Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame has called for an urgent resolution of differences between countries in the region, which he says are standing in the way of the East African Community’s progress.
In an exclusive interview with The EastAfrican, President Kagame said relations between Uganda and Rwanda are not improving because of reluctance to solve the differences.
The interview discussed his tenure as chair of the African Union, his plans for the East African Community, and his leadership of Rwanda.
On the growing rift between Rwanda and Uganda, President Kagame said: “We have had discussions over this for two years, we can resolve them whether it is egos or someone just wishing that things should be bad.”
Tensions between Rwanda and Uganda have heightened in the past few years, with accusations of espionage leading to the expulsion of a number of Rwandans from Uganda.
“It is very intriguing to find that, even with the history (between the two countries) and a good foundation, we have something like this going on. And it goes on every day, even as we speak. It is hard to just put it in one word, or even a few words. All I can say is that it’s a matter that can be resolved. That must be resolved. Because the alternative is not something that we should even be thinking about, or entertaining,” said President Kagame, who is the chairman of the East African Community.
The Rwandan leader pointed at a link between a group of Rwandan dissidents in South Africa and his troubles with Uganda.
According to President Kagame, Uganda has chosen to listen to the dissidents, and act against Rwanda based on the information from the group.
The dissidents, he said, are soliciting Uganda’s support in their plans to destabilise Rwanda. Although he did not name the group, a senior official told The EastAfrican that the dissidents are led by Lt-Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa, a former chief of staff of the Rwandan Army.
According to the president, Rwanda has raised its concerns about the group’s activities with Uganda, but its protests have fallen on deaf ears.
Expressing disappointment at the failure to mend things between Rwanda and Uganda, President Kagame dismissed as “optics” some of the pronouncements by leaders on the matter: “To the microphones, we are saying the best things and the right things. But we should make an effort to do those things.”
A lot has happened in Africa since you became chair of the African Union last year. What are you most proud of? Do you have any regrets?
A lot has been happening across our continent—even before I became chair of the African Union—and therefore when I became chair, some work was easier because I was building on some of the things that were already decided by the African leaders.
For example, when it came to the reforms that we were to carry out. It came from the leaders when they were meeting here is 2016.
I was tasked and there was the team that supported me in this effort—women and men drawn from different backgrounds across our continent with credentials, pan-Africanism and other capabilities.
We analysed to find out which areas needed reforming and improvement, and we made these suggestions. So, we’ve made progress in carrying out reforms, and then building on that process to do other things that we thought, again with the African leaders, were important to have.
For example, the continental free trade area, which was a dream for many years; integration, for not only countries and people and markets especially, to be able to trade with each other to be able to move freely across our continent.
The achievement of the continental free trade area has been significant. Many African leaders have signed up—forty-nine countries. That is followed by ratification. To put it into effect requires 22 countries to ratify. So far, we are at 18 or 19 countries.
Those who have not ratified, it isn’t because they don’t want to. They have already shown their commitment by signing. Ratification is a process they have to go through depending on their constitutions and other obligations.
We have also created a unified air transport market across Africa — opened the skies for airlines to operate from country to country.
These are things that have happened, but what is even more important for me — and I guess other people notice — is that there is a desire by the Africans to make quick progress in many things that we have not in the area of integration: To create a strong continent, working together and resolving these matters that have held us back for a long time.
Here in East Africa, countries have problems implementing regional protocols. How will they implement continental protocols?
Problems are a part of all these processes. When you talk about 55 countries across our continent, you are talking about problems because we want to create a united continent by uniting 55 countries with all kinds of backgrounds.
There is a commonality of being Africans, and many similarities in the challenges we face, and probably similar solutions can apply. But these challenges should not discourage, or hold us back.
What did you have to do personally to convince the rest of the African leaders to rally behind you on the free trade area?
Apart from applying all my personal efforts — and we had a very good team that we were working with — matters of trade and the African Continental Free Trade Area were the responsibility of the President of Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou. He was the champion. He did a lot.
I have been lucky in the sense that I have built on other people’s efforts and we are making very good progress.
I built on what President Issoufou was doing but both of us succeeded because, what we were trying to do found commitment on the part of African leaders and countries. They wanted it. They were asking for it. That is what has made it easy.
You have said several times that the AU must be seen to benefit the African people. How will the free trade area benefit the low of the lowest in Africa?
The continental free trade area allows seamless interactions and transactions. Of course, bigger companies will benefit more, but it really starts with the small companies, which represent the majority on the ground.
Every day these ordinary people try to cross borders to trade with each other. It is very interesting, because I have this background and I have seen with my own eyes how Africans are struggling to cross borders, fighting the police and Immigration, but they still find ways.
They really beat them to it. So, you can imagine having this situation where institutions of government are the ones standing in the way of ordinary people who want to do business.
You know, even countries may quarrel among themselves — some even have gone to war — but the ordinary people don’t even understand why these quarrels exist. They don’t care. They try to survive. It is happening on either side of whichever border you may look at.
So, this free trade area in a way answers to that problem, for it touches the ordinary people who are trying to make ends meet through small business.
It creates a big market for even bigger companies to operate. There’s more benefit for the African continent if we are doing business together than when we’re trying to go it alone.
The numbers show what we would gain if there was integration. In fact, you deal with the rest of the world on better terms.
The other two initiatives, the open skies and the African passport — the whole idea of having a visa-free Africa — are supposed to be supporting the free trade area. How have these gone?
There is progress. If you look at the East African region, we have already made some progress using an identity card to travel instead of being required to carry a passport or have visas. These have been waived progressively, which is a good thing.
In West Africa’s Ecowas bloc, that has more or less been happening. Then in other regions as well. There is no way we are going to have the real integration, unless we allow freedom of movement of people, goods and services. So, there is good progress on that. But there is more to do.
It takes time for the very reasons you said. Sometimes you cannot even explain it because, in the challenges we face, we also see the opportunities imbedded there, which we are missing.
You wonder why people cannot move faster and say that in pursuit of those benefits, why don’t we do what we are supposed to do? But we are human — we have weaknesses.
Do you have a vision for the AU to be as strong as the European Union, for example?
It is possible. The European Union has 28 countries, the African continent has 55, so it is going to be more difficult to bring 55 together than 28 countries.
But there are many ways in which we can do it. For example, if you took these regional blocs, the closer they come together, the easier it becomes to draw them together, and therefore bring the whole continent together in the end. So, we should take it step by step, as practically as possible.
Another issue you have always advocated is that the AU must have a self-financing mechanism. But some countries are reluctant to contribute from the imports levy you proposed. What is the way forward?
The way forward is to begin with the principle itself. I don’t think we have seen many arguing against that self-financing principle.
The argument may be about the way to do it. But I have reminded people that we have had many suggestions from different efforts.
The issue this time round has been that we cannot keep shelving everything, unless we are not serious about dealing with these problems.
We have to find a way of making progress. This is the formula can we apply. It is a principle to achieve the result — self-financing — which means independence, which means getting rid of these people who finance everything for us and then come up with a whole list of demands that go counter to the very principles we stand for or believe in.
I can say because of this, everybody agrees with the principle that we should be self-financing. People give us all kinds of things, then after that everyone comes with their demands. We are better than this. There is what you give, and what you take, it’s a balanced principle, but you cannot just surrender everything.
When you took the chairmanship, the theme of the AU was ‘Fighting Corruption Together.’ Do you think Africa has made any progress in the past one year? What can countries learn from Rwanda?
I would not be correct to say that there is no corruption in Rwanda and there is no situation that is corruption-free, because corruption is a complicated animal. But you can reduce it. You can create an environment where corruption is not practised with impunity.
If anybody is corrupt and brings it into the public service, you have to create an understanding that this person will be held responsible. That is extremely important.
We have created an environment that tells us that if you are corrupt, if you are caught — and you should be caught — then there will be accountability.
That mindset is important. Every day, we are holding people accountable, and it doesn’t matter at what level.
At the continental level, former president of South Africa Thabo Mbeki led a process to find out what is going on in this area, what Africa is losing in these illicit activities. It was huge, amounting to tens of billions of dollars.
The other thing is that corruption will always benefit the minority while the majority absorb the cost. We have to be on the side of the majority.
That is why we have put the rule of law, accountability measures and institutions. But sometimes some of these institutions are the ones practicing it. It is a vicious circle, it is not easy and it is not uniquely African, it is global, but there is more tolerance in Africa and people get away with it. This is the struggle we have decided to undertake.
You won’t find places where people praise corruption. Everyone hates it, and says they are going to fight. So, across Africa the same story is being told, and it is enlisting more people than ever before.
People are saying we must fight corruption because it kills businesses, or slows down investments and the majority again bears the burden.
At the AU, President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria was entrusted with the responsibility to lead that process, and he has been trying to do that.
The other time, when he was president, he fought corruption. He championed that, like President Issoufou championed the AfCFTA. These issues being championed tell the story of where Africa wants to go.
Do you think the African Peer Review Mechanism would have helped Africa to fight corruption, if it had received the support of all the leaders?
Yes, the peer review mechanism needed — and still needs —reinforcing, because there is sharing of best practices, which is a good thing. There is no question about it.
You have talked about corruption and how it affects investment. How has Africa fared in attracting investments?
Africa doesn’t have sufficient investment money flowing in. We should have much more than we are getting.
Sometimes the investors will say there are issues of conflict, the corruption we are talking about, or governance generally not being conducive.
In some cases, that is true. In other areas, it is exaggerated, or there are double standards. People just choose convenience; they want to go where they can put in a lot of money, make a killing and leave.
In other cases, the investors benefit from corruption. They exploit the weaknesses in the situation, pay a few people, make a killing and go. Then they will create a wrong perception. So, it is a mixed story.
It therefore serves a good purpose if we deny these people excuses, like governance and insecurity, which they sometimes use as pretext. We have to do some of the things ourselves to eliminate these excuses.
We also have to do the right things in terms of governance, create a conducive environment for investments and direct investments where they are going to have impact on the people’s lives, not just to invest where there is oil.
Sometimes, people in Africa just read about what they have — like minerals— in the papers, but they don’t see any benefit at all. So, we have to put in place good governance that will enable the continent to benefit from investments.
Countries are taking more debt than investments, and it is becoming a big problem for many African countries. What is your view on Africa and the debt question?
There is nothing wrong with taking debt: It is part of the whole equation. But, like everything else, it must be debt you can accommodate. Don’t take too much or end up wasting the money.
If you are borrowing for productive purposes, where you gain and you are also able to make the repayments, then it is a good thing. But you can’t just keep borrowing. In the end, you choke on debt and it kills you.
For me, the problem is too much debt that in the end impoverishes you. You can’t just borrow to pay back: You borrow to remain with something and also be able to pay back.
Linked to that is the China question. We have seen some reports, some exaggerated and some true, of China about to auction some countries. What do you think about China’s relationship with Africa?
I am not an advocate of China, but I think people don’t need to attribute so many negatives to China that it doesn’t deserve.
Now, if I keep borrowing from you, and you keep giving, you know why you’re giving me the money. So how do I blame you? Is it really a Chinese problem, or my problem that I keep taking money from the Chinese and in the end drown in the debt?
I think people need to look at it carefully. Some mistakes have been made, but I don’t think this debt problem should be blamed on the Chinese.
Then there’s the other side that is exaggerated. The main accusers of China are on another side. They say China gives money to Africa without asking questions, and so on. But that means the ones accusing China don’t realise that it is very present in Africa because the Chinese are meeting needs that the others are not.
What are they doing? If they were busy investing in infrastructure, the story of Chinese overwhelming the continent with debt would not arise.
They say we are going to give you aid… you are not like us, you are not doing this, you are not following our rules...and in the end they give you so little. But when somebody else comes and asks you what you want, if you want a bridge or a power plant, they give it to you.
You see China is talking of something of importance to Africa, like power. These guys are not giving me a power plant of 200 megawatts through aid, they are not even giving me through investments, but the Chinese come and say, “We will give you support to build a power plant.” That is a big deal to any African country. The problem is when we enter into bad deals.
There has been talk that the African Union still needs you, and there have been suggestions that you should stay on in a special role. Is it something you have been thinking about, are you likely to stay on?
No one has raised it with me, and it is not something I am thinking about. But there are things that are happening that will have me stay on in some role.
One, the reform process still goes on independently. Two, we have something called Troika, where the incoming chair, the outgoing chair — that is me — and the previous one, Alpha Conte, are supposed to be working together. The outgoing chair must support the incoming one.
You have just taken over the chair of the East African Community. What are your plans for the region?
The plans are already there, so I am not creating anything new. We want to strengthen the EAC. My job is to work with other leaders.
When we met recently in Arusha, the emphasis was that we really need to take the ideals of the EAC to the people. They need to buy in, they need to understand it and own it, so that it is not just leaders talking about it.
Sometimes the East Africans don’t understand some things we talk about, because they don’t experience them. The EAC is about the feelings and experiences people get when they travel to other countries.
This can’t just be on paper. People want to do business; they have families in all these countries and, if you stand in their way, it defeats the purpose.
You took over at a time when the issue of non-tariff-barriers is frustrating the business community, and the Economic Partnership Agreement with the European Union is still pending. Do you have any deliberate plans to address these issues and rest them within your tenure?
Yes, we need to press hard. This is a matter that took a lot of time to discuss when we met in Arusha. We need to find a way around it, where everybody is comfortable.
You can’t be complaining about something and then you don’t want to discuss it. It calls for engagement at different levels — government, business and citizens.
We need to have conversations. I don’t think there is any problem that we can’t address. The approach is important and, if you have a problem, you have to discuss it.
The last EAC summit had a rich agenda, but the communique did not give the impression that you had resolved them. What did you agree on issues like the plastics ban and the importation of textiles?
We got a sense of direction on many of them, and how to address them. People were given tasks to do a number of things, either to investigate, put the information together and, when we have the next sitting, deal with them.
For instance, there is a study going on about plastics and the implications of doing some things and not others.
Sometimes it is about optics and the relationship between leaders and countries. Do you think your chairmanship will be affected by the relationship between Rwanda and Burundi, or Uganda?
Well, I don’t think so. If that is to be said of bad relations between Uganda and Rwanda, how then was it affecting Uganda’s chairmanship? You could start from there.
If Uganda’s chairmanship was not being affected, then my chairmanship will not be affected. But, seriously, whatever not-so-good relations between countries of the East African Community, there have been — and there should continue to be— efforts to try and resolve whatever it is, so that this stops being in the way of good progress of the East African Community.
I cannot give you a formula but, in my mind, even before I became the chair, and even more so that I am, it’s on my mind — and I hope it’s also on the minds of other leaders — that, whatever it is, it is not necessary and it is not good for us.
We need to figure out how we can resolve those issues, while at the same time not allowing them to stand in the way of the progress we should be making as East Africans.
Surely, there has to be a way of dealing with that. I’m sure the other leaders are thinking about it. I’m thinking about it, for sure. We’re better than this. I think we can do better.
Do you think things are getting worse or improving between Uganda and Rwanda? I thought the two countries’ history would prevent such tensions?
Yes, there is a good foundation on which we should be building a very good relationship. There is no question about it.
Therefore, it is very intriguing to find that, even with that history and a good foundation, we have something like this going on. And it goes on every day—even as we speak.
It is hard to just put it in one word, or even in a few words. All I can say is that it’s a matter that can be resolved… that must be resolved.
Because the alternative is not something that we should even be thinking about, or entertaining. We have made so many pronunciations, we’ve made statements.
When it comes to optics, to the microphones, we are saying the best things and the right things. But we should make an effort to do those things, not just say them. It doesn’t hurt anyone to keep on trying.
What hurts is keeping quiet. And, of course, things are not improving because of that. Because we’re not doing much. We have had discussions over this for two years. We can resolve them, whether it is egos or just wishing that things should be bad.
Would you say the same of Burundi?
The same thing. Actually, for Burundi, the situation is simpler and clearer. For example, Burundi has publicly stated that Rwanda is its only problem.
People make their own judgment. Let’s imagine that Rwanda does not exist. Would Burundi not be having problems?
There are people charged with responsibilities for Burundi: Mkapa as facilitator, and President Museveni as mediator, and other East Africans, who have not come up with much success. They would have said that they have found out that Burundi does not have any problems — that the problem comes from outside.
But President Nkurunziza said as much in his letter?
Yes, that’s Nkurunziza, but I am trying to put the facts out there, and not defending Rwanda.
I will not refer to what Nkurunziza has said, but those in charge of solving the Burundi problems have not said that the problem is Rwanda. If there are any problems coming from Rwanda, then they are not the main problem—and those ones can be solved separately.
Did you recuse yourself from taking over from President Museveni as the mediator of the inter-Burundi talks?
Yes, it is still President Museveni doing it. On that matter, I said it has to remain in the same hands.
I didn’t want this Burundi issue to stand in the way of anything because, being conscious of what Burundi is using as pretext, then I don’t have to play in the hands of those using the pretext. Let the people handling it continue handling it, because East Africa matters a lot more than Burundi’s problem.
How is Rwanda’s relationship with South Africa? Rwandans are still unable to get visas to go to South Africa.
With South Africa, generally, the relationship is good at country level. When it comes to individual government officers, then you might find things here and there.
The president of South Africa is managing different opinions, but as far as Rwanda is concerned, there is no divided opinion on how we should relate with South Africa.
Whatever we are asked to clarify, we do so publicly, openly, and we provide evidence. We respect the opinions of some South Africans, even if we don’t agree with them. It is even said in a manner that either some of these people making these statements would prefer dealing with the Rwandese living in South Africa than with the government of Rwanda.
Is there a direct link between the Rwandan group in South Africa, the relations with Uganda, the relations with DRC... Do you see a web of conspiracy?
With DR Congo, we have no problem. But between South Africa and ourselves, there are these matters that go around in the media.
Let me say this: Some of the things that are said to be believed by Uganda about us are coming from these individuals living in South Africa. The individuals in South Africa plotting all kinds of things against us are the ones giving information to Uganda in a way to solicit support from Uganda against us.
Whether accurate or not, the information is designed to create that problem from which they benefit. If Uganda believes in some of these things, it is because they have made a choice to believe them.
We have raised these matters with Uganda, that when they are given information, it is because those people want to buy Uganda’s support.
Since you have many regional and continental issues to deal with, here in Rwanda, what keeps you awake?
I usually have no problem with my sleep. I am only struggling to find time to sleep because of the burden of work, but I try to find good sleep and I get it.
What keeps me awake is the whole history of the struggle for a purpose, a country we can build and advance.
What keeps me awake is: How do we develop? How do we build our country? The kind of ambitions we have to develop as fast as possible, takes a lot of thinking and doing.
How many hours do you sleep in night? Your officers stay awake because they expect a call any time of the night.
On average, I make it six, sometimes I make five and — rarely — make eight. If I cannot make it five, I can do with four.
It is true that sometimes I make calls when I wake up, even in the middle of the night, depending on the urgency of the matter.
Our situation is still demanding. It is unlike other countries, where systems are working and you can relax. Where we came from it was purely firefighting.
When something is happening you put on your boots and rush there. You know if you don’t get involved, things will go very wrong. You have to juggle these.
Personally, I’m struggling to find family time and sometimes I find it difficult to divide myself within the 24 hours, I wish a day had 36 hours.
Do you think you could groom somebody to assist?
It is not that I don’t want to be assisted, but there are realities of the matter. Before I talk about the difference between Rwanda and some advanced economies and democracies, I will say, even between Rwanda and Kenya, Kenya’s history and the things that have happened, people trained to do this, establishment in this or that area, we operate differently.
Imagine moving from total destruction just 25 years ago. Kenya has a lot of resources to call upon – human, institutional, financial — established over the years. There was nothing here. But, even with that, we think more of how to sustain growth.
We are thinking about institutions, resources and leadership structures — whether they are in place. Some of the things we do here are dictated by our history. It has been a journey from nothing to something.
It is now 25 years since the Genocide against the Tutsi. How would you sum up the journey?
It has been extremely challenging, but also extremely rewarding, in the sense that I cannot see any wasted effort in the 25 years.
I can only say something has come out of it, probably more than we ever expected, so we keep going. Every year brings new challenges, not only from within but also from the world that we are part of. It changes fast and we must cope with the changes.
Does the history explain the political system you have adopted here in Rwanda?
Yes, of course. The question of putting women at the centre of politics and the economy, and the politics of consensus, trying to bring everybody in… Okay, you have your own freedom in thinking and actions, but remember we need to build for a common goal or else we fall apart, like we did last time.
Critics say this system stifles democracy, stifles competition…
I don’t know what type of lives these critics lead. They have a right to their lives and their systems, and I have no quarrel with that.
I have to deal with my life; my situation. And, by the way, we criticise ourselves in search of solutions, and this is how we arrive at some of these things we do here.
If I waited to listen to outsiders, I don’t know what they do and for what reasons... I don’t want to be like them—maybe they should be like me.
I have no quarrel with coming under scrutiny more than anyone else. We are not insensitive to remarks made about us. At the end of the day, it is our thing. When we fell apart, the same critics only gave a hand in retrospection. It is our struggle, even though we still have to relate with others and listen. Pay for your mistakes and gain from your efforts.
What do you do for leisure?
I play tennis, interact with people from Rwanda and outside. I have walked into restaurants and hotels to have a meal. I have fun just like other people.