”

But that did not happen. The Rwanda State House had a profile of my eating habits, and provision had been made for a vegetarian meal.

We ate. Kagame hardly touched his food, because the conversation had truly warmed up and the questions were coming fast and furious.

Soon we came to the question of Victoire Ingabire, the opposition politician who had recently returned from Belgium after 17 years to challenge Kagame in the August elections.

Ingabire, a Hutu, was subsequently arrested for spreading “genocide ideology.”

Prosecutors have brought nine charges against her, including alleged support and funding for the “genocidal” anti-Rwanda rebels in eastern Congo.

Apparently, she was confronted with evidence of visits to the DRC, and financial payments she made to the rebels, and she admitted to some of them.

That might well be true, but people will still think that the charges were conveniently brought to lock Ingabire out of the race.

Why not after the election, which Kagame is favourite to win anyway?

This question touches on the one of those topics that tend to bring out the hard edge in Kagame and his RPF comrades.

He says he has no regrets about the arrest of Ingabire. His only regret is that it took as long as it did!

Even if the rest of the world stood against it, Kagame says, the RPF will not let anyone who tries to play up the sentiments that led to the 1994 genocide go free.

And on this account, he drew the line in the sand with human-rights groups.

We can expect that the heated exchanges between Kigali and the international human-rights community will be with us for many years to come.

International criticism of the RPF usually falls on deaf ears.

Because the RPF believes the world did nothing to stop the genocide in 1994, and refused to dismantle the camps in eastern DRC to which the Interahamwe (the militia that executed the genocide), and the former Rwanda Armed Forces withdrew (indeed the UN fed them, Kagame says) — leaving it to the Rwanda Patriotic Army to do the messy job — distrust of the international community and a natural inclination to ignore its views, runs deep in the DNA of Kagame.

And, listening to him talk, it can be a little unnerving. He really doesn’t care.

So, if he had to arrest Ingabire all over, he would do so gladly.

And he is not bothered about timing. Indeed, he gladly accepts that he is “a lousy politician” who will not do something at the point when it brings him the most public relations dividends.

One of the papers that were suspended in Kigali, frequently likened Kagame to “Hitler.”

That could only be provocative, since Kagame and the Tutsi see themselves in the position of the Jews who were Hitler’s victims.

That said, there is a German-type efficiency about him that can be unnerving.

Kigali, for example, is a very unAfrican city in its cleanliness, manicured public lawns, bountiful flowers, and the strict enforcement of municipal law.

In Kigali, you only get to choose the colour you will paint your house, and the interior decor.

Otherwise, if an area is designated for two-storey houses, so will it be. You don’t get to decide the height of your wall. That is in the law.

Your house cannot face in any direction that your taste fancies. That is in the rulebook.

And environmental standards are enforced tightly at the smallest level.

Rwanda is probably the only country where environmental officers will show up on your premises with a badge and wearing pistols.

Many people admire this order, and the beauty that it has brought to public spaces.

Every piece of ground where people walk in and around Kigali — and other towns like Ruhengeri — has been paved.

The small matter of pedestrians having dust on their shoes, was a big issue for the RPF government.

But some people — especially non-Rwandese — are unnerved by all this, because it has a Stalinist feel to it.

It is like when we were at university, some girls didn’t like to date boys whose rooms were neat, wardrobes well arranged, and had no dirty socks strewn under the bed.

They feared such fellows were too fussy and likely to be control freaks.

In many ways, part of that is a reflection of Kagame. When he was with Museveni in the bush, he was nicknamed “Pilato” (after Pontious Pilate). He was an unflinching enforcer.

According to the managing editor of The Independent magazine in Uganda, Andrew Mwenda, Museveni once told him that “Kagame was always like that.”

He would order the arrest of a soldier who was critical to a military operation, because he had stolen two litres of fuel.

Though as a family man Kagame displays a soft side, he is still is an old school, family values fundamentalist who thinks that a father who isn’t there to supervise his kids’s homework is an unworthy citizen.

It is not just the presidential drivers who drop the First Children off to school.

They are escorted by their mother, the charming Jeanette, in the morning.

And when he is in town Kagame picks them up after school.

He doesn’t miss parent-teacher meetings, showing up dutifully with his notebook.

On the weekend, he will take his kids to swim, and sit close by keeping a watchful eye.

When he visits the officer’s club in Kigali to play pool, many soldiers will stop sipping their whiskies and beer and swirl mineral water and coke until he leaves.

So it was that early this year, Kagame sent his son Ivan Cyomoro Kagame to West Point.

I told him I thought it did not sit well with his image as a modern president striving to turn Rwanda into a digital Mecca.

Also, that it appeared that he was already plotting to cling on to power, then have his son, who might be a senior officer in the future, succeed him.

I was surprised by his answer. Not all West Point graduates join armies, he said.

So Ivan would be free to pursue other careers or join the Rwanda Army if he wished. But the main reason he encouraged him to go to West Point was so that he could get an international education, while not getting lost in the corrupting ways — drugs, booze — of the West. West Point, he said, would give Ivan “discipline and a structure” in which to lead a more focused life.

This puritanical streak in Kagame, and the fact that he lacks a drop of dramatic blood in his veins, means he is drawn to the more rustic and ascetic ways of life. When he is in Muhazi, he rides his bicycle around the village for exercise.

In Kigali, he often plays tennis at Nyarutarama Sports Club. The tennis court is just above a busy road.

The road is not closed when he is playing. The only thing that is not allowed, is that you cannot stop your car and watch him playing while you are seated inside.

Otherwise, you are free to get out and hang on the fence to watch. And many people do.

It has been a long day, and so Kagame suggests we retire to the main house for tea. Jeannette and all their four kids are there.

Unsurprisingly, Jeanette is asked to round up the kids to greet the visitors — the old fashioned way. And they do.

Ivan is back home from West Point. He is very tall, and used to be wobbly, I learn.

It has toughened him up, and he is straight and vigorous. It is startling how tall he and his sister Angie are. Ivan is 6ft 7inches, standing a whole 5 inches above his father.

Kagame’s eyes glitter. He is a proud father, quite obviously. And he mellows even more.

There is no doubt that he has a very soft spot for Jeanette, who looks much too young for her age.

It is mostly small talk now; football, the party of young Rwanda professionals where he was guest of honour last night and left at 3am; irresponsible fathers; their all-stone house, his cows and crops, and some tit bits about other African and world leaders.

We eventually get up to leave, and it’s nearly 10pm Nairobi time. Again, the kids are rounded up to do the farewells.

I wait in the foyer with Jeanette and a senior Kagame aide, as the big man nips into his study for something.

Jeanette picks up a football that her boys left around, and actually balances and moves it about across both legs like Chelsea’s Michael Essien in the World Cup advert on DSTV. I ask her if she is a footballer. Not really, she replies, she is a volleyball woman.

Kagame reappears, and we walk out. Jeannette has stamped her environmental credentials all over the compound.

The trees blow in the night wind, and a cool breeze drifts over from the lake.

The kids are running about the house, gathering their things, because everyone will shortly be travelling back to Kigali.

My mind goes back to an interview I had late in the night 16 years ago shortly after the RPF had taken power.

Kigali was a wrecked city, and there was the small of death and rotting bodies in the air.

This was a different world today. But in building it, Kagame had broken too many eggs, and made himself many enemies.

Kagame hating is a cottage industry. And in the very reasons of his success, lie the seeds of his downfall.

Though the RPF is entrenched, and will almost certainly be in power for the foreseeable future, one is not sure how long Kagame will be the key player.

The challenges ahead will need him to have political skills far superior to Jeannette’s football balancing artistry.

•In the second part of this series next week, we examine the mistakes Kagame and RPF have made along the way; the meaning of the failed assassination of former Rwanda army chief Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa in South Africa; the risks that Kagame and the RPF face in the future; the dangers that the growing cracks inside the RPF pose; and how Rwanda’s political exploits in Congo could still turn into its worst nightmare.