Rwanda is not ready for the medicine of democracy, says Kagame

Avoiding more ethnic violence is a priority, the President tells Sarah Rundell in Kigali

Paul Kagame, the only leader Rwanda has known since the end of the genocide, has said his country is not ready for the "medicine" of democracy ahead of elections in August.

The 52-year-old former guerrilla leader told The Independent that feeding the country's burgeoning population and avoiding a relapse into ethnic violence are more of a priority for now than the "niceties" of democracy and human rights.

Speaking at his presidential office set in lush gardens in the hilly Rwandan capital, Kigali, he said: "We have made huge progress but I have no illusions about how far we still have to go."

Mr Kagame is famous for his punctuality, and any member of his staff arriving after 7am finds the door has been locked. Supporters claim that the discipline, born of his military background, work ethic and sense of urgency, has underpinned Rwanda's resurgence since the 1994 genocide. His anti-corruption efforts continue to impress foreign donors and he is almost certain to win re-election by a significant margin, but awkward questions are being asked about his leadership.

Critics accuse the autocratic Mr Kagame of preventing all forms of opposition. Since the election year began, newspapers have been closed, senior military figures sacked and opposition leaders have complained of harassment and threats.

These complaints are dismissed by the President. He "had nothing to do with" the recent banning of two independent newspapers; the generals dismissed in a military shake-up were guilty of corruption; and he accuses presidential rival Victoire Ingabire, who heads the opposition party United Democratic Forces, of using ethnicity to garner support.

Other opposition candidates, like the Democratic Green Party's Frank Habineza, can register their parties and stand as long as they "abide by the rules". He added: "A strong opposition is not my responsibility."

Quietly spoken and given to philosophical flourishes, he states that perhaps Rwanda isn't yet ready for a dose of democratic "medicine". "Democracy has two sides: substance and form," he explains. "Sometimes they are packaged together and you must swallow it as a medicine. We share the substance, meaning the definition, but how that is expressed is contextual."

"Democracy and human rights are niceties and are all important, but tell me, if somebody is wondering if they have anything to eat, they are not listening," he continues. "It's a fact that when somebody has food, when you bring another message, then they listen."

Mr Kagame believes Rwanda should be allowed to develop its own way of dealing with its past, free from the critical eye of "teachers" in the developed world. "We have not had the luxury to do things according to the rule book. We have to experiment, to see if it works. The West has democracy but it also has the institutions to hold people accountable." He cites as one example Rwanda's own solution to the challenge of balancing justice and reconciliation without a proper legal system in the aftermath of the genocide. Gacaca courts gave perpetrators the chance to ask forgiveness from their communities. "This is a problem for which we generated our own answer."

The trauma of his past still informs his daily life. A wave of ethnic violence in 1960 forced his family to flee to Uganda where he grew up in a refugee camp. "Everything I got I had to earn and I had to fight for. I am still fighting now. There is not a single day that passes without this sense."

He believes foreign critics fail to grasp the dynamics at play in Rwanda and says he sees role models in countries like Singapore and South Korea. "Developing countries are on the receiving end all the time, of being pushed back, of people saying that's where you belong. We are not deterred by what outsiders think. I am not guided by criticism. What we want to achieve is for ourselves. If you ask Rwandans how they feel about the government they will give a different view from outsiders."

Mr Kagame won the 2003 election after securing 95 per cent of the vote. Economic growth, which touched 11 per cent in 2008, is fundamental to "accelerating the healing", he says.

Foreign investment has risen from a trickle to $120m (£83m) and Rwanda now pitches itself as a business hub in East Africa. He has won plaudits for governance in a region renowned for corruption and has halved dependence on aid in the past 15 years. If he stands for a third term in 2017, he will have been President since 2003 and in power, de facto, since 1994. When I ask if he is planning to stand, he fixes me with a fierce gaze. "There is a constitution and I will respect it. Give me the benefit of the doubt."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
An iceberg in Ilulissat, Greenland; researchers have been studying the phenomena of the melting glaciers and their long-term ramifications for the rest of the world (Getty)
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Jackman bears his claws and loses the plot in X-Men movie 'The Wolverine'
Arts and Entertainment
'Knowledge is power': Angelina Jolie has written about her preventive surgery
Zayn has become the first member to leave One Direction. 'I have to do what feels right in my heart,' he said
peopleWe wince at anguish of fans, but his 1D departure shows the perils of fame in the social media age
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing