Who is President Paul Kagame of Rwanda?
(A Political Anathema, or Visionary African Leader?)
By: G. Yanquoi Lavela, Esq., Jur. D.
Well, that depends on whom you ask. His detractors might say that he is an enigmatic, abrasive and often repellent autocrat, who eliminated term limits in the Rwandan constitution to stay in power for as long as he wants. To others, he is the most consistent voice of the conscience of Africa of our time. He is an Afrocentric leader who implores other African leaders to be self reliant and do for themselves the little things that are doable without relying on foreign aids or donors to tell us what to do. He argues that picking up litter in the streets and cleaning our cities to improve our quality of life should not require donor nations to help us do that. And he graphically illustrates that point by deliberately creating traffic jams in his city of Kigali, when he abruptly brings his presidential motorcade to a full stop in the middle of traffic in order to pick up street litter himself. “If the president himself can pick up litter”, he said, “that inspires ordinary citizens to do the same.” He reminds me of the late Tanzanian President, Dr. John Magufuli, who spent his first inauguration day, with work gloves on, picking up trash in his port city of Dar es Salaam, while his Liberian counterpart was flying in dignitaries from around the world to a star-studded state dinner, as ordinary Liberians were kept at a respectable distance. He resents the idea that African leaders are more eager to travel to Europe or to western countries just for a photo opportunity with European heads of states, when they cannot seem to come together as African leaders to address pressing issues confronting Africa as a whole. He grizzles at the double standard of western countries lecturing to African leaders about good governance, human rights violations and corruption, when they are committing the same violations in their own countries. He rejects the notion that Africans can be tried in European courts for alleged crimes committed on African soil, but Europeans are not amenable to African courts for similar acts. He believes that in a comity of nations no state should regard itself as “primus inter pares”, or the first among equals. His presidential style is inflexibly regal, stoic, businesslike, and seldom given to playfulness or trifling indulgences. His public persona instantly commands the respect of his peers and the international community wherever he goes. And yet, he is soft spoken, gentle and amusingly funny a storyteller.
Look at his capital city of Kigali that he built out of the ruins of a fratricidal genocide of 1994-1995, above, and you might actually think that you are anywhere in some idyllic city in Sweden or Norway, or perhaps even in a utopia never before seen on God’s green earth. But you would be wrong because you are really looking at a city in the heart of Africa and the capital of a tiny landlocked country in the fertile Rip Valley of Africa which, just two decades ago, was the scene of the modern world’s most vicious and brutal genocidal war between the Tutsi and the Hutu ethnic groups. And when it was all over in a matter of just 100 days, 800,000 and up to a million Rwandans, mostly Tutsis, lay dead, while the international community stood silent. That is an astounding number of almost 10,000 people per day who were massacred in those 100 days. The world turned its back on Rwanda. The United Nations headed by Africa's own Kofi Anan of Ghana pulled out of that country and went to Bosnia in Europe to tame similar ethnic conflict there, where only 8,372 persons were killed, and slightly under 30 thousand displaced in that conflict zone. While certainly nothing to sniff at on the scale of human tragedies, Bosnia paled by comparison to the Rwandan genocide. This was happening under the watchful gaze of Sub-Sahara Africa’s first Black UN Secretary-General, second only to Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt, as he enjoyed the comforting embrace of his Swedish wife somewhere in Europe. To him and such like-minded others, this was an “African problem” that required an “African solution”. Therefore, the task of sorting out all of this mess and bringing people together and unifying the country was left to one African leader alone. And none was more equal to this daunting task than Rwanda's strong-willed, visionary, self-assured, and a determined leader, President Paul Kagame, who is impervious to criticisms and remains sharply focused on bringing his people out of the darkness of ethnic feuds to the promised land of universal brotherhood of one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all Rwandans. It is because of Paul Kigame's leadership characteristics of never taking “NO” for an answer that Rwandans are enjoying a quality of life that Europeans are flocking to their country as tourists to see; and African Americans, who never thought cities like Kigali could ever exist in Africa, are running there to buy condominiums for a fraction of the price they could never afford in America. Today, the city of Kigali is the “No.1” African tourists destination of the world. From fully integrated sewage systems to fiber optic broadband internet service, to ultra-modern city streets and highways and infrastructure in general, Paul Kagame's country and capital city of Kigali, in particular, can easily rival any city in Scandinavia. He is praised as a champion of the rights of women and the environment. In April of 2020, journalist Antonio Cascais of the German DW Radio/TV, wrote an extensive piece on Rwanda in which he reports that “60% of the Rwandan parliament are women”. Under his visionary leadership, Rwanda has become the first in many fields of technological advancements in Africa, such as the first "Made in Africa" smartphone (The Mara Phone).
Rwanda is among a few African countries praised by the international community for having the COVID-19 vaccine roll-outs of their own. The German car-maker, Volkswagen, has just opened an assembly plant to make cars in Rwanda for the African market. A firm believer in the digital age as a fundamental building block of Africa of the future, President Kagame has invested heavily in the orientation of the youth towards IT technology, including coding and software development, as the key to the economic and social development of Africa. He has built a modern youth center which is fully equipped with advanced technology that is the envy of most countries. And his successful economic recovery of Rwanda after the 1994 genocide is praised around the world as a textbook example for other African countries to follow, especially those post-conflict nations hardest hit with stalling or stagnant economies. Viewed as a “benevolent dictator” by some and praised by others as a selfless leader who is committed to the development of his country and people, Kagame has encouraged his people to volunteer for community service on every last Saturday of each month under his national “Umuganda” policy of self help. With shovel in hand the President and First Lady, Jeanette Kagame, often join the citizens of Kigali in community volunteer work on Saturdays.
Kagame And First Lady
To understand how Rwanda got to be the beautiful and peace-loving country that it is today, it is not unimportant to know a few things about its historical background. This tiny slice of Africa was once occupied by the pygmies of the Congo River basin thousands of years ago as hunters and gatherers. That was followed by the invading negroid or Bantu ethnic groups from the southeastern part of the Congo, who ousted the pygmies and settled down to agrarian lifestyles, and began cultivating the land. The Bantus were soon to be overrun by another invading group of Cushites of Ethiopian origins from the northeast, who were distinguishable from the erstwhile dark skinned and flat-nosed negroid Bantus by their olive skin color and Semitic features of narrow pointed nose and tall, slender bodies. They were mainly cattle herders. As time went on, the descendants of the Bantus became the Hutu ethnic group with deep ties to the land; and the descendants of the Ethiopians later became the Tutsi or Watutsi tribe. For a while, the two groups lived side by side in peace and harmony.
Berlin Conference of 1884-1885
That was until the infamous “Berlin Conference” of 1884-1885 that carved up “The African Cake” among European powers by dividing up Africa into European colonies. It was first the Germans in 1890 and then the Belgians in 1916 that took possession of the territory comprising of “Urundi and Ruanda” under the League Of Nations Trusteeship. The Europeans sided with the Ethiopian or Tutsi ethnic group and made the earlier settlers of Hutu or the Bantu Negro race subservient to the Tutsi group. The Hutus resented this maltreatment by the minority Tutsi and eventually overthrew the Tutsi dynasty over them, culminating in political independence from European colonizers in 1961. Gregoire Kayibanda of the Hutu ethnic group became the first post independence president of Rwanda. But he was overthrown in a military coup by Juvenal Habyarimana in 1973, another Hutu, who ruled Rwanda with an iron fist, and made it a crime not to vote for him in presidential elections. Under these two Hutu presidents the Tutsis caught hell and were marginalized or driven into exile in Uganda. Their hero was citizen Paul Kagame, also a Tutsi, who took up arms in 1990 to rebel against the oppressive regime of Hybyarimana under the banner as commander of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), then based in Uganda. And so, when the plane carrying President Hybyarimana and the President of Burundi mysteriously fell from the skies over Kigali, as it was about to land, and instantly killed the two presidents in 1994, suspicions loomed large over the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) headed by Paul Kagame as the possible culprits. In retaliation for the simultaneous deaths of the two Hutu presidents, the Hutus went into a murderous rampage and massacred almost a million Tutsis in a short span of 100 days. Hybyarimana's vice president who succeeded him resigned the office of the presidency alleging persecution of his Hutu tribe by the Tutsi majority parliament backing Kagame. During this period of inter regnum, without a president, a religious prelate was asked to take over the government until a new president could be elected. That new president would turn out to be the mysterious Paul Kagame, who was elected by his Tutsi majority in parliament to fill the presidential void in March of 2000. And for the last 21 years, and still counting, he has been president of Rwanda.
Whether we call Paul Kagame a benevolent dictator or not, he is an African leader who is producing results and his people are happy to have a leader who has their best interests at heart. That is why they keep re-electing him term after term. There is nothing undemocratic about citizens FREELY exercising their choice in electing the same person multiple times to the same office. Why has Liberia not produced a leader of this selfless caliber? And why has Monrovia remained in a perpetual state of decay and physical squalor after 199 years as the capital city of Liberia, with all the billions from foreign aids and mineral wealth pouring into this slum? And why has Liberia been unable to produce even plastic drinking cups or tires, when we have been exporting rubber from Firestone since 1926? There is nothing in the world, not even a matchbox, that says: “Made in Liberia.” Why???
The answer is greed for personal wealth. Individuals are more comfortable driving their expensive vehicles in streets with open sewage lines and potholes the size of the craters on the moon, than building a city like Kigali for all to live in and enjoy. They build million dollar homes surrounded by shanty houses and slums and seek medical treatments abroad on tax dollars, while government hospitals have become a place to die because of no hospital supplies. High infant mortality rates, highway fatalities, and lack of basic health care, have become accepted norms in Liberia. Why???
There are few exceptions that I can name. President Tubman was a builder. He built schools, many bridges and highways, a brand new executive mansion now left to rot in disrepair, and unified the country under his “Unification And Integration Policy”. To this day, no one has found any secret bank accounts under his name in any foreign banks. His family still lives a modest lifestyle. And he went to his grave without a single drop of blood of any Liberian citizen on his hands, in spite of the label of “dictatorship” ascribed to his 27-year reign. I leave to historians to quibble about the D.Tweh political saga involving President Tubman. Those who accused Tubman of dictatorship are the very same people who got their education on Liberian government scholarships that he provided them. Some were children of ambassadors appointed by Tubman, whose doctoral dissertations were entirely a personal attack on President Tubman as a political ultra-conservative African leader, who was out of step with the prevailing winds of violent anti-colonial revolutions in Africa in the 1960s. Some wrote their PhD dissertations on the bicephalism of Liberian social stratification system as a model for national development, and suggesting that aspirant indigenous Liberians could be assimilated into the preferred settler community by adopting the necessary protestant Christian values and education to replenish the dwindling supply of talents and skill sets in the latter, thus, making the stratification fluid and dynamic.
The same can be said about President Tolbert. By all accounts, President Tolbert was the first president who introduced meritocracy in the Liberian civil service system. He gave positions to people who were clearly qualified to hold those portfolios. And even before he became president, he offered private scholarships to deserving students, regardless of their ethnic or socioeconomic backgrounds. But, in return for his generosity, Tolbert was vilified by individuals who came home from abroad with degrees acquired in the social sciences, funded with Liberian government scholarships, and incited street riots that ultimately brought Tolbert down. Where are those individuals today??? They are all wealthy people who have shared in pillaging the country's wealth by their social and political connections. They were the false prophets who promised their disciples, mostly the impressionable youths at the university of Liberia, a better future, but quickly forgot the youths once they got power and wealth.
President Daniel Edward Howard was one such president who was loved by all the tribal chiefs of the hinterlands, because he could speak multiple indigenous languages. He was a protégé of President Arthur Barclay before him, who saw Liberia as less than its best, if it did not include indigenous Liberians as an integral part of the republic. His inauguration in 1912 had two parts to it. He invited all the tribal chiefs to Monrovia to celebrate with him, before he held the formal investiture ceremonies in the second part. Of all the Liberian Presidents that my late Grandfather, Chief Sumo Kota of Fissebu, personally knew and served in government, starting with William David Coleman (1896-1900); Garretson Wilmot Gibson (1900-1904); Arthur Barclay (1904-1912); Daniel Edward Howard (1912-1920); Charles Dunbar Burgess King (1920-1930); Edwin James Barclay (1930-1944); and up to William V.S. Tubman (1944-1971), Grandpa's most favorite president of them all that he often spoke about was President Daniel Howard. And when he died in 1969, the family was able to estimate his age by the stories he told us about those presidents of Liberia. He vehemently denounced and excoriated President Coleman for his slaughter of tribal chiefs in the “pacification campaign” to force them to become part of Liberia. He severely castigated President Charles King for his involvement in the Liberian slave trade of indigenous people to the Spanish Islands of Fernando Po. But it was President Daniel Howard who was able to convince the indigenous chiefs to become part of Liberia, promising them that their children will inherit the land and the country when they died. He told them to wait until all boundary disputes were settled with the British and the French. He told the chiefs that they would be disappointed if they joined the British or the French. This was at the time of boundary disputes in the 1890s between Liberia, Britain and France over the northwestern region of Liberia, bordering Sierra Leone and Guinea. (See his attached letter of 1912 to the chiefs, pleading with them to become part of Liberia.) And notice how he wrote the letter in simple “Liberian pigeon English” for the chiefs to understand, out of deference and respect for their illiteracy. That solemn promise he made to the chiefs was never fulfilled by his successors in office. And if the plunder of the country continues at the present rate, future generations of descendants of those chiefs might have a legal right of secession under various treaties and conventions signed by Liberia granting all indigenous peoples around the world the right to self determination under international law. But that's a subject matter for another day.
I have used Paul Kagame's example to make a larger point about how a good and selfless leadership can raise a nation from the lowest depths of human degradation to its highest heights of human decency and moral excellence. The story of Rwanda is not too different from the historical background of Liberia. The two countries were born out of ethnic hatred and divisiveness. Violent coups have taken place to topple governments in Liberia, starting with the mob force removal from office in 1871 of President Edward James Roye, led by former president Joseph Jenkins Roberts, and the recent coup of April 12, 1980. Decades of civil wars have been fought and over 350 thousand Liberians lost their lives in them, with about the same number internally displaced in refugee camps, while others fled into exile. The universal truth is that human aspirations for the good life can NEVER be permanently deferred, nor indefinitely postponed. One way or another, people will find the means to get the monkey off their backs. What does it take for Liberian leaders to understand that, if we keep doing what we are doing, we will keep getting what we got. Leadership is about service to humanity. It is a privilege and not a right, and few African leaders are equal to the task of serving their people well, as President Paul Kagame of Rwanda. Hats off to President Kagame. WELL DONE, MR. PRESIDENT! You have done Africa proud.