Lean, rifle-toting soldiers patrol the spotless streets of Kigali. Rwanda’s capital is locked and loaded on the eve of Paul Kagame’s inauguration, his third seven-year term as president, having secured 98.9 percent of the vote.
Kagame divides opinion like no other African leader. Human rights groups and some western governments dismiss him as one more strongman who brooks no opposition. The pro-Kagame camp cast him as the saviour of a landlocked nation torn apart by the 1994 genocide, a visionary leader who has delivered peace and relative prosperity in one of the world’s most dangerous neighbourhoods.
To meet the man is to understand how Rwanda defies political category.
During a three-hour interview in his presidential compound, Kagame is steely and, well, a little scary. Marked indelibly by exile and armed struggle, the refugee-turned-guerrilla commander has little truck with finger-wagging westerners: “Let’s talk about democracy – and this western democracy!”
He recounts how a Harvard student asked him what he made of Donald Trump.
“I said: ‘What do you make of Trump? You elected him. This man is a product of your democracy.’ ”
Under his iron rule, in total 17 years and counting, Kagame has presided over the national rebirth of Rwanda. After the genocide, when about 1m people, mainly Tutsis, were slaughtered in the space of 100 days, he chose to move beyond reprisals, trial and punishment to reconciliation. In that respect, he is a historic figure. But his legacy will be judged by whether he is capable of relinquishing power and managing his succession.
It is my maiden visit to Rwanda, a country the size of Wales where everyone wears shoes, plastic bags are banned and the armed forces are perhaps the most feared in Africa. But here women enjoy equal rights to land ownership and the cabinet is packed with female talent. One irrepressible role model is Agnes Binagwaho, the former health minister, who is our introductory guide to democracy, Rwandan-style.
As we wend our way north from Kigali, past rolling hills and lush countryside, I am struck by the orderliness of the villages and little towns. Every last Saturday of the month, the people go to work on behalf of the country, cleaning the streets or assisting in construction.
“We’re more efficient than the Chicago school of finance that screwed up the world,” says Binagwaho.
Our destination is Burera district, once the mountain hide-out for Kagame’s rebel army and now the location for a modern hospital with cancer centre. Next step: a university campus training an elite cadre of healthcare professionals, accompanied by a “modern village” to be equipped with 4G and WiFi. Growth and development trump freedom in this Sparta of east Africa. Or as Binagwaho puts it: the true measure of democracy is not elections, but education, health and security for the people.
Back in 2010, Kagame announced, overnight, that English would replace French as the official language. He still blames the Mitterrand government (and family) for backing the Hutu led government responsible for the 1994 mass slaughter, ostensibly to preserve French colonial-era influence against an Anglo-Saxon takeover.
Today, the British are present, but they are not running the show. Kagame will accept foreign aid, but only as a means to the end of Rwandan dependence on outsiders. But British NGOs and official aid appear to be doing good work. Girl Effect, based in Kigali, trains Rwandan journalists aiming to inspire and educate young women between 10 and 19 via a monthly magazine, a radio show and online content. Almost half a million have registered to the magazine Ni Nyampinga (which means “a beautiful girl inside and out who makes good decisions”), while a further 4.3m listen or read online every two weeks.
Another uplifting story is the introduction of cricket. Rwanda’s national teams (male and female) currently play on the grounds that witnessed a massacre of 2,500 people. The artificial wicket and outfield remain treacherous (one fielder lost seven teeth to an errant ball). Now, thanks to Alby Shale, a Newcastle University graduate and handy batsman, the teams are about to move to a £1m new ground overlooking the capital.
Over six years, Shale has raised £900,000 for a project that will also offer HIV testing and community services on site. The project is part memorial to Shale’s father, a close David Cameron ally who died of a heart attack aged 56 at Glastonbury festival. But it is also part of the bid to build a new Rwandan identity, free of ethnic division.
And so to the final leg of my African visit: a three-day trip to neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo and the town of Goma. Back in 1994, Goma was a humanitarian hellhole, sanctuary to more than 1m refugees. Today, the town has more than a whiff of the wild west. At the border, a young tout in white tie brandishes three wads of Congolese banknotes and shouts for forex business. Tolls pepper the dirt roads. Our white four-by-four hurtles along, throwing passengers in the air at every bump and rut.
“It’s free African massage,” chuckles Daniel, our 67-year-old guide and a father of 10.
We are in Congo to track gorillas in Virunga National Park and hike up Mount Nyiragongo, a rare chance to peek inside a volcano. Three years ago, this area was overrun by M23 guerrillas fighting the Kabila government.
So why take the risk?
For a start, the Kagame government in Rwanda this year imposed a “gorilla tax”, doubling the price to $1,500 for an hour’s viewing of the rare mountain creatures. Congo is way cheaper. Team FT spotted the gorillas and we made the ascent and descent (six hours up, four hours down, but watch the knees). The armed rangers were competent and friendly. Security was not a problem, with one exception. Our party included UN peacekeepers from Goma, a rowdy bunch who drank rum and sang songs all night, having consumed two of the biggest baked fish I have ever seen on a volcano. Next morning, they were late and unapologetic.
Memo to UN headquarters in New York: this is no way to win friends and influence. A dose of Rwandan discipline would not go amiss.
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