interviewBy Reed Kramer
New York — The verified Twitter account of the Rwandan president, @PaulKagame, suddenly came to life on October 10 after a five-month silence. The 15 late-night posts were a mixture of defiance, calling criticisms of his government's actions "fabricated, misinterpreted or exaggerated", and determination – "we will not be deterred by anyone."
Since leading the insurgency that ended his country's genocide in 1994 and becoming head of state in 2000, Kagame – who is 55 – has been widely acclaimed for directing a rapid economic and social transformation of his country. These efforts have been underpinned by large-scale inflows of foreign aid – U.S. $900 million in 2010, a tripling over the past decade, according to Reuters.
But cracks in the solid wall of foreign support began to appear following accusations of human rights abuses and a United Nations investigation earlier this year. The latest salvo against the Kagame government was a draft report by a United Nations Security Council 'Group of Experts', leaked to Reuters last week, accusing Rwanda – along with Uganda – of helping to sponsor a rebel movement in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) known as the M23. Kagame has also come under fire for restricting political opposition and media freedom and has been accused of unlawful detentions and torture.
The militia, which was incorporated into the Congolese army in a 2009 peace agreement, mutinied in April against the government of President Joseph Kabila to protest its failure to implement the accord. Over the past six months, M23 has seized a significant chunk of territory in fighting that has threatened Goma – capitol of Northern Kivu Province – and uprooted as many as a half million people along Congo's border with Uganda and Rwanda, according to the BBC.
In the strongest condemnation of Rwanda's engagement to date, the leaked UN panel's report says the M23 is commanded by Rwanda's defense minister, Gen. James Kabarebe. After charges of Rwanda's backing for the rebels first surfaced in July, the U.S. government suspended a small military aid program, while Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany announced delays in assistance. A senior U.S. official told AllAfrica "there is no doubt" Rwanda is helping the M23.
Following news of the UN panel report in July, Britain blocked a portion of its aid package, before resuming full funding in September. Defending the decision to restore aid, Prime Minister David Cameron called Rwanda "a success story of a country", but added: "We do not accept that they should be supporting militias in Congo." None of the announced cuts were sufficient to dent assistance flows, which account for 40 percent of Rwanda's budget, but the growing pressure could have an impact in the longer term, especially if the pressure slows aid from the World Bank and other major backers.
But he appears undeterred. Last Thursday, after Rwanda won election in the UN General Assembly to a two-year term on the Security Council with full backing from the Africa's 54 UN members, Kagame resumed tweeting. "No matter what haters say," he said, "justice&truth will prevail!!! Sometimes it just requires a bit of good fight for all that...!!!"
Denying Rwandan support for the M23, Kagame insists that African governments can and must work together to end the fighting. "Regional initiatives are key to finding a lasting solution and anyone who wants to help should support them," he told a high-level meeting convened by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon last month.
Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo, who has been championing Rwanda's case at the United Nations, welcomed the Security Council election – also on Twitter – calling the vote "a testament to how far we've come & our commitment to international peace."
In an interview with AllAfrica in New York, Mushikiwabo outlined her government's rebuttal to the charges and blueprint for peace. Excerpts:
What do you see as an 'African solution' to the Congolese conflict?
The whole concept of African solutions to African problems – as far as Rwanda is concerned – is not a rejection of anybody else's input. It's not "Africa against the rest of the world". Not at all. We are not isolationists. We do not think that Africa should not listen to anybody.
We believe that what works best – when it comes to conflict, but also when it comes to development – is for our partners in the West to listen to what we are saying and help us with what we think are appropriate solutions. It has worked very well for Rwanda in the field of development, and the reason it worked is because our political philosophy is rooted in owning our destiny. It was not always easy, especially in the beginning, when we requested of those who were giving us their money to let us make our own development plans. We said we are open to being evaluated, to being monitored – to see if what we are doing works. What happens to us from a certain point in our history has to be a result of what we aspire to. When we have challenges, we should own up. When we have failings, we should own up.
When it comes to moving out of poverty, creating harmony and getting rid of conflicts that we have inherited, can we Africans come up with solutions, and get supported by our partners in the West? We strongly believe it's the only way these solutions can last.
What do you see as the main obstacles to a resolution of the conflict in eastern Congo?
One, there is not enough trust. Everybody is supportive of the idea that we should come up with African solutions. But it's much more in statements than it is in reality. Two, our partners away from the continent have real interests at stake, so sometimes this concept of African solutions does not work well for them. There has been a lot of condemning and accusing [on the part of many in the West]. Africans are ready to look for a political solution.
You and President Kagame have suggested that resolution of the conflict in eastern Congo can be achieved through the organization known as the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR). Has there been progress towards peace since the regional summit in Kampala in August?
Yes. The process delivered a cease fire and a mechanism for monitoring the borders of DRC and Rwanda – the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism, which is very important as a confidence-building measure.
President Museveni of Uganda has been engaged in political discussions between the M23 and the Government of Kinshasa.
These are major achievements for the region, but they are under-reported. Our efforts are met with a lot of skepticism. It is a mistake to discount the region. There are nine countries surrounding the DRC, and we are all very actively engaged in the business of development. We are improving the lives of our people. We have no interest in an unstable Congo. In Rwanda, we have a history with Congo – good and bad. We have blood ties – communities on both side of the border. We have business ties.
The accusations against Rwanda are created to fit a certain narrative, a certain thinking about Rwanda and Africa. In the minds of some in the west, Africans are seen as either victims or brutes.
What is your response to the charges that your government is backing the M23?
A number of promises that were made in 2009 [in the peace agreement] were not lived up to, and the M23 became an unhappy faction in the Congolese army. Mutiny is an act of indiscipline. It's deplorable, but you need to address it. Rwanda would not want a mutiny in its army. Why would we support mutiny across the border?
The erroneous analysis is to think that because there are Tutsi across the border [in Congo] therefore the Tutsi in Rwanda must be helping those Tutsi. We don't run our country by primitive instincts. We don't look for anybody who is tribally connected to us.
We are a state. We have our own interests. We will never be able to interact with the rest of the world properly if we are always viewed as tribal feuding groups and not as real countries [that] function just like anybody else.
We are, of course, interested in the well-being of Congolese of Rwandan descent. If they are facing discrimination, we will talk it out state-to-state. We don't function through local groups, and that's really what is in people's minds. I find that to be a very racist way of looking at Africa.
There are 40 million people of Rwandan descent in the region, and there are only 12 million in Rwanda. It's as if the President of Rwanda is going to be responsible for anybody who is any way related to Rwandans around the region.
Does Rwanda have continuing concerns over security threats inside Congo?
Before this flare up in April, we were pretty satisfied with our collaboration with Kinshasa in terms of securing our borders. Since 2010, we have had a joint operation with our special forces and with select forces from Kinshasa. That is why it surprises us when people say that we need a proxy group. There is no security in a proxy group. The best guarantee is by working with a state.
That's what we did in 2009, and it's been working well. In North Kivu we were able to achieve results in terms of the threat of the FDLR [the Hutu-dominated Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda]. South Kivu is much more complicated. But we were getting there, which is why we regret this whole disruption.
You don't regard the M23 as a needed buffer against the FDLR?
No, a mutinous group from the Congo army does not offer security. The solution long term lies in collaboration between states.
How would you characterize current relations between your President and the DRC president, Joseph Kabila?
There is no question that the cordial, harmonious way we have been working together since 2009 has been bruised. We have had signs of bad faith from the government in Kinshasa.
This happened to me personally when I was in Kinshasa [recently], talking about how to make the joint verification work. While we were talking, Kinshasa was sending a letter to the Security Council calling us "aggressor". That has created tension, but we continue to talk. In Kinshasa, there are many competing political interests.
When it comes to the DRC, we have been there before. If we can get the right attitude, if we can get truthfulness and sincerity on the side of Kinshasa, we can pick up tomorrow morning and hopefully find a solution soon.
What are next steps after the ceasefire and monitoring mechanism?
With M23, you need to disarm them completely, make them put down their weapons. That can only happen by talking, and that's what Uganda is doing – talking between Kinshasa and M23. At the same time – and this is of interest to Rwanda, in particular because of the accusations against us – we have now twenty-something officers on the ground [doing the monitoring] – led by a Ugandan Brigadier General and deputized by a colonel from Congo-Brazzaville. They are checking information and movements along a certain portion of the border.
The involvement of the region is critical because we all want peace, all of us in the region. We do not benefit from instability and volatility in Congo. It's not in anybody's interest NOT to look for a sustainable peaceful solution in eastern Congo. This is not going to happen tomorrow morning, but we're pressing the issue and working solutions. We have a long relationship with the current administration in Kinshasa. There is no reason why it cannot be used positively.