Rwandan President Paul Kagame is widely credited with guiding the nation’s economic and social transformation following the devastating 1994 genocide. Rwanda has defied expectations and emerged as one of the fastest growing economies in the world, overcoming the many obstacles involved with being a small, land-locked nation in the middle of Sub-Saharan Africa.
The economy has grown by an average of nearly 8% a year since President Kagame was elected to office in 2000. The World Bank estimates annual growth will hit at least 7% in the next three years. Overall, per capita income in Rwanda has more than tripled during the past 14 years; more than one million people have moved out of poverty; infant mortality rates have been cut by two-thirds; and Rwanda has achieved nearly universal access to primary and secondary education.
Wharton management professor Katherine Klein, interviewed President Kagame in front of a large audience when he recently visited the University of Pennsylvania campus.
Klein, who also is the Vice Dean of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, asked Kagame about Rwanda’s difficult and complex transformation since the 1994 genocide. Kagame reviewed his vision for the future, discussed policy priorities, responded to criticism that his administration has repressed free speech and political dissent, and explored how Rwanda became a global leader in gender equality.
An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.
Katherine Klein: In April 2014 you gave a speech on the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide in the Amahoro Stadium. This was a very serious, emotional and momentous time. You gave a bit of a history lesson about Rwanda. You said that at the end of the genocide, “Everything was a priority and our people were completely broken.” You went on to describe three fundamental choices that Rwandans made in rebuilding the country. You said, “One — we chose to stay together. Two — we chose to be accountable to ourselves. Three — we chose to think big.” For those in the audience who may not know very much about Rwanda, could you tell us what those choices meant, what they mean now and how you set those priorities?
President Paul Kagame: I started with being together and unified. The country had historically been divided and divisive politics contributed to the tragedy of 1994. So I was trying to bring people’s attention to the importance of being together as a nation, even if there is diversity in our society. We are different, we may think differently, but at the end of the day, we have to bring our energies together for the common good instead of breaking our nation apart. We’ve learned lessons from the genocide.
Second, I mentioned the importance of accountability. We won’t achieve unity and progress unless, in the exercise of our freedoms, we are able to think about the interests of others and not just think about ourselves. There comes a point when every one of us has to be responsible and accountable to each other. We have to hold ourselves accountable so that we don’t end up hurting somebody else. This originates from our own history where division was the order of the day and people had been told to hurt each other. People started seeing other people as different, and not only different, but they thought they should get rid of them.
Accountability was important and was lacking at the time. That’s why I talked about accountability, so that everyone has a sense of responsibility, whether they are leaders or citizens.
Number three was about thinking big. We came out of that tragedy 21 years ago and have come a long way to arrive at where we are today, which gives you the sense that nothing is impossible if people set their minds to do something that is good for them. Nothing is impossible to achieve.
Rwanda had all kinds of challenges. We were a small, land-locked economy in the middle of Sub-Saharan Africa. We were short of almost everything. We lost about one million people and millions of others were displaced and impoverished by the genocide. You know, if you think about it like this, it is easy for somebody to despair and say, “We can’t get out of this. This is impossible to change.” But if you believe everything is possible from that point, and if you think beyond these problems and really want to achieve something big, you will get there. That’s our experience in the last 21 years.
Klein: I’d like to ask about reconciliation. In many countries, ethnic, racial and religious differences are a source of ongoing discrimination, tension, violence and persecution. I think we often look at those differences and think, “This will never change. We will always be ‘we’ and they will always be ‘them’. Even if you try to bury the problems, they will re-emerge.”
But in Rwanda, foreigners who visit are astonished to see genocide heirs, survivors and their families working side-by-side in peace.
When I’ve asked people about their identity, I often hear the common refrain: “I am Rwandan, we are all Rwandan.”
I’d like you to talk about the extent of reconciliation in Rwanda today. Where is Rwanda today in this multi-layered process? What is the depth of reconciliation in Rwanda, as you understand it? And what are the implications for how you govern?
“We came out of that tragedy 21 years ago and have come a long way to arrive at where we are today, which gives you the sense that nothing is impossible if people set their minds to do something that is good for them.”
President Kagame: This is a very deep and complex situation.
Let me say it this way: in 2004, when we were commemorating and remembering the genocide, I spoke with one particular young survivor who had been picked out alive from the mass grave. This mass grave of 5,000 people had just been created and Caterpillars had just come and put the bodies there and covered them up with soil. Our troops arrived just moments after that happened and picked people out from that mass grave if they were still breathing. This young person had scars from that situation and gave testimony about the experience and the pain. At this time in 2004, he said he saw people around him who he believed had been responsible for the deaths of families, yet they were being released from prison. The government had done this at the time — it was a very complex, complicated process involving a mix of reconciliation and justice.
I directly asked him, “How do you manage?” This young man told me, “I sit at home and watch people pass by and some of them are people who have just been released from prison by the government as a way of trying to resolve this situation and achieve reconciliation. I just manage to live on and survive because…” Then the young man looked at me and said, “President, we will trust you. We will have faith in you and other leaders. You tell us to do a number of things to try to understand this tragedy and say that you are doing all this in the best interest of our society. So we have faith in you and that’s how we survive.”
This is what the young man told me. So that tells the whole story. We are confronted with a situation where you have hundreds of thousands of perpetrators and victims. And if you do one thing, the other side thinks you are not doing enough and not being fair. But if you do another thing, the other side thinks you are not being fair and you are not doing enough. You are caught up in the middle, but you have to do something. You have to try to do something.
This is what we have been trying to do. We tell people, “It is in your hands. There isn’t going to be a solution that is going to come from elsewhere that we shall deliver to you. It’s only going to come from within. And it’s not going to be easy. But it’s the only thing we can do, because if we don’t do it, the future will be even more complicated and the suffering and losses will double or triple.”
But telling them that is not enough. You have to design a number of procedures to ensure that, to some extent, justice seems to be done.
“We tell people, ‘It is in your hands. There isn’t going to be a solution that is going to come from elsewhere that we shall deliver to you. It’s only going to come from within.’”
On the other hand, social and economic issues are important, too. We have to ensure that daily lives can be lived by providing education, health care, food and a sense of security that demonstrates that someone cannot just come along and take lives again.
We found a way to tell people, “You are part of this. Ensuring your security isn’t going to be achieved by somebody doing it for you. You need to participate and ensure that you give security to others and you can expect that others will give security to you.”
This is the complex nature of the processes we had to go through. It takes time. But, back to the question you raised, I think we have turned the corner. We have built a very firm foundation, but then you have to build on top of that. We are now in the phase of building on the foundation. The foundation is there: people understand the reason to get along and to give and take. They understand that not everything will be rosy and not all people will be satisfied, but there will be a balance that allows us to move forward.
Klein: Let me ask about some of the ways you are building on that foundation. Rwanda has achieved impressive gender equality. This is especially striking from the perspective of visitors who come from abroad. No country in the world has a larger percentage of women in its Parliament than Rwanda — it’s substantially more than 50%. How has Rwanda achieved this gender equality? Why has it been important to do so? And what lessons can business and government leaders in the rest of the world learn from Rwanda’s successes in this area?
President Kagame: We have learned by trying things. We are not afraid of trying things since we’ve found ourselves in situations where there is nothing else we can do but try. It stems from our history and our focus on trying to change the situation in our country.
Here’s my story: I was a refugee and I grew up in a refugee camp for close to 25 years in the neighboring country, Uganda. I lost my father when I was 14. I’m the last of six children and my mother looked after us all. This is just one example, there are many other cases, but this example demonstrates that it doesn’t make sense in a society to discriminate against your mother, your daughter, your sister and your aunt. In Rwanda today, 52% of our population are women. Can you imagine getting 52% of the population out of the economy?
We understood from the beginning that people, including women, have to be involved at all levels and in all activities in the development of our country. That’s how we designed our policies right from the beginning.
Klein: It’s built into the Constitution as well.
President Kagame: We even put it in the Constitution. We thought it was important to make it an obligation to ensure women are given their rightful place in society. For example, we had very old laws that discriminated against women, which barred them from inheriting property. We have changed that law. Now women can inherit property, just like men. We educated our women, we have invested in making sure that health issues are given a priority, we have encouraged them to participate at all levels in decision-making processes.
“In Rwanda today, 52% of our population are women. Can you imagine getting 52% of the population out of the economy?”
Now 64% of people in Parliament are women and about 42% are in the judiciary. We have women mayors and women ministers. The Constitution tells us that we can’t have less than 30% female representation in the cabinet.
And the benefits are real. I attribute our constant social and economic progress to the broad and deep involvement of women in our affairs.
Klein: I’d like to talk about your economic development strategy, which is called the Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy Two (EDPRS 2). This strategy outlines ambitious goals for the next several years. The overarching goal is to accelerate progress to ensure the country reaches middle-income status, achieve a better quality of life for all Rwandans through sustained GDP growth of 11.5%, and reduce poverty to less than 30% of the population by 2018. The ambition of the goals and the specificity of the goals and the use of metrics is something we see over and over again in Rwanda. How do you envision Rwanda will achieve these goals, continue its rapid economic growth and reduce poverty? Specifically, I’d like to focus on poverty reduction, since the vast majority of Rwandans still live off subsistence farming on small plots of land. If you are thinking big, as Rwanda does, how will you achieve your goals over the coming decade?
President Kagame: We start by transforming what we have. For example, we started with agriculture, which employs the majority of Rwandans. We are modernizing agriculture, making it more productive so that the very large population involved in this sector gains more from it than they have in the past. Change is already happening. In fact, we lifted one million people out of poverty between 2006 and 2011. These gains came from improvements in agriculture.
We have better seed varieties, better agriculture methods, better technology and, therefore, more productivity. We are finding markets for what is being produced, both domestically and across borders.
We also looked at coffee. Some of the best coffee in the world is produced by Rwanda. We have worked to make this industry more productive and beneficial to citizens, who had previously given up on growing coffee because there wasn’t much coming from it. Now they’re involved in growing coffee and they add value by washing the coffee before exporting it. We are now beginning to roast our coffee as well. So farmers are benefitting from that.
We focus on areas that involve the biggest portion of our population.
Beyond that, we have started investing in other areas such as financial services, high-end tourism and information and communication technology. These areas have grown very fast and brought in a lot of benefits to the people and the country. We are finding that things are moving faster than we had expected.
By creating an environment that is conducive to doing business, and by ensuring safety and security for people and their investments in the country, we have moved much more quickly towards achieving strong economic growth. It’s not just impressive economic growth, but economic growth that is inclusive. It contributed to overall development. We have made sure that Rwandans are involved in all of these activities.
Klein: As you know, many foreign journalists and observers are critical of limits on free speech in Rwanda and laws in Rwanda that prohibit divisionism. Divisionism is spreading ideas that are likely to incite conflict based on ethnic, regional, racial, religious and other divisive characteristics. There are also laws in Rwanda that prohibit defamation of the head of state and other public officials. Please help us understand what you think about the benefits and drawbacks of free speech and dissent for Rwanda.
President Kagame: There are a lot of contradictions in what people say about these issues in Rwanda and there is disregard of the real facts on the ground. Let me start by saying that I use Twitter.
Klein: We know. We follow you.
President Kagame: A journalist in the U.K. said something about me on Twitter and I answered back by clarifying the issue and we went back and forth on it. As we argued, this very journalist who was calling for freedom of speech started complaining about how I am pushing back. I said, “Look, you want people to express themselves and that’s how you manage to say things about me. But at the same time, you don’t want me to tell you my views. Is free speech supposed to be just for you, but not for me?”
“Rwanda has many sides. First of all there is present day Rwanda as it is, there is Rwanda as it has been, and there is a future Rwanda and where it wants to be.”
Dialogue happens within our country. I’m exchanging, debating and discussing with my people on social media every day.
Additionally, there have been many international surveys conducted by independent institutions with thousands of Rwandans. Gallup and others have conducted these surveys. If you look at the reports from the last three to five years, you see something interesting. These organizations carried out surveys on their own and we didn’t even know about them. In these reports, about 86% of people said they are free to elect their leaders and say whatever they want to say. But it is revealing that the writer demonstrates bias by saying something like this: “Although Rwanda is known for authoritarian leadership, 86% of people said they are free to express themselves.”
The report author is essentially telling the reader that the findings they made should be disregarded. The author thinks readers should understand that we have an authoritarian situation.
I think Rwanda has many sides. First of all there is present day Rwanda as it is, there is Rwanda as it has been, and there is a future Rwanda and where it wants to be.
Meanwhile, in the eyes of other people, they want it to be or expect it to be something else and they make that a fact. That’s the situation we have to deal with.
Klein: So your argument is, in fact, there is substantial free speech and dissent.
President Kagame: Yes.
Klein: And much of it is playing out on social media?
President Kagame: You have been there. We have many FM radio stations and you need to listen to what they are saying — in French, in English, in Kinyarwanda – they’re talking about their President and whatever they want. We haven’t shattered these radios. They are still operating. Nobody has been punished. So there are big differences between the situation on the ground and what outsiders are saying about us. It doesn’t really add up.