By Andrew M. Mwenda
On Tuesday August 10th, The Independent Managing Editor, Andrew M. Mwenda, hosted President Paul Kagame of Rwanda on a radio show on Contact FM in Kigali, a day after voting in that country’s presidential election. Mwenda had started the show titled “Rwanda Decides” to promote public debate about the election in the country. Below is the second and last part of edited excerpts of the interview.
Mwenda: Mr. President, many people believe that you are very hostile to democratic expression in this country; that you don’t want Rwandans to speak out and to criticise you. Many would admit that you have done a lot of great things for this country. However, people believe that if anybody criticises you, you immediately knock their heads down; that is why you have closed newspapers and there are no radio talk shows in Rwanda. When I began hosting this show, I was warned that I will be deported.
Well, if I were to be like that I wouldn’t be here answering your questions in the first place. Secondly, and more practically, I have regular press conferences every month. I have journalists come; some of them say things that you would imagine should not be said by people in their right senses. I answer all their questions regardless of my personal feelings about the quality of their questions and we move on. So I am there to be held accountable by anybody, probably more than anybody who has been around.
Okay you may be welcoming of discussion. But then it seems possibly your colleagues in the RPF, in the government do not share this view, so if a person speaks they go and crack their head.
No, the people whose heads have been cracked would be known. But we don’t do that.
Critics say your prisons are teeming with journalists…
Go to our prisons and find those journalists. We are not in any way hostile to journalists. In fact, foreign journalists enjoy coming here, doing, and saying whatever they want to say or do. Unless again they will specify and say that we are anti-local journalists. But it has been created in the minds of people. For some reason I don’t understand that we are hostile to press freedom. But let me say this; like in any other sector of the economy, we have started from a very low base. As you know the middle class here is very small, we have been working to grow that.
If you look at the ability of the people to debate issues, it is poor, not because they are prevented from debating but because of the context, the background, the whole history that these people, highly cultivated and articulate journalists are not available. We need to invest in people, in their capacity to go out there and debate issues openly and freely. If you look at the radios, television, the newspapers here, I should say some progress has been made, most of these are being created.
But there is still a lot lacking in how they operate rather than being prevented from operating. For example, you know very well, Mwenda, that I have discussed it with you and others. I have told people about my frustration with the quality of journalism here and the calibre of journalists. We have invited people to come and invest in different sectors, including in the media.
Who have you contacted to come and invest in the media?
I have invited the Aga Khan Group that has The Nation in Kenya; they have televisions, they have everything. I personally talked to the Aga Khan myself about investing in media here so that we can have a respectable institution that can create a good environment for training journalists. So the issue is not preventing developments in the media, not at all. So how can we be therefore constantly accused of being anti press freedom when we are trying to get better investors in this field?
Well, your government a few months ago suspended two newspapers Omuseso and Omuvujizi, and a few months later suspended seventeen. That is not a good way to attract investors in newspapers.
How many of those 17 newspapers actually existed and were publishing news?
Well, you could explain to me; seventeen newspapers closed by a stroke of a pen!
There are close to seventy newspapers that are being established in Rwanda today. All these seventy newspapers cannot be said to be papers that support Kagame, or support the government. Of the 17 newspapers suspended, only Omuseso and Umvugizi were publishing. The others were dead newspapers. Omuseso and Omvugiszi were suspended because they were not fulfilling certain standards. There are standards and laws that must be respected in any country. The media and journalists cannot be above the law.
People say that the Omuseso was an independent platform that was exposing problems in your government, corruption among your government officials, and you were not willing to let it continue because of that.
No, these Omuseso people were corrupt themselves. They had previously been in court for trying to extort money from people; they were blackmailing people. They were taking bribes. Omuseso and Omvugizi were not newspapers; these were channels of extortion.Â Unless of course our critics believe that if a journalist is using his profession to extort money from innocent people, that journalist should be left free. I do not agree with that reasoning. Everyone has to act in accordance with the law.
Possibly you may need to allow newspapers that don’t abide by all the rules to operate in the hope that as they grow into bigger businesses, they will learn how to be much more responsible. In which case by you killing them when they are young because they are not living up to the standards you want, you may actually be undermining the very raw material that will produce a more responsible newspaper.
Letting them live when their orientation is criminal can only let them grow in that direction – into worse acts and practices of criminality. So it is better to stop such a cancer before it spreads to the entire industry. However, I am willing to have newspapers that do not meet standards to stay as long as they are not moving in the direction of criminality. I agree with you on being relaxed about standards. But Omuseso was not a newspaper as you understand a newspaper to be.
Do you sometimes worry that possibly you have created a government that has strong anti-corruption credentials, it has very strong credentials in public goods and services delivery; which means that young Rwandans who are leaving university and are public-spirited find it much more profitable to go and work in government than to go to the media; so the intellectual market has become captive of the state; that most good people go to work for the government and it is only the crooks who want to do blackmail and extortion who go into the media.
I like your reasoning on that. It may in fact be a possibility. But it is not the only possibility. A government that insists on fighting corruption and insists on accountability; a government that insists on service delivery and makes sure it is done; and service delivery here is particularly to improve the lives of the ordinary citizens. Is this a bad government?
In a way, yes. You have taken away the freedom of elites to steal public funds and enrich themselves. That is a very serious assault on the privileges of the elites.
As a government, there are two things we have to do; to insist on developing capacity for the service delivery in the public sector, but we have also been responsible for doing everything possible to develop the private sector. However, the public sector is slightly ahead of the private sector although I can see the private sector catching up and probably overtaking the public sector soon.
But do you sometimes worry that your fight against corruption in many ways is taking away opportunities for elites to profit public funds, and they will oppose you because of that?
But how many people profit from corruption?
It benefits the powerful against the voiceless.
Absolutely. But my job, my responsibility is to benefit the majority of the ordinary people; not precluding benefiting the powerful, but they have to benefit legally and legitimately; not at the expense of the ordinary people who already have nothing and they are suffering. Number two, I have known for a long time that fighting corruption is at as certain cost; it is a hard battle. You know, you will interfere with the powerful, their interests, their benefits. It has a backlash, no question about it.
Are you not afraid of that backlash?
But I have to choose between two things here: either to fight corruption and suffer from a certain level of backlash but in that process benefit the majority of the people of Rwanda, or to actually keep quiet and benefit the powerful, but kill the rest of the country. I would rather step on the toes of the powerful and face them and deal with them but benefit the majority of the people of this country. Ordinary people really turn out to be a strength that I rely on to easily defeat the powerful who are corrupt.
People who were serving under you like Theogene Rudasingwa, Patrick Karegyeya, Kayumba Nyamwasa, Gahima say each time they sat in meetings in government and criticised your policies, you got angry and chased them out the country.
Before they escaped, they had committed certain offenses, they had failures in accountability, and whenever they were being asked to account in their areas of responsibility, it resulted in their running out of the country. I do not remember a single incident where such disagreements took place that involved me; whether in a meeting of the army, the party or the government, formal or informal where anyone of them disagreed with me, the party of the government.
Had Kayumba or any of them come to you and say Mr. President we think this policy or this practice you are promoting is wrong?
First of all, there is none, there was no such situation. Secondly, I have heard some of them say that they would give me advice and I would not listen. I am not supposed to swallow any advice, so even if that had happened, you just do not just walk to me and say ‘do this’ and I do it because it is advice, no. The advice must be credible; the person giving advice must also be credible and must be relating well with what they are giving me advice for.
Some of these people sometimes have egos bigger than the hills and mountains of this country. They really think so much about themselves and don’t think about their responsibilities and don’t think about this country. This is why they behave the way they behave. These are not people that should be taken as serious leaders.
The contentious one now: Succession. The Rwandan constitution provides you only two terms, so this is your last term. Now, for us in Africa we have known presidents, when their second term begins, their minds begin changing; not just the presidents themselves, the supporters say, ‘look, we want you to stay’. So what are you going to do? So are we going to see President Kagame beyond 2017 as president?
But let me start by saying that personally, I don’t want to be involved in changing the constitution so that I stay in power. And particularly changing the constitution for that purpose; I would really hate it. I don’t intend to do that.
Why? You have done so many things, and you may want to accomplish more.
You know when we took power in 1994, I actually refused to be president. I was almost an automatic candidate but, I refused it and someone else became president for six years.
But you had not yet tasted the presidency. Now you know its pleasures and its privileges.
So I am saying clearly here, that I would have no reason to; in fact, people are already talking about it and my argument to them has been; ‘no, the reason that you think I could possibly stay on is the same reason I would not do it’. Because the issue is that Kagame has done well, we need him to stay. But for me, one of the things I would be looking at is that if you have had Kagame for two seven-year terms and there hasn’t emerged anybody who can take over from him, probably Kagame shares in that failure and therefore, why should you keep a person who has failed to give rise to someone else who can run the country after him? So that is the reason why I shouldn’t stay on.
When you look around RPF, do you think that if you decided to leave the party are there individuals who can lead the country?
That is why I want this debate may be to come up earlier than you imagine so that more people than just me answer these questions. The future of this country doesn’t entirely lie on my shoulders and I shouldn’t be the one to keep saying that now there isn’t somone. The people out there should be able to tell, or they could even say, let’s work with Kagame to find a replacement. I would welcome that, I have no problem with that.
What if the RPF say that really we want you to stay because our chances of winning the election lie with you? I saw it with President Museveni. Would you disregard their interest?
That is why I don’t want to pre-empt any debate. By the way it may come from other people other than the RPF.
What if it came from ordinary Rwandans that they want you to stay beyond 2017?
But why shouldn’t it come up and be debated so that I can answer that question directly to those who would have brought it up?
I am now bringing it up on their behalf.
Now it is like I am pre-empting the debate, and I am refusing to decide because I am not even the one who wrote this constitution. But of course when I am here as the president, I am the guarantor of this constitution, but not the only one.
But the constitution has provisions for amendment?
That is fine, but that is why I am saying I don’t want to lead the debate, it is not my intention, I wouldn’t like to amend the constitution. Neither would I want to start the debate and even be the one to conclude it, because that becomes my show. It is as if I am the one who wrote the constitution and the one to change it. And the whole thing keeps revolving around me. I refuse it; let people go out and talk about it. I will have my say as well.
What will your say be?
It will depend on the issues being raised. In the way I pointed out: If they say well, we want you to stay because you have done well and we are not seeing anybody else… I will be saying ‘that is one reason that makes me want to go’.
Well, they will say we are seeing others but since you still have some energy, we want you to continue.
Yes, but they should be able to see those who also have energy like me.
Many people think that you sent your son Ivan to a military academy so that he can grow up and succeed you. Many presidents of Africa have been sending their children to military academies and positioning them to take over . Do you also plan a family succession in Rwanda?
No, not at all. But does that mean that my son or daughter would not enjoy the rights of other citizens of this country?
But you are giving them privileged access to power
But my son didn’t go to West Point because I supported him in any special way or used my position for him go there. He went through a rigorous test with others and competitively deserved to go there. The only thing I did was to encourage him to participate in the process. I know WestPoint; I was only looking at my son’s development as a person and allowing him the possibilities and opportunities as any other citizen of this country to go there; not because I wanted him to be in the army and then succeed me.
Now, what if Ivan came back and joined the army, how would he be subordinate to any other officer when he is the son of the Commander in Chief?
In fact, let me add, I would even encourage my other sons, even daughter; I would encourage them to go through such institutions. But it would not because I want them to come back and be presidents. By the way, someone could probably develop through other ways and still become president. It is not that you have to go through the army become president. So there was no such a calculation. In fact, I would not encourage my children to go through these institutions if that was because they would be favoured because they are the children of the president.
But I have encouraged my children the same way I have encouraged the children of other people. I have encouraged the young people of this country to give it a try; these are not people I have a relationship with. And these are not people anyone gave a favour. These are people whom West Point and the Government of the United States have provided openings for them to join others from the international community in these programs.