Rwanda’s former Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo spoke to Pamella Sittoni on her new role, working with President Paul Kagame, her tenure in Cabinet and the defining moments in her life.
Congratulations on your election as Secretary General of the international organisation of French-speaking countries (OIF). How did you make it this far?
When we say that life is full of surprises, it is real. Because for a few things that have happened in my life, it was all unexpected.
I wanted to study journalism when I was growing up here in Kigali. When I finished high school, I took a test from the school of journalism in Senegal. Something happened with the whole administration of the exam and all of us in the batch from Rwanda never went to Senegal, even though I was told I had passed.
Then, when I finished high school, I was also hesitating. I was much better in languages, but I was more attracted to sciences. I ended up studying languages. I studied English in Rwanda and French in the US. You plan, and something else happens. My journey has been very much like that.
I must say that — especially now with the prospective of the new job that I’m going to take up — that the past 10 years of my life have been really unusually good. I have learned a lot, not just about the world and the continent, but also about politicians and politics, and how the world works.
There’s no better school. And I was privileged to work closely with President Paul Kagame who’s just an amazing man to work with — with clarity of what we’re trying to achieve and always available to guide and help.
What has been the most defining moment in your life?
On a personal level, the most challenging time was the genocide. I was working in the US and I had family here. I lost many family members.
That was a terrible time for me. You reach a point where you are wondering whether you just had a bad dream. It was quite a bit of a struggle at the time, but I also came out of that particular episode of my life with a lot of strength, that I didn’t think I had.
Because I wanted not to be a victim, and to challenge some of the politics that I saw around the genocide, I became very interested in Congressional politics in the US; that’s why in a big part why I went into lobbying.
Some Rwandans chose to stay away forever, some resolved to return to the country to join in its rebuilding. What did you do?
I have friends and people I grew up with in North America and Europe, who don’t want to return. What gave me the desire to come back was that I saw the country reborn, and I saw so much despair turning into bright moments for some people.
At the time I was still working for a public relations firm in the US, and I came home at least twice a year to be with some members of my family who had survived, and to help with my family’s business, which had completely collapsed in 1994. I did not want to not miss this incredible change that was happening in the country.
Who has impacted you and influenced you the most?
I can’t just point to one person. I admire different people for specific things. But I must say that as a person, I’m very much a product of my mother whom I lived with when I was young. I was very much influenced by her character. A hardworking woman, but very gentle and very human — and that is a quality I admire in people in general, even in terms of work. I like people who are kind and who try to go beyond themselves.
What was your biggest learning moment in your profession?
When I realised that in international politics, what you hear and what you see is not necessarily what is going on behind the scenes.
You work with and are in the proximity of very powerful men and women whom you expect to be wanting to create a very liveable world. These are the slogans, and policies, and books.
But the reality of international relations is much more complex. Much of what happens in international relations is not necessarily straight forward, a lot that is linked to alliances and interests. That was a big learning moment for me.
On the international stage, you’re seen as President Paul Kagame’s right hand person. How did you get there?
Foreign affairs is the business of the head of state for many countries. The president is the supervisor of foreign affairs in this country. Two: President Kagame has gone out of his way to position his country, to speak for Africa. He does so each time I watch him in different fora.
After a number of years of working together, you try to copy some of the ways in which he handles foreign affairs, some of the ways in which he pursues the interests of the country. I think after close to 10 years, that’s how it happened.
I very much feel that I am influenced politically by the president for who he is and what he represents for our country.
How is President Kagame as a boss?
I find him to be quite an extraordinary leader in his dedication to the country by the fact that President Kagame can call you at two in the morning to discuss or to ask a question that is related to the country. Nothing personal to him. I find it remarkable that he could not sleep because he remembered something and it bothers him, and it’s going to affect the country.
So I really have come to admire him as a leader. And he’s also a man who’s not afraid to take risks. He’s not a classic, very careful president who evolved in a political system. He got into politics for a very important purpose and he went into it fully. It’s not a job, it’s a mission.
President Kagame is a no-nonsense person. How did you survive in your position for that long?
It is true. President Kagame is a very serious and very no-nonsense person. But he’s also a very generous human being.
I think President Kagame portrays the image of a very austere and no-nonsense person, but he’s also very human and very generous, and he’s got a great sense of humour. He’s a very interesting person, besides him being a very interesting leader.
He’s got qualities that when you work with him you can see in the day to day business. So, that makes him much more whole, than this picture of a man who’s no-nonsense. He’s a much bigger person than that.
In your tenure as foreign minister, what was your proudest moment?
There were quite a few moments of pride. One of them was when Rwanda joined the United Nations Security Council. That election day when Rwanda was voted into the Security Council was a great moment of joy and pride for me.
We lobbied and went around and talked to countries, and we had received the support of Africa. But the day of election, and the moment you’re thinking: ‘What if something happens and we don’t get enough votes?’ I didn’t really sleep the night before. Maybe two nights before.
I flew to New York, and there were some issues at the time, even though I knew we had all this support. So the moment the decision was made, I was really very nervous. I remember a foreign minister friend of mine from Europe came from the corner somewhere and looked at me and did like this (thumbs-up). I didn’t know how to behave. The vote was still going on, so I couldn’t scream.
Rwanda holds very influential positions on the international scene. Is this a well-calculated scheme to influence global affairs, or are the stars aligned in Rwanda’s favour?
I think it’s a combination of both. We are a very ambitious country. We count on doing the best we can do to lift up our people. That’s our dream.
I think that sentiment of ambition and moving forward has to do with the thirst to live to the fullest. Its part of our identity as a country and that translates into foreign affairs as well. So, whether it’s in the African Union where Rwanda has been very active, or the United Nations.
As you know we had quite a lot of trouble with the UN linked to the Genocide against the Tutsi here in 1994, but we’re also very active in the UN.
We’re now the fourth contributor of peacekeepers in the world; our president is on a number of boards, he’s on the ITU Broadband Commission, he co-chaired MDGs Advocates for a number of years.
So, as a country we have also given to the international system. I also think some of the gains this country has made have given us a good name and that has helped in positioning our country as well.
So, it’s a combination of deliberate hard work, deliberate policy, clarity on what we want to achieve but also to some extent the stars are aligned.
As you step out of the Foreign Affairs docket, are there some things that just didn’t go right, or things you wish you could have handled better?
Absolutely. As I look back, and especially now that this is hand-over time, I look at the aspect of management of the ministry, and our Foreign Affairs in general — the co-ordination with our embassies, the interaction between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the sector ministries, and the private sector. I feel that that part of my job will need much more work than has been done.
There’s also some unfinished business in terms of relations with countries like Burundi, Uganda, South Africa and France.
Foreign Affairs is a long road. I’ve done part of the road and I’m handing over to the next person. But that is the nature of relations between nations.
At the same time all the good things that come out of it, it’s also the challenge of keeping the country’s and the nation’s interests aligned to somebody else’s interests. Yes, in the neighbourhood we would wish to have had a smoother road, but that’s the nature of Foreign Affairs. The next person will take that up.
Are things smoothening out with France?
For France, the history is well known. But we’re looking forward to working with the current administration which in a way has reached out in a manner that shows it wishes to create better ties with Rwanda. We had always wanted that but we hadn’t found interlocutors on the French side who actually meant it.
You’re soon moving to France to take up your new job as Secretary General of OIF. Why is this important for Rwanda, East Africa and Africa?
This new position is very important. I was elected and supported unanimously, in great part because of Africa. I was carried by the continent, to victory. That’s important, not just in the unity that this candidature has come with.
We’ve seen that in the last couple of years, we’re slowly as a continent coming together to speak with one voice where the interests of many of us on the continent converge. So that’s critical.
Secondly the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie is now made up of 88 countries. Any gathering of such a diverse and talented people is of great interest not only to Rwanda but also to East Africa. Rwanda also belongs to Central Africa. Countries in Central Africa are all members of the Francophonie, so that brings even closer ties and closer collaboration in terms of the language, education and so forth.
But in terms of what we call Francophonie Economique, that goes beyond just the French-speaking zone and spreads to our neighbours in East Africa.
Rwanda’s decision to take up this position is curious, because it was gravitating more towards the Anglophone side, particularly with the shift a few years ago to English as the language of instruction in schools.
There should be no confusion whatsoever. Because Rwanda has that identity. We’re both French-speaking and English-speaking. It’s a combination of these two that makes us who we are today where we’re both in East Africa and in Central Africa.
So we’re East Africans – Swahili speaking, English speaking, members of the Commonwealth, and at the same time we’re Central Africans – Kinyarwanda speaking and French-speaking.
We try to combine both in a very pragmatic way. We moved to English because that is where our economic life, which is mostly in East Africa, lies. But it didn’t take away our French speaking heritage.
Now we see both you and President Kagame tweeting in French. Won’t the rest of the East Africans feel abandoned?
Don’t be surprised if you see more and more non-French-speaking Rwandans going to French, because we’re now going to lead this organisation for the next four years. But this also has been campaign time. And so you’ve seen a lot of activity on social media, in the press here in the country.
So we’re not abandoning anything for anything else. We’re just combining nicely both the French and the English.