Inside the Obama-Kagame phone call, and the battles ahead for Rwanda

Saturday December 22 2012

M23 rebels withdraw through the hills having left their position in the village of Karuba, eastern DRC on November 30, 2012. Inset: Louise Mushikiwabo, Rwanda's Foreign Minister. Photos/FILE

Rwanda has got a lot of stick recently over its alleged role in backing the M23 rebels in DR Congo, leading to donor aid cuts and suspensions. A few days ago, it was reported that US President Barack Obama had called Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame and warned him about supporting the rebels.

READ: Obama tells Rwanda to end DRC rebel support

Meanwhile, forces responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which are based in eastern DRC, staged an attack at the border.

In a forthright interview, Charles Onyango-obbo interviews Rwanda Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo for The EastAfrican about the pressures Kigali is confronting.


US President Barack Obama spoke to President Paul Kagame by phone on Tuesday December 18, and a White House statement said that he “warned President Kagame that any support to the rebel group M23 is inconsistent with Rwanda’s desire for stability and peace.” Did Obama actually “warn” him? How did that conversation go, and what did President Kagame tell him about Rwanda’s role and how it sees the crisis in eastern DRC?


The US has always taken an interest in the stability of the Great Lakes Region since the genocide in 1994. The call with President Obama was an opportunity for President Kagame to emphasise that the misinformation being perpetuated following a deeply problematic UN Group of Experts report obscures the fact that insecurity in our region is bigger than just one armed group, and that the long-standing root causes of conflict in the DRC have yet to be addressed.

President Obama was interested to hear that our bilateral relations with DRC have never stopped and that Presidents Kagame and Kabila have been in contact throughout this crisis.

Both Presidents understand that the tragic consequences of instability in the DRC directly affect neighbouring countries, and agreed that the ongoing regional peace process must be supported in order to establish durable peace in the region.

Do you think Obama went away with a different impression of the situation after the conversation?

I am sure he did. It is not surprising that in the wake of all the sensational but superficial media reports and the unfortunate posturing by some NGOs, many assumptions have been made that completely distort the truth as well as miscast and delay solutions.

We are glad that President Obama was able to get a more realistic picture of the situation. Rwanda values peace and stability. We had this with the DRC since our rapprochement in 2009, we were moving beyond issues of security to cooperation in economic development. This is exactly what the people of both our countries want.

Steve Hege, coordinator of the UN Group of Experts on DRC that issued a highly critical report of Rwanda’s alleged support for rebels in DRC appeared before the US Congress a few days ago. He said it was not true, as the Rwanda government says, that his team did not give you a right to respond to their accusations. Instead, that it was the government of Rwanda that gave them a run around when they were in Kigali and basically failed to respond. Who’s lying here?

I think it should be clear to anyone who knows Rwanda that we would not deliberately miss a chance to defend ourselves, particularly against accusations with no basis and supported by laughable evidence.

It is astounding how many people were so eager to cast Rwanda as the villain that they didn’t bother to question the leaked reports of the Group of Experts (GoE). The guidelines governing the workings of the GoE are a matter of public record.

It is clear when you take the time to look beyond the headlines that the GoE violated their own rules that demand they be fastidious and fair when making such serious accusations. It is not surprising that these experts would be so cavalier given the ideological leanings of their head, the evidence of which he quickly moved to take off the Internet — only a person with something to hide would do something like this.

Of course that particular document was already in circulation so it is not a secret what he [Hege] thinks. And the fact the Hege is now on a speaking circuit to further spread the misinformation contained in the report only further reinforces the fact that this is a man with a clear political agenda.

READ: Rwanda schemed M23 rebellion for its benefit

The question here is why would the UN appoint someone like this to a position to which he clearly has a conflict of interest? I don’t think we can expect any kind of fairness or truth under these circumstances.

One of the charges Hege made at the Congressional hearing is that Rwanda, and possibly Uganda, ultimately want to impose a federal solution on the DRC, and thus set up the eastern DRC as a Rwanda — some would say Tutsi- dominated -satellite state. These charges are not new. One could argue that they refuse to go away because they have a certain resonance. Why do you think they persist?

That is nonsense. Rwanda is not responsible for the arbitrary way our borders were drawn up in 1884, and we certainly cannot be made to answer for this unjustified paranoia.

READ: Kigali ‘wants autonomous state’ in east DRC

Our plans for developing our country are clear, so are our goals for regional integration as evidenced by our active participation in the East African Community and the ICGLR. Anything else is pure fantasy.

Kigali’s pushback against Hege has been to say, among other things, that he is in bed with the FDLR rebels, the rump of the genocidaire forces. Why would anyone still be interested in backing the FDLR? Indeed there are those who argue that the FDLR is an ageing and dying force, most of it decimated partly in the various actions by Rwanda forces inside DRC. Is the FDLR still a threat, or is it just a prop for Rwanda?

We have said for a long time that if the FDLR were just a pretext, why wouldn’t those responsible for it remove that pretext? Besides being a threat to Rwanda’s security, the FDLR have been responsible for so much suffering in eastern DRC, and we know that they have been protected and facilitated at different points by some people in the DRC government and army.

The leaders and funders of FDLR are known and they live in the DRC as well as in Europe and in the US.

ALSO READ: (Opinion) Beware, FDLR threat could still be alive

The United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Monusco) has been in DRC for more than a decade and seems to be happy to co-habit with this group, which ironically was the main reason they went into the DRC.

As for Hege, his writings portraying the FDLR as a benign force speak for themselves. We have had two recent FDLR attacks near our border with the DRC where at least three Rwandan civilians have been killed and we have had to reinforce security in that area.

We are also now learning of new movements near our border areas of large numbers of FDLR forces. But this barely gets a mention in the [international] media perhaps it would show that Rwanda does have legitimate security concerns — and this goes against the narrative perpetuated by Hege and others.

Several western donors have either suspended or reduced aid to Rwanda over this alleged support for M23. And it seems all your protestations of innocence are not making a difference. At what point do you give up, and how does Rwanda expect to make up the funding shortfall?

We do not intend to stop explaining that we are not involved in the DRC in the way we are accused, and that basing important aid decisions on flimsy reports by unaccountable actors is simply not right. Rwanda has tried to be useful to the DRC and it is frustrating that this has been used against us.

READ: Growth slows as aid cuts take toll on the economy

The countries that give aid to Rwanda know that every dollar is well spent and that this has contributed immensely to significant reduction in poverty as well improvement in health, education, justice and other important sectors. Our long-term goal has always been to use development aid well so that we don’t need it anymore.

In 1994, aid as a percentage of our budget was over 90 per cent, today it’s about 42 per cent — so we are making headway and appreciate the role that aid has played in this progress.

There is a view that sees a good side to these aid cuts. That aid has made too many African countries lazy and unimaginative, and that some pain is what Africa needs to shake itself out of its slumber. For example, Rwanda has set up a sovereign fund. How is that going?

In a way it is a reminder that no one owes us anything and we are primarily responsible for our own development. This is why Rwanda has been so adamant about using aid wisely for the maximum benefit of the most needy, and so far there haven’t been any complaints from our donors.

The kinds of heavy investments we are continuously making in strengthening institutions and systems in key sectors is our way of making sure that the work we are doing today with available funds is sustainable.

The Agaciro Development Fund was one of the decisions made a year ago during our annual national dialogue. Rwandans from all walks of life both in-country and abroad have responded enthusiastically, contributing about $45 million in three months.

READ: Aid cuts: No major effect as Agaciro comes to the rescue

This fund was never intended to replace aid but will complement other sources of national revenue and will be used for specific projects as decided by Rwandans.

The UN Group of Experts on DRC accused both Rwanda and Uganda of backing the M23. Uganda responded the way Rwanda did the last time a UN Experts report again suggested that Rwanda Defence Forces had committed a “genocide” in eastern DRC; it threatened to pull out of all peacekeeping operations, the way Rwanda threatened to quit its peacekeeping role in Darfur.

READ: UN report could alter fate of Amisom

That threat got UN Sec. Gen. Ban Ki-Moon scrambling on a plane to Kigali to make peace. One can understand both yours and Uganda’s frustration, but there is a view that both of you were being extremely cynical.

If indeed your role in Darfur is based on principle and some sense of pan-Africanist brotherhood, how can you use it to buy off international criticism? In fact, some argued that it showed what is wrong with Africa. That we have no high ideals that can’t be sacrificed on the altar of politics.

I would argue that it instead shows cynicism and hypocrisy of the international community that takes partnerships with African countries lightly depending on the interests involved. Rwanda went into Darfur because we wanted to show our solidarity with fellow Africans threatened by genocide.

Everyone agrees that we are doing a good job there and in other peacekeeping missions, and we are genuinely committed to our role in maintaining peace and stability in Africa and beyond. Why would this be any different for our region where we have so much more at stake and so close to home?

It appears that it doesn’t suit some in the international community that Rwanda would play a role in establishing peace and stability with our neighbours, when they themselves have shown that they are incapable of doing this, even with the massive resources at their disposal – look at Monusco. This is what we understand when the actions we have taken bilaterally and often at the request of the DRC to prevent conflict are used as “evidence” against us by UN experts. We want to play our role as best we can but no one likes to be taken for granted.

Not everyone thinks that there is democracy in Rwanda. The Rwandan Patriotic Front is thought to be too dominant and, worse, that its government doesn’t tolerate any other politician who is a “threat.” Victorie Ingabire is an example commonly cited. The rest of the world is not quite sure what her “crimes” were, and many don’t believe anyone can get a free trial in a Rwandan court in such a politically charged case. Why was it necessary to prosecute her?
What matters for us is that Rwandans are satisfied with the way they are governed and that they are able to participate in decisions that affect their lives — this for me is the bottom line in a democracy. I am not a member of the Rwanda Patriotic Front, but given our history, it is not surprising that it is a strong, popular party.

I am not sure what “too dominant” means here, I would think that is the goal of any political party anywhere in the world — to get as many members as possible — it shouldn’t be any different for Rwanda. We now have 10 political parties in Rwanda; they have the constitutional right to operate and attract followers. What our constitution stipulates is that unlike in our past, ethnicity cannot be the basis for the formation of a political party.

Anyone with a genuine political platform has every right to register and run a political party. In addition, we have laws and those who break them will be prosecuted.

Victoire Ingabire was tried in an open court, journalists and diplomats from many countries were present throughout; evidence used in court came from different countries including from the justice ministry in the Netherlands where she had lived for many years.

She lost her court case and was sentenced to eight years on the charges where she was found guilty. Although Rwandans who followed the case were appalled at what they considered a light sentence, most people are satisfied that she got a fair trial.

What is important here is that ethnic politics is something our country has vowed to move away from, Rwandans will tell you that Ingabire and her disciples have no space in Rwandan politics

READ: Ingabire appeals her prison sentence in Supreme Court