M23 rebellion, a showdown with Félix Tshisekedi, criticism from the international community, reception of migrants, but also longevity in power and the Rwandan presidential election of 2024... An exclusive interview with Rwanda's president Paul Kagame.
Politically, diplomatically, and economically, Rwanda wants to box in a category that is superior to it, gaining access through sheer force of will and strictly enforced governance.
Ever more hotels, ever more malls, ever more order, cleanliness and security... Second, only to Cape Town in the number of congresses and conferences, Kigali offers itself up as the face of Rwandan success.
If in terms of notoriety and brand image, Rwanda Inc. now seeks to replace the thousand mass graves of the Tutsi genocide, it is to Paul Kagame that we owe this transformation, undoubtedly unique.
It is certainly one view, visible to any visitor to the capital.
But there is another view of Rwanda, the one held at present by Félix Tshisekedi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) government and a good part of its civil society.
That of a bellicose Rwanda in the image of its leader: predatory, which feels cramped in its borders, a compulsive interventionist, whose threatening shadow reappeared a little over a year ago in the east of the DRC in the form of a rebel movement, the M23, the strings of which Kagame pulls like a Machiavellian puppeteer.
It does not matter that this movement presents itself as an armed Banyamulenge self-defence group. These Rwandophone Congolese from the Tutsi community, largely victims of discrimination for a quarter of a century, are orphans of the broken promises of integration concluded in 2009 and in 2013 with Kinshasa authorities.
According to the Congolese president, these rebels are terrorists, just good enough to be parked on the slopes of the Sabyinyo volcano if they cannot be sent back to where they came from: Rwanda.
Suffice it to say that the withdrawal of the M23 from the positions it occupies in North Kivu is not going to happen tomorrow. Suffice it to say, too, that between Kigali and Kinshasa, any direct or indirect negotiation is a matter of wishful thinking.
It was therefore logical that most of the interview given to us by Paul Kagame on January 17, in a bare living room in Urugwiro village, the seat of the presidency in Kigali, should be devoted to this urgent dossier.
Even if this 65-year-old head of state, in power since 2000, could not escape a few questions about his longevity: in all likelihood, Kagame will run for a fourth term next year.
In your New Year’s speech a month ago, you said the situation in eastern DRC was “worse than ever”. Is that still true today?
Paul Kagame: Allow me to do a bit of history, as it is difficult to understand the current situation out of context. The eastern DRC has been in a state of almost permanent instability since 1994. At the time, nearly two million Rwandans had fled the country to take refuge there.
The majority of them have since returned to Rwanda, but a minority have remained there, which still constitutes a factor of insecurity for us today. Added to these are the hundreds of Congolese armed groups operating in this region. Most are self- defence militias formed on ethnic bases.
For more than two decades, the UN has maintained, with billions of dollars, a force supposed to stabilise the two Kivus, with, as we can see, a derisory even non- existent result. As it was necessary to find someone responsible for this failure, Rwanda is the scapegoat. It is so in the eyes of an international community that has failed, and it is so for the Congolese leaders, who are only too happy to find an excuse for their own incapacity.
You can say that Rwanda is part of the problem in the East maybe, but how can you say it is the one and only problem? It is simply dishonest and, above all, totally counterproductive.
As long as external powers and successive Congolese governments sing this refrain, there will be no lasting solution to the ills that plague eastern DRC. It is absolutely clear to me that the responsibility for this situation lies first with the Congolese authorities, and then with the Western countries involved in the creation of the problem.
Take the example of the terrorist group FDLR [Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda]. How do you explain that it is still active, 29 years after the genocide, despite the continued presence of Monusco? At the end of 2019, this group carried out another deadly attack in Kinigi, in the tourist district of Musanze, killing 14 civilians before finding refuge on the Congolese side of the border.
The fact that we consider it our responsibility to eradicate these individuals wherever they are – and no one will prevent us from doing so – is only the consequence of the impotence of those who were meant to do the job in the first place. Because, I assure you, in my lifetime and in the lifetime of future generations, there will never again be a genocide in Rwanda. If we had to fight for it with bows, spears, and stones, it will not happen again.
Do you consider that the claims of the M23 are founded and justify an armed rebellion?
At a summit in 2022, I asked President Félix Tshisekedi the following question: “Let’s not waste our time beating around the bush. Do you consider the members of the M23, their families and the tens of thousands of refugees from the same community as them, as Congolese or Rwandans? He answered me, in the presence of the other Heads of State: “They are Congolese”.
Congolese of Rwandan origin or culture perhaps, but Congolese citizens, just as there are districts in southern Uganda populated by Rwandan-speaking Ugandans without this posing the slightest difficulty. Therefore, if their integration in the Congo raises a problem, why should we be responsible?
On the other hand, where it has an impact on us is when hundreds of families driven from their homes after being stigmatised as “Rwandan” or “Tutsi” come to take refuge here. These Congolese nationals who are victims of ethnic discrimination number nearly 80,000 in Rwanda. ” Go home! they were told. But their home – and for many for well over a century – is the eastern Congo!
The Kabila government promised to settle this matter. Nothing happened. The Tshisekedi government made the same promise, and M23 leaders travelled to Kinshasa, where they stayed in their hotel for four months without anyone getting a meeting. The M23, mostly refugees in Uganda, therefore felt cheated and justified in resuming the fight to assert their rights.
Put yourself in the place of these people, born and raised in Congo, whose parents and grandparents were born on Congolese soil and who are told to return to where they came from before colonisation and before the very existence of borders! And imagine what Africa would become if everyone played this dangerous game.
Add to this hate speech from the Congolese government, administration and politicians, and the similarity between this situation and that which prevailed in Rwanda in 1994 is obvious.
You deny any intervention by your army alongside the M23. Would you go so far as to say that you have no influence over Sultani Makenga and his men?
The accusation that I would intervene in the Congo matters little to me. It is neither the first nor the last. The important thing is to know why I would intervene. If you don’t ask yourself this question, you are missing the point.
The answer is simple: the threat posed to our security by the activity of a group imbued with a genocidal ideology such as the FDLR is clearly likely to lead us to intervene on Congolese territory, without apology or notice. When you’re attacked, you don’t wait for instructions from your attacker or his protector on how to react.
As far as the M23 is concerned, I may indeed speak to its leaders. After all, they are on our borders, and the Luanda and Nairobi processes, which recommend dialogue with all armed groups, including this one, are clear.
I, therefore, sent messages of appeasement to the M23, asking its leaders to stop fighting and withdraw from the localities they occupied. Which they accepted. The problem is that the Congolese army took the opportunity to attack them, before being defeated once again.
I thought the FDLR had become a marginal group. That’s not what you seem to say...
The FDLR is integrated within the FARDC [Armed Forces of the DRC] and that is where the problem lies. This state of affairs does not prevent us from claiming our legitimate right to extinguish the fire at its source, wherever it is, with or without anyone’s consent.
Don’t you feel isolated on the international scene?
Isolated from what, and isolated by whom? Forget this story of isolation. When you have the support of 100% of your compatriots, it doesn’t make sense.
How can this crisis be ended?
On the one hand, the M23 must stop fighting. On the other hand, and simultaneously, the Congolese government must seriously study its demands and respond to them. The Kinshasa authorities must also put an end to anti-Tutsi hate speech and no longer threaten these populations by sending them back to Rwanda when they are at home in Congo.
Rather than lending a sympathetic ear to the story of the Congolese side and listening only to their version, the external powers concerned should help Congo to integrate these people. Rwanda is not an empty space in which a neighbouring country believes itself authorised to get rid of the populations it persecutes.
The M23 was accused of committing crimes against civilians, notably in Kishishe, at the end of November 2022. Do you condemn these abuses?
I condemn all abuse, wherever it comes from. I simply note that the crimes committed by the FDLR and the FARDC are not, or very rarely, documented. Why? In reality, there is no impartial arbiter in this matter, and this is one of the crux of the matter.
Did President Tshisekedi open Pandora’s box by inviting, at the end of 2021, Ugandan and Burundian troops to fight rebel groups in the East alongside his army, without involving or informing Rwanda?
Let’s say it gave a clear sign of his intentions.
The idea of involving neighbouring countries, including Rwanda, in solving the problem of armed groups came from us and was at the heart of our discussions with the Congolese authorities, at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020.
The fact that Kinshasa finally decided to exclude us means that the Congo has neither the desire nor the intention to resolve the particular case of the FDLR.
The same logic based on bad faith presided over the DRC veto of Rwanda’s participation in the East African regional force under Kenyan leadership. As long as the Congolese government considers that it can manage the FDLR without us, there will be no solution.
Your last meeting with Félix Tshisekedi dates back to September 2022, in New York, at the initiative of French President Emmanuel Macron. With no known results. Between you two, trust seems broken. Why?
This proceeds from all that I have just told you. For us Rwandans, the presence of genocidal forces on our borders is a serious matter of national security. We discover that our neighbours are collaborating with our enemies, and you would like us to trust them?
During a meeting with young Congolese at the beginning of December 2022, Félix Tshisekedi explicitly wanted you to leave power and said he was ready to help the Rwandan people to “get rid” of their “retrograde leaders”. What’s your reaction?
It is his right. And that is indeed what he is trying to do by collaborating with the FDLR, which he needs on the military ground. For the rest, I would like to know how he intends to go about it.
The anti-Tutsi, anti-Banyamulenge and anti-Rwandan diatribes are officially condemned by the Congolese government, which claims to make allowances between your regime and the Rwandophone populations. Isn’t that the whole difference from the situation that prevailed in Rwanda in 1994?
The facts speak for themselves. I do not believe in the fable of isolated individuals or groups guilty of hate speech. These speeches are encouraged by the Congolese government. We cannot, on the one hand, create the conditions for such speeches to be made and, on the other hand, pretend to condemn them.
The DRC is in an election year, with a presidential election announced for the end of 2023. Do you think this prospect plays a role in the crisis with Rwanda?
This is obvious, insofar as this situation offers fertile ground for all political one- upmanship.
Instead of campaigning on the proper use of the immense wealth available to the DRC and on using it for the benefit of the population, which we know poses a problem, they prefer to attack Rwanda. It’s the easiest way to escape responsibility.
What are the conditions for a just and lasting peace in the East?
There is just one condition. Congolese leaders and politicians must have the courage to face the situation and work to resolve it, without constantly seeking pretexts and excuses outside the country. Nowhere in the world has a just and lasting peace been built on evasiveness.
Is this a governance issue? of security? both at the same time? It is up to the Congolese to respond and take responsibility.
Would you tell them that you are not the devil you are portrayed to be?
I have nothing to tell them about myself. Do you seriously think that the structural problems facing the DRC – governance, resource management, responsibility and accountability... – appeared the day the RPF [Rwandan Patriotic Front] and Kagame came to power in Kigali?
Do you believe for a second that I am responsible for the fact that 1% of Congolese benefit from the wealth of their country and that 99% are excluded? Or the fact that nearly 120 armed groups proliferate in the East?
Everyone has their problems, and you will never hear me tell my compatriots that their problems are the fault of the Congolese.
To the latter, I would like to say this: the Congo is a great country in terms of its population, its geography, its resources, and its culture, but it must also be great in terms of its capacity to manage its own affairs and transform itself.
Listening to those of their leaders who portray me as the devil to avoid facing their own responsibilities or out of simple demagoguery will not change their situation.
Your relations with Uganda have improved. Do you now trust President Yoweri Museveni?
We actually have very good relations, even if there are still a few points to settle between us. But nothing we can’t face together.
And with Burundi?
I see real progress. As you know, there are Burundian refugees here, and with regard to this file, the leaders of Bujumbura have taken their responsibilities.
However, Burundi considers some of these refugees as opponents, even coup leaders...
Yes, this problem remains, and it is not the only one. But the will to resolve it is there, and that is the main thing.
Rwanda has exported its security know-how to the Central African Republic and Mozambique. Are you satisfied with the result in these two countries?
Nothing is perfect, but I think the results are well above average. Both in the Central African Republic and in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique, where our intervention prevented terrorism from spreading to other provinces, insecurity has decreased significantly. Our know-how is not only military. Our country, which has experienced total destruction, has experience to share in nation-building in all areas.
Do you plan to deploy troops in northern Benin to help the country’s army deal with incursions by jihadist groups?
It is not excluded. Our cooperation with Benin is intense and multifaceted, including in defence and security. Its level is such that there is nothing that we cannot consider together.
You presented Rwanda as a “country with solutions” to solve the global migration crisis and, to this end, concluded agreements with Great Britain, Denmark and Israel under the terms of which you welcome – temporarily or not – the migrants that rich countries do not want. What do you say to those who believe that this offer is above all driven by financial and geopolitical considerations, as well as by the desire to improve your image in the field of human rights?
I have a hard time understanding these reviews. Why don’t they focus, first of all, on the origin and the reasons for these migratory movements? Why, once again, blame Rwanda when it provides the beginnings of a solution?
When I held the presidency of the African Union, in 2018-2019, the drama of the migrants who flocked to Libya in the hope of reaching Europe appeared to me in all its brutality: at the mercy of smugglers and traffickers, condemned to risk their lives on makeshift boats, reduced to slavery by gangs of militiamen, imprisoned, mistreated...
The idea, which I first submitted to the international organisations concerned, was to propose other places of transit, starting, of course, with my own country. Rwanda is not rich, but it can offer migrants incomparably better living and security conditions than those they know in Libya. That’s how it all started.
Agreements have been made, and the migrants we accommodate in our reception centres have three possible choices. Either they obtain asylum in a European country, which, after investigation, grants them legal status, or they return to their country of origin because they believe that they ultimately made a mistake by leaving it. They may decide to settle in Rwanda. We are certainly a small country, but we can absorb a few thousand more people.
Therefore, I ask a simple question: is it good or bad? And what credible alternative do those who criticise us offer?
Your personal relations with Emmanuel Macron are good. However, France has added its voice to those of the United States, Canada, Belgium and the European Union, which are asking you to stop intervening in eastern DRC. Are you disappointed?
This position was based on bad information and it was not necessary. Those who express themselves thus should bear in mind the sensitive aspect of this dossier. It is not good to react irrationally, just to please one party at the expense of another.
When, at the invitation of President Macron, I agreed to meet Félix Tshisekedi last September in New York – and although the latter devoted a large part of his speech to the United Nations General Assembly to Rwanda – it was because I thought that Emmanuel Macron was driven by a sincere desire to contribute to solving the problem. I, therefore, hope that France will be able to approach this dossier in a better and more appropriate way.
Many observers were surprised by the scathing tenor of the response you made to Antony Blinken, the American Secretary of State, and to those who, like him, are calling for the release of opponent Paul Rusesabagina, who was the manager of the Hôtel des Mille Collines during the genocide. Only an invasion of Rwanda, you said, would be able to liberate him. Does this mean that you are not ready for any measure of leniency?
The word “invasion” is obviously not to be taken seriously. It was just an image to make it clear how much this case touches a particularly sensitive point for us. Paul Rusesabagina is a Rwandan. He is more Rwandan, in any case than Belgian [he has dual nationality] or American. The fact that he gained some notoriety following the film Hotel Rwanda and that he criticises me does not pose any problem to me in itself and does not require any comment on my part.
But the facts for which he was prosecuted and convicted speak for themselves, and the evidence gathered against him is overwhelming. He was the leader of an anti- Rwandan group associated, in word and deed, with the genocidaires of the FDLR. Members of his own group came to testify at the trial, and he himself admitted it. These are facts; those who are waiting for us to release him do not deny them.
Their attitude, therefore, amounts to saying: “OK, whatever you blame him for, release him, we demand it. And we should answer them: “Yes, sir”? This type of pressure may work elsewhere, but not in Rwanda. Considering as secondary and negligible all that we have experienced is like trampling on us and reducing us to nothing.
While it is accepted that the Rwandan government is justified in prohibiting hate speech of the type that led to the genocide of the Tutsi, many observers believe that, 29 years later, current laws and practices go beyond this legitimate objective and that they serve to prevent dissenting opinions from being expressed. Isn’t it time to loosen the screws and lift the lid?
This analysis may sound sensible, but it is completely out of context.
Assuming that you are right, I could answer you that, compared to the countries – and there are many of them – where there is neither progress nor freedoms, we have at least one of the two, recognised by all. But you are wrong. I was watching a German documentary the other day about Rwanda’s progress. It ended with this question: “At what price?”
As if, on the one hand, we made sure that Rwandans benefit from progress and that, on the other, we made them pay for it with their freedom or that we strangle them to serve them breakfast. As if progress here could only be achieved at the expense of freedom.
It does not mean anything. Go and meet Rwandans, question them, and do all the polls you want. If their results say that 90% of people think there is progress but no freedom, then I’ll agree with you and we’ll act on it. But if they say they enjoy both, will you keep asking me that question?
The next presidential election in Rwanda will take place, in principle, in August 2024. Will you be a candidate for your succession?
Yes and no. It’s a possibility, but I’m not sure.
For your compatriots, there is no doubt that you will be...
Without a doubt. But, in the end, it’s a decision that I will take alone, as a free man.
You have been Head of State for almost 23 years, but many people think that in reality, you have been the strong man of this country since 1994. How do you fight against the erosion of power?
Simply by being myself. I do not pretend to know everything, I am not in power for any personal gain and I do not forget that I am a human being like the others.
I know that power can corrupt, but you can abuse it from the first year of your first mandate as well as after 10, 15, or 20years. Admittedly, remaining in power for a long time increases this possibility, but, ultimately, it is not the duration that defines a dictatorship, it is the fact of hanging on, whether the people like it or not, and it is the lack of results. Hence the importance of democratic control offered by a free election and respect for the choice of citizens. If they think you should stay in power, that’s their right.
“It is safer to be feared than to be loved,” writes Machiavelli in The Prince. Do you agree?
No. A leader does not need to be feared or loved. He needs to be respected.
Don’t you care to be liked by your countrymen?
One can be loved and have done nothing for it. What matters to me is to be respected for what I have accomplished. And if I ask to be respected, it is because I respect myself and I respect others.
This interview was first published by Africa Report.