On August 7th, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda called a press conference for international journalists in Kigali. He responded to allegations of reppression, widening trade deficits and deviant generals. Below are the excerpts.
Mr. President, your government is accused of repression. What do you have to say about that?
That is not for me to say. It is for the people of Rwanda. You should go to the streets and through the villages and ask them if they feel they live under a repressive system. There you will get the real answer.
There has been bad blood between Rwanda and South Africa recently. South Africa has now recalled its ambassador. Is this a sign in the collapse of diplomatic relations?
Our relationship with South Africa is strong and unchanged even in the face of recent events. Many of the things that have happened have happened not because of the official policy of South Africa. It seems a few individuals in the government have not used their positions impartially. But that is a small problem.
What do you say about the problem of FDLR: Are they still a threat to stability in Rwanda?
We have brought back most of them and integrated them into the society. At rallies, many returnees have been giving testimonies on how much change has come into their lives after they returned. Many have testified that they were afraid for their lives but have been treated fairly and with dignity by the government and the community.
For those who have not returned, we are also dealing with countries that were giving them sanctuary. We have made good progress there. But we are concerned about those who are in Europe and use it as a base to continue to promote killings of our people.
Mr President, what do you think comes first; democracy or economic development?
Both are important to us; we do not need to choose one over the other. We seek economic development, stability and democracy knowing that all of them are good for us, not because someone else wants us to have them. And we also know that all the three are self reinforcing.
But I would like to tell you that democracy is not an event. It is a process. We cannot declare that “Let there be democracy” and then it falls from heaven like manna. What we have done is to put in place a democratisation process. That process is ongoing and has many weaknesses of course created by our context. Those who come from elsewhere should understand this because there is not country anywhere in the world whose democracy would be de-linked from its history and its context.
What do you say about the generals [Patrick Karegyeya and Kayumba Nyamwasa] who ran to South Africa and have now been given political asylum there? You want them extradited but Rwanda does not have an extradition treaty with South Africa.
Well they seem to be enjoying the hospitality of a few individuals within the South African government. That does not mean that officially, the government of South Africa is involved. In fact, the behaviour of some individuals in the government of South Africa towards these renegade generals has caused concerns about whether they were serving some foreign interests when they were serving here.
Regarding the lack of an extradition treaty, you can extradite someone even when there is no such agreement. It can be done on the basis of good bilateral relations, on the strength of the charges brought against the concerned persons if you believe that they will face a fair trial in the country you are sending them. But you can also use the absence of such a treaty as an excuse not to extradite them.
Mr. President, Rwanda has a very high debt to GDP ratio of up to 16 percent, widening trade deficits and dependency on foreign aid for almost 50 percent of the budget: What are you planning to do about this?
The solution is to promote sustained economic growth with a strong bias towards growth of exports abroad and broadening the tax base at home. These two strategies would reduce the trade deficit abroad and narrow the budget deficit at home. One area of interest is to increase our trade competitiveness within the region. Right now we have trade imbalances with most of our neighbours which contribute to the trade deficit. We are going to work hard to narrow this gap. The second area of interest is to sustain economic growth alongside improving tax administration so that we can generate more domestic resources to finance the budget.
What do you feel about the campaign process?
We have been involved in an accountability contest. We have gone to those we serve to ask them whether we have been doing the right thing, whether we have been serving their interest. It is refreshing to see the response of the people of Rwanda. They are keenly interested in holding us to account.
Are you concerned about your international credibility given recent events?
I am concerned about my international credibility like any human being would. However, what I care most about is my credibility before my people, the citizens of Rwanda. They are my primary constituency and I take my credibility before them most seriously.
However, I am not blind to international opinion about Rwanda. I take it seriously too but as a secondary, not a primary concern. We have to uphold international norms and standards and we always aspire to that. However, there are times when what is needed to achieve national stability may not be understood by some sections of the international community especially given that our context is different. In such cases, when I confront a choice between doing what is right and good for Rwanda that may displease some people in the international community and when pleasing the international community has very high costs on stability in Rwanda, I stand on the side of stability in Rwanda first.
Therefore, I am willing to lose some international credibility and legitimacy in the pursuit of the interests of Rwandans. However, I always try to balance both sides. But sometimes it is not possible. The problem is that often times some people in the international community want us to dance to their tune. When we refuse and defend our legitimate national interest, they try to project us as bad.
Isn’t there a crisis of democracy in Rwanda in the face of all the things that have happened recently?
There is no crisis of democracy in Rwanda. The democracy Rwandans want is the one they have decided for themselves, not the one other nations want to decide for them. The Rwanda you see today is a new Rwanda that seeks independence in decision making.
In building democracy in Rwanda, we have to be cognisant of our context. If we failed to build a democracy that is responsive to our unique circumstances, there are disastrous consequences. And if this country was plunged into a crisis because of pursuit of a mindless, context-less democracy, none of those people who want us to have democracy their way would show up here. They would be speaking about how Africans cannot manage democracy, about how we have failed not recognising that we failed because we ignored our context and took their advice. We have experience this problem in Rwanda and Africa before. So it is not new. We have confronted a crisis and the world has turned its back on us.
Do you also fear internal opposition within your own party especially given that some army officers have been arrested and others have escaped from the country?
That exists in the imagination of outsiders. Look, in some countries, generals who criticise the commander in chief or make statements deemed unbecoming of a general get fired immediately. When Rwanda does the same, people say there is a crisis. Inside the RPF, I was chosen as its chairman through a secret ballot in an election that had other contestants. I won an overwhelming majority. So I am not afraid of internal opposition.
However, there is another thing; someone is under investigation for stealing public funds and he runs out of the country and begins shouting about human rights. Some interest groups embrace this person, this thief as a democrat. Surely, how can a thief who denied other Rwandans the benefits that would have come from the public funds he stole be the representative of democracy in our country?
Mr President, there is an article on the internet that says that villagers who do not attend your rallies are threatened with reprisals from your security agents and that is why you have multitudes at your rallies.
That is not true. You are here in Rwanda. Please go quietly around this country investigating this claim and come back and tell me if it is true. I should really not answer this one. You should answer it yourself.
Why did you arrest Victoire Ngabire who had demonstrated that she is the strongest candidate against you?
There is strong evidence linking her to FDLR. The UN has said so in its reports. Governments in Europe have promised to give us more evidence of this. That is why she is in court. Secondly, when she arrived here, she denied genocide. We have laws in this country against genocide denial just like most democracies in Western Europe do. Should we exempt someone from criminal prosecution when they commit a crime because they claim to be opposition candidates?
What do you say about the journalist who was killed? Critics say it was done by your government.
The case has been investigated by the police. The gun that killed the journalist has been retrieved, the killer apprehended and jailed. The alleged killer has even confessed to the crime and given reasons why he killed this journalist. This journalist was a soldier in Habyarimana’s army. He was tried for genocide and later released. This person whose family was killed by this soldier turned journalist decided to take the law into his own hands to revenge. The police have since apprehended him. Why do people, in spite of all this information, continue to accuse the government of killing this journalist?
Regarding your fight against corruption; don’t you think that it costs Rwanda more than it benefits it? For example, it has alienated local businesses while it has not attracted international investments. Secondly, don’t you think other leaders in the region would be unhappy about you making them look bad?
Fighting corruption has a cost – a political cost and an economic cost. But not fighting it also has a cost too – political and economic. Corruption comes with a high cost of injustice on the most vulnerable people in society. On the balance of things, the benefits from fighting corruption far outweigh the costs. For example, fighting corruption has improved our relations with donors who see their money is well spent. It has also brought us investments. Today, all surveys done on doing business show that Rwanda is top. That is going to bring more investments.