Rebooting Rwanda – A Conversation With Paul Kagame

By IndepthAfrica
In Ethiopia
Apr 5th, 2014
The president in London, September 2009. (Luke MacGregor / Courtesy Reuters)

The president in London, September 2009. (Luke MacGregor / Courtesy Reuters)

On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down by unidentified assailants. The next day, the killings began. Over the next three months, as the international community stood by, an estimated one million Rwandans—Tutsis and moderate Hutus—were systematically slaughtered by Hutu extremists, mostly using clubs and machetes. The genocide, one of history’s worst and certainly its quickest, finally ended in July, when the Rwandan Patriotic Front seized control of the country. The rebel army was led by a 36-year-old Tutsi former refugee named Paul Kagame, who promptly took political control: serving first as the de facto leader of the country while defense minister and vice president and then, in 2000, assuming the presidency. During Kagame’s two-decade rule, Rwanda has made spectacular progress. A country famously deemed “nonviable” in the mid-1990s has become one of Africa’s best-run, most orderly, least corrupt, and safest states, with a booming economy (Rwanda’s GDP has grown by an average of eight percent in recent years). But Rwanda’s success has come with a darker side: opposition politicians have been jailed or killed under mysterious circumstances, journalists complain of harassment, and Kigali has been regularly criticized for meddling in neighboring Congo’s long-running civil war. In late February, Kagame met with Foreign Affairs managing editor Jonathan Tepperman in Kigali to discuss these controversies, his tenure, Rwanda today, and the legacy of the mass killings two decades ago.

April 7 marks the 20th anniversary of Rwanda’s genocide. The village gacaca courts finished work in 2012. The ICTR [International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda] expects to finish work this year. Tens of thousands of convicted criminals have been amnestied in the last two decades. Given all this, how far has Rwanda come in terms of reconciliation since 1994?
Well, it starts with understanding where we have come from and then seeing where we are today, and looking at the difference. We have come from a genocide and the devastation that characterized it. Almost the entire population was displaced. There was confusion, death, despair, and so on.

Today, you see people living side by side, working together, developing the country. Institutions have been rebuilt. After total disintegration, the country is making progress, because the country has come back together. Rwanda has come back to life in many forms.

Reconciliation for me also means that people have had time to reflect. They have reflected on what divided them and what caused the genocide, and they have overcome some of the real or perceived differences that [allowed] the genocide to happen. It seems they are comfortable with themselves, with each other, and they are moving forward.

Does that mean that people have forgiven?
There is forgiving in a sense, but I don’t think people have forgotten. They are willing to forgive for a purpose, the purpose being that they want a better future. People don’t want to become hostages of history. So there is no doubt that forgiving has taken place. Those who lost people have settled back peacefully, back in their villages. It is not enforced, it is not monitored; it just happened.

Are people frustrated with the compromises inherent in the reconciliation process but willing to go ahead with them because they see them as the least bad alternative?
I think there has been an element of that, an element of realism. People are thinking about a better future, so they are able to put aside one thing and move on with another. That doesn’t mean giving up on something. They say, “Yes, the past is there, we live with it. But we must not let it come at the expense of building a better future.”

Countries that have gone through terrible civil wars have taken different approaches to reconciliation. Some emphasize peace and stability, some justice, some truth. What was Rwanda’s approach?
Our approach was that all of these are very important. You can’t do one at the expense of the other. Maybe a portion of one here and a bigger portion of the other there, but all of them have to happen at the same time. In fact, this is probably what has been most challenging for us: it hasn’t been easy to prioritize, and almost everything had to be done at the same time.

Was it justice? Absolutely, justice had to take place. Reconciliation means you listen to justice and also move on, saying, “Well, this happened, but it is going to develop into something else.”

After apartheid ended in South Africa, the new government’s approach privileged truth; if people came forward and spoke honestly, they got amnesty. A version of that happened here: if people confessed and spoke honestly to the gacaca courts, they were given more lenient sentences. So was the emphasis here also more on truth and less on punishment?
One thing was not emphasized at the expense of the other. In the gacaca courts, justice was intertwined with reconciliation, almost in equal measure.

Some people were tried and sentenced. But the process also included being lenient on people who came out with the truth. The solution had to be more complicated than in South Africa, because our case was more complicated. The masterminds [of the genocide], the leaders, were tried, as were four categories of others who committed serious crimes. These people were not touched by gacaca courts; they went straight to the normal justice system. That had nothing to do with reconciliation.

Then, you had others tried through gacaca and given sentences commensurate to the level of their crime but also to the level of remorse they showed and the truth they told. People were actually let free, not because they were entirely innocent but because they were able to show that if they had had an alternative, they would not have committed the crime, and because they asked for forgiveness and told the truth and showed remorse.

This was a fairly progressive approach. With all the bitter history involved, why didn’t you choose a more punitive approach?
It is very simple. If one had come out of our struggle saying, “I’m going to impose my will and that’s it, and whoever is on the other end must face the consequences,” that would have sowed the seeds for a cycle of chaos. Therefore, we had to exercise maximum restraint and also reason. Was our duty settling scores or dealing with the issues in such a way as to allow space for building the future? Were we willing to be different from the people we fought, we replaced? This was always at the back of our mind.

Did some Tutsis want a more punitive approach?
Many people disagreed with me, no doubt. Even those who agreed that we needed to exercise restraint disagreed with the extent. They would say, “That’s too much, you’re forgiving too much.” But the healthy thing about it was that it all came out, and there was always argument, there were always debates. Read More

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