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Since 1994, the tiny African nation of Rwanda has effectively been run by rebel leader-turned-politician Paul Kagame. He has won praise for stamping out corruption and restoring stability, while critics have raised questions about his regime's commitment to democracy as well as its involvement in the unrest in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. As his country prepared to mark the 15th anniversary of the genocide that killed about an eighth of its population, he told Fast Company why Rwanda's political system make sense, explained the place of the genocide in the national memory, and made the case for why foreigners should invest in his homeland.
FC: Much of the Rwandan national "brand identity" is associated with the
genocide and the recovery from that tragedy. But government officials
repeatedly reiterate that Rwanda is forward-looking and that the
genocide is in the past. How do you feel about the image of the country
and the place of the genocide in it?
Kagame: We will not forget the genocide, but we will not be defined by it either. Each year, we use the memory of the genocide to convene a national discussion, but then we use the discussion to talk about the future. We want to be known as a purpose-driven nation, a nation of individual responsibility in harmony with the collective good. We will attract investment and increase our ability to export high quality products that achieve price premiums, and with the economic surpluses we create, to continue to invest in knowledge, skills and abilities. We know that if that past is never to happen again, we must grow our economy, create opportunities for higher wages, so that we create the conditions for tolerance, trust, and optimism. That is Rwanda’s new "brand identity," as you call it.
FC: At last year's genocide commemoration, you told your countrymen that they should be ashamed that Rwanda relies on taxpayer funds from foreign countries. Why?
Kagame: No country can depend on development aid forever. Such support may play a positive but transitory role, as in mitigating a natural disaster, emergency or recovery from conflict when re-building strategic infrastructures or vital institutions is vital due to the fact that domestic productivity can not raise enough resources. Otherwise, commerce, industry, and value addition to local products for export or local consumption are the stuff that any successful country has to be preoccupied with in realising prosperity through hard work and earnings of its people and taxpayers. Why [would] Africa or Rwanda acquiesce to a different lifestyle and practice—where we are sustained by the outside world—especially when our continent is endowed with vast human and natural resources? Such dependency dehumanises us and robs of us our dignity, and quite frankly it is an unacceptable proposition, besides being unsustainable.
FC: Why should non-Rwandans invest in Rwanda?
Kagame: Rwanda has considerable investment opportunities in various sectors including agro-processing, tourism, energy, and mining. We are strategically located in the heart of Africa sitting in the East African Community—a market of nearly 130 million people that is, furthermore in the process of integrating with the Common Market for Southern and Eastern Africa as well as the Southern African Development Community. This bigger market has over half of Africa’s population of almost a billion people. I have no doubt that the more we integrate, improve our regional infrastructure and institutions, this part of our continent becomes more attractive to foreign direct investment not only from our traditional trading partners of North America and Western Europe but also from successful economies of China and India. Rwanda is part of this emerging market.
FC: What effect does the overall security situation in the region—including the Congo—have on Rwanda’s business prospects? And what do you say to investors concerned by the rumours of Rwandan involvement in the Congo?
Kagame: A geographical neighbourhood a particular country is located in is a matter of historical accident than design. We happen to be part of the Great Lakes Region bordering DRC and Burundi—two countries that have recently emerged from considerable socioeconomic and political upheavals, as was the case in our country since the early 1990s to the later part of that decade. Nonetheless trans-border commerce in our region is a centuries-old tradition regardless of the security situation of the day. I am happy to say that things are looking up, as on the one hand, institutional frameworks to enhance economic and political ties between the DRC, Burundi and Rwanda are being revived and strengthened, and on the other hand the regional integration in the East African Community that incorporates Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi and ourselves continues to momentum. These developments are what any investor would welcome—larger markets for legitimate trade and investment in peaceful regional environment, as opposed to smaller markets further rendered unviable by wars, conflict and insecurity is what our region needs.
FC: Your Presidential Advisory Council seems to have no parallel
anywhere in the world. Why did you opt for this relationship-based
strategy for economic development in Rwanda?
Kagame: We have friends with a vast experience in many important fields—people who have led governments, faith-based institutions or global companies. This pool of talent constitutes an inexhaustible source of advice and inspiration from people with vast knowledge and experience in some of the things that we need to do to create prosperity in our country. By bringing together Rwandans and our overseas colleagues together regularly, the Presidential Advisory Council enables us to transform ideas into practical tools of improving lives in our country.
FC: So much of Rwanda’s efforts seem tied to yours, and many of those who have chosen to invest are drawn largely because of your leadership. What perils do you see in having it pinned on one person? How long do you intend to be at the helm in Rwanda, and have you made any contingencies for the day when you are not?
Kagame: We have come a long way in Rwanda since 1994 from a shattered social, economic, political and cultural fabric to something entirely different—new institutions that provide a foundation, rules, and values for inclusive leadership as well as its transfer from a set of leaders to the next. Besides setting a two-term limit for a sitting president, our Constitution also institutionalises power-sharing by, for example, demanding that the presidency and parliamentary speaker cannot be held simultaneously by one party, and that even the council of ministers in the executive cannot be drawn from a single party. Beyond the formal institutions, we are a country that has paid a heavy price of genocide from decades of mal-governance—our concept of leadership is one that is broad-based, decentralised and reflected at all levels including especially at community level that is hinged in local responsibilities and accountabilities. My leadership is not divorced from these hard-earned dividends in the new Rwanda.
FC: By some estimates, 90% of Rwandans are subsistence farmers, and rural development is something that has vexed experts and policymakers. Why do you think you will succeed? What strategies are you offering that are novel?
Kagame: Rural development the world over—not only in Rwanda—is something that needs a multi-pronged strategy with short-, medium-, and long terms clearly goals and objectives that are relentlessly pursued. Investment in education is fundamental—and here we are making good progress, as the first nine years of basic education is tuition-free for the first time in our history. Over 96% of school-age Rwandan children have access to basic education. Technical and vocational training continue to undergo reform to provide skills badly needed by our people, especially the rural population—literacy and skills are essential for self-improvement, including the improved ability to engage better agricultural practices such as use of modern inputs like fertilizer. Improved rural roads to market forms part of the strategy. Additionally, we have been decentralizing government to bring national institutions closer to rural populations so that ministries, departments and agencies respond to local needs. These factors also breed local leaders who in turn engage their constituencies for better social, economic, and political outcomes. These are some of the recipes not only for rural development but also for successful transformation generally.
FC: Your government has taken a much stronger position on managing NGOs and development groups than other countries. What is the proper role for the NGO in Rwandan development?
Non-governmental organizations are welcome in Rwanda as long as they serve the interest of their members—and our country is no exception in understanding NGOs in this fashion. In the normal sense of the concept, these agencies are critical for forming healthy, national tripartite arrangements that bring together government, business and civil society with a shared purpose of building strong and successful nations. Put differently, community-based initiatives are part of socioeconomic transformation and platforms of improving lives. What we have difficulty with are self-serving NGOs—some of them with hardly any members to serve but narrow interests.
FC: One of the first things that many Westerners note when visiting Rwanda is that there’s a ban on plastic bags. Why? And how does this fit into any broader strategy?
Kagame: The broader strategy is that the world community must do all it can to save our environment. Plastic bags degrade our environment, besides the fact that they add to the costs of cleaning of our cities, towns and villages.
FC: Rwanda under your leadership has not received top marks on freedom and human rights, and you have been angered by some of the outside reports on the topic. Why have the reports troubled you, and how high a priority is it for your government to strengthen and safeguard rights and freedoms?
Kagame: Any fair-minded person would readily see that Rwanda is now a country of laws, a country with an innovative constitution, and a country with increasingly robust private sector and civil society institutions that never existed before. The problem is that some people analyze good governance in a generic one size-fits-all [way]—true, there are critical universal features but equally important are society-specific characteristics that are informed by a country’s peculiar history. For example, in our Constitution, power-sharing is central to the extent that a winning party at the polls should not control both the presidency and parliament. This is based on the fact that winner-takes-all principle and practice that exclusion and genocide. Our critics see our innovations as anti-democratic and limits to human rights. We Rwandans know otherwise.