President Kagame discusses controversial third term, aid independence

United Nations Secretary-General (center) with Paul Kagame (right), president of the Republic of Rwanda, and Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed (left) during the welcoming reception for delegates. Photo by: Mark Garten / U.N.

NEW YORK — Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, fielded some tough questions Tuesday about his continued leadership of the country — an African success story that is nonetheless clouded by queries of human rights violations, lack of political freedom, and a now controversial presidential succession policy.

“The first question I want to ask you is how do you win 98 percent of the vote,” said Rick Stengel, a former Time editor who presided over the Council on Foreign Relations conversation with Kagame during the United Nations General Assembly in New York. “Are you indispensable to Rwanda?” Stengel asked.

Last month Kagame, who united Rwanda after the 1994 genocide and has held office ever since, won a landslide election after amending Rwanda’s constitution in 2015 to allow him to serve a third, seven-year presidential term. His decision to seek reelection alarmed observers who worry Kagame’s extended rule could turn Rwanda from a beacon of hope for post-conflict societies to a cautionary tale of repression and consolidated power.

Kagame described internal debates that surrounded his decision to run or not, suggesting that he supported a transition of power, but was called on by Rwandan citizens to continue to serve.

“For me, I was ready to wind up and finish my second term by 2017,” Kagame said. “And all of a sudden, there was mobilization.”

The president said he “went back and forth” on the question of whether to remain in office. The election outcome, he said, was a near certainty given the popular demand that he remain in office.

“I think for us in Rwanda, we saw it coming, that it could have been 100 percent [for Kagame], because this election … came on the basis of a demand that I actually stand again,” he said.

In his remarks, Kagame frequently returned to a theme of democracy and that it implies a right to manage a country according to its own people’s desires, which cannot be imposed from abroad. Those same principles apply to the management of foreign assistance in Rwanda, Kagame explained. The country has sought to engage development agencies under a government-led development program, called Vision 2020.

“We have tried to engage them on the basis that we, the people of Rwanda, should be given some space to decide on how and where to invest these resources they gave us, rather than them bringing the money and deciding where they put it, and how they deploy it, and in the end they are not bothered about the outcome,” Kagame said.

“Fortunately, some of them agreed with us,” he added.

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Foreign aid still makes up 30 to 40 percent of Rwanda’s total budget, according to the World Bank, though Kagame and other Rwandan officials have described their desire to reduce the country’s dependency.

Some of Kagame’s answers drew laughter from the audience. Asked what he hopes Rwanda might look like when it is no longer dependent on foreign aid, for example, Kagame answered: “Well, I think we have many countries that are not dependent on aid. So it would look like those countries.”

From an economic perspective, Rwanda stands as a rare success story among post-conflict nations. The East African country has avoided falling back into violence and has enjoyed economic growth around 8 percent for the past decade and a half. Kagame suggested that the profound experience of the genocide created a unique national context in which people unite behind his government’s vision for rebuilding a shattered state.

“Now it is a country that is standing and making some progress, and people in the country are getting more united like never before, because initially — and what led to those problems was the political and other divides that were created for a long time, where we lost 1 million people in just a hundred days,” he said.

Challenged to address allegations of human rights abuses committed by the government and the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front party, Kagame said he resented charges made by people who have “never even been to Rwanda.”

“It’s cynical and absurd that anyone would just be there talking about violations,” Kagame said. “You know, me as the leader of my own people, to be accused of violating their rights is just an absurd insult.”

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About the author

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    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.