By LISA STEYN*
At the opening of the African Economic Conference in the Rwandan capital of Kigali on Tuesday Kagame broke away from his keynote address to deliver harsh words to his detractors.
The leader of the small East African country is heralded for his progress in rebuilding the war-torn country, which is often held up as an example of how inclusive and sustainable development can be achieved in an African country. But many believe it comes at the cost of human rights.
Of late Kagame has been in the media spotlight on issues related to unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where a rebel group known as M23 has been fighting government soldiers in an eastern DRC province.
A leaked report from the United Nations concluded that Rwanda’s minister of defence, James Kabarebe, has been commanding the rebel group and that Kagame must have full knowledge of it.
In a bid to explain how economic policy must operate within a larger political context, Kagame began to speak frankly about the accusations.
He acknowledged that development in Rwanda could not have been achieved without its development partners. “[But this] means developmental outcomes are partly dependent on external factors which are at times very unpredictable – even irrational.”
“External factors can stifle, and do stifle, economic growth. I do not want to believe that sometimes that is exactly what is intended.”
The conference is jointly hosted by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, the African Development Bank and the United Nations Development Programme.
Kagame came to power as leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front following the 1994 genocide and restored order. But he has since been criticised for running unopposed and supressing freedom of speech.
On the day Kagame spoke at the conference, it was reported that Rwandan opposition leader Victoire Ingabire was sentenced to eight years in prison for treason.
But Kagame said that by insisting on having control of his own country he had been labelled an authoritarian and dictator.
“These Rwandans are not going to complain to anyone they are not free.” They must have been free to have worked together and achieved all they have achieved, he said. “Who are these people who speak for Rwandans?” he asked.
He cited developments in the country including the enforcement of women’s rights, investment in education and healthcare for children and that citizens could put food on the table and feed themselves. Growth has been consistent and poverty levels considerably reduced in the past five years. “You cannot say that is undemocratic – you have changed the definition.”
He said billions had been pumped into the Congo for years but there had been no return on investment. “The international community is too big to take responsibility for its failures – it needs to look for somebody else to take responsibility – that is how it has become Rwanda.”
But shifting the blame has not stopped the situation in the Congo, he said. And on the horizon is another problem in the form of targeted sanctions, a topic of discussion at the UN.
“This new Rwanda, it does not respond well to blackmail,” he said. “We are not the ones holding the magic wand for Congo’s problems – Congo’s problems are older than me.”
But he recognised the need to resolve the issue. “There are legitimate grievances there that must be listened to. You can’t wish away these problems.”
“Our economies operate in both a national and international political context that has a huge impact on the choices countries like ours make and the impacts they have.”
He said he raised the issue at the conference to highlight the need to consider external factors like politics that shape economic policy. “Yes they are good ideas but will we implement them and how? What is the context?”
Speaking publically to Olusegun Obasanjo, the former president of Nigeria, who was a panellist at the conference, Kagame said “you left us too soon, I tell you sadly Africa is lacking in terms of leaders to stand out against these challenges”.
We all have a responsibility to define Africa’s story into a successful one, he said, this is what our people deserve.
Lisa Steyn attended the African Economic Conference as a guest of the African Development Bank