Paul Kagame and the unbearable hardness of being…

“Between 1997 and 1998, cadres of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) revolted”, writes Author Jean-Paul Kimonyo. As it turns out, some senior cadres had brought with them nasty habits picked up in exile and proceeded to replicate them in the new Rwanda. Horrified, young cadres turned to Paul Kagame, then Vice-President and Minister of Defence, but with no leadership role in the party: “This is not what we signed up for!” They said to him. “We trust you. If you are not with them, then you must act”. At the time, Kagame famously declared: “I am ready to put on my welly boots and go back to the bush…”

Major reforms ensued, including fair land redistribution, the dismantling of cronies, and reshuffles in the party, army, and government, leading some to choose between prison and exile. In the year 2000, Kagame was then appointed by parliament to complete the transitional term of the first post-genocide President Pasteur Bizimungu, who had resigned amid a string of scandals.

However, Paul Kagame came to power as a polarising figure, loved by the diaspora and dreaded by the local Hutu population, most of whom had fled the country in fear of retribution. His stellar leadership and unwavering integrity have wooed all Rwandans in time…

Last week on the March 9th 2024, thousands of senior RPF cadres convened in a congress to endorse, once again, Paul Kagame as their champion in the upcoming presidential elections to be held on July 15th this year.

For the occasion, RPF Vice-Chairperson, Consolée Uwimana, shared her life story: “I returned to Rwanda in a plane”, she confessed.  “I had fled in 1994, I was running from ‘Inyenzi’, (‘cockroaches’ – a dehumanizing moniker given to Tutsi by the oppressive post-independence regimes). But they found me in ‘Mbandaka’ (a city on the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of Congo, at least 2000 km away from Rwanda). I had walked there on foot.

  • What are you running from? They asked when they caught me.
  • I am running from Inyezi…
  • Did you know that they could find you in Mbadaka?

In that moment, I thought my life was over. But they told me not to worry, then settled us in a nearby camp, until a plane was available to bring us home. I later learned that the commander of the battalion that caught and repatriated us, was Gen. Mubaraka Muganga, the current Army Chief.

People ask me, how one gets appointed to such a big position (of RPF V/P). But Inkotanyi (nom-de-guerre of RPF members) do not ask who your parents are, where you come from or when. Everyone is given a chance. Your excellency, I am thankful, you have given me a chance!”

She proceeds: “the other day, a friend in America wanted to find out if I had travelled to “Rwanda Day” in Washington (an event where the president meets the Rwandan Diaspora overseas). I said no, the Chairman is there, I stayed behind, I am keeping the house; the RPF house!”

The story of Vice-Chair Uwimana, heard for the first time last week by most party members, is shared by millions of Rwandans. People only know of Rusesabagina, the impostor who founded an armed militia he couldn’t handle, however, those who were only driven away by fear instigated by the defeated governments and self-serving NGOs, were brought back from halfway across the world, thought for a moment their lives were over, then soon discovered that “Inkotanyi ni Ubuzima” (Inkotanyi give life), as genocide survivors like to say. Our current Minister of Defense’s repatriation is a thriller I will tell another day…

As usual, there was doubt in no one’s mind as to whether Paul Kagame would be elected by RPF members, only in question was whether he would accept. He did, reluctantly and warned party members once more and in no uncertain terms, to find him a successor: “Do not wait for me to designate one. All I can promise is that I’ll have my say on the person, or the people that you select. I know myself, I cannot keep quiet if I believe that you are about to make a mistake. However, do not let me surprise you. I keep accepting this role, because of the particular history and challenges facing our country, but it is time you start thinking to relieve me…”

This will be the fourth time that the RPF has endorsed him. First in 2003, 2010, 2017, and now 2024. To many, Kagame’s endorsements and repeated elections, in record numbers, are a sign of a lack of political pluralism in Rwanda. To Rwandans however, it is an exercise of self-affirmation and self-preservation; to which Paul Kagame remarks: “In 2010 when you endorsed me, a man stood up and explained his choice. He said, ‘I am a businessman in Rwanda, Burundi and DRC. That someone like me, who is related to those who committed the genocide can conduct business and prosper in Rwanda, is all thanks to this man. Had the party chosen someone else, I am afraid I would have had to leave Rwanda, not because I expect better conditions abroad, but because I wouldn’t be confident in what would happen to our country.’”

The president pursued, “However, that explanation shouldn’t be valid, 14 years hence. We ought to have contracted an insurance policy for all that we have built. I believe we have and I see many young people here who can do the job. Perhaps we should remind them…”

“I was born free, said Christelle Kwizera, a young sister born after 1994. My name is Kwizera, it means hope. I grew up with the conviction that my opportunities in life will be determined by my performance. There are things I wasn’t denied, because I just didn’t realize one could be denied such things. When I graduated with a first degree, that which I wanted to study wasn’t available at home. I wasn’t deterred, for Rwanda paid for me to pursue my studies in America.”

Addressing the president, she said: “As an entrepreneur, you have been close to us, you have encouraged us to dream big! I am a testimony of that!

Dear chairman, you are our pride! Whenever you go forth, you look back and see that we are near, you never leave us behind. Even on the high table, you make sure our seat is kept next to yours. You unlock our dreams with your large vision. We have enjoyed, we want no one else!”

“J’ai parlé de tout, et de tout le monde..” (I spoke about everything and everyone), once exclaimed late Mobutu Sese Seko, before he spoke about himself…

Indulge the storyteller to share his feelings too. As anyone who’s heard him speak will tell you, when President Kagame speaks, one feels as though he is being personally addressed. However in this particular instant, I felt the message was directed towards me. I was gripped with the feeling that I had let him down and pledged, if not to him, to myself to make amends, for it was the first time I felt that way and I very much hated the feeling. Comprenez, mon emotion…

Alas “what’s past is prologue, what to come in yours and my discharge” – Shakespeare, The Tempest.

“Tubarusha Umwami!” An ancient Rwandan maxim goes. A sort of national roar towards our foes, that Rwanda will always have a greater King and therefore be undefeated. An elder reminded me of that once, he said: “search around the world, you’ll find that a great leader has come along once, twice at best, in other people’s history. But we’ve had wise kings such as Gisanura and Musinga, mighty kings Rujugira and Rwabugili, revolutionary kings Ruganzu and Rudahigwa…”

However that is ancient history, of which we all tend to look at with romanticism and nostalgia, in the sunset of dissolution. Not least, Rwanda has had its own epoch of obscurantism, producing the worst leaders of all…

Paul Kagame is a good man. I wasn’t there during the Kings’ time, but I see in him all the virtues I was told about them. I know this because he brought us back home to Rwanda after 30 years in exile. I know this because he stopped the genocide against the Tutsi, forgave its perpetrators and treated their relatives the same way he did every Rwandan.

Unrepentant genocidaires and their converts like to allege revenge killings by the RPF; they are wrong. Upon capturing Kigali, the RPF would use its meager resources to feed hundreds of thousands genocide perpetrators who we were filling up prisons. RPF would later feed their relatives on Rwandan hills after closing of the Kibeho IDP camp, and million others repatriated from the Mugunga camp in Zaire, after NGOs had protested the closing of camps.

One of RPA (Rwandan Patriotic Army) first major operations on January 23rd 1991, was a raid on the infamous Ruhengeri prison, where Habyarimana locked away political prisoners. “The boys” freed them all and appointed them to leadership positions in the RPF. Alexis Kanyarengwe, a felon member of the “Camarades du 5 juillet”, a ten men precinct of soldiers who assisted Habyarimana in conducting the coup on July 5th 1973 against Kayibanda, was recruited in Nairobi and appointed as chairman of the RPF. As everyone knows, President Pasteur Bizimungu was Habyarimana’s first cousin, while Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramungu, was Kayibanda’s son-in-law.

Upon capturing Kigali, Kagame would immediately enlist 1500 soldiers of the defeated regime with their ranks, into his rebel movement, to form a national army. In fact, two of them, Col. Marcel Gatsinzi was immediately made deputy Army Chief of Staff, while Col. Deogratias Ndibwami was made head of Gendarmerie (current National Police),

“I do my work with conviction and peace of mind, for the burden of my role is borne by the leadership”, the head of Rwanda Investigation Bureau – the institution that jails people – once said to me.

While most freedom fighters embrace austerity and virtue while conducting revolutions, they tend to forget the principles of the revolution once they discover the perks of power and wealth. Heartbreaks and disillusions abound across our continent. Paul Kagame has remained constant. His speech of 1992 as a rebel leader in the bushes of Mukarange, about “being the change we want to see”, is identical in substance, to the speech he made yesterday as a 24 years serving president in the fancy party arena, in the capital Kigali. And so are his ways. In the eyes of Rwandans he has remained true to the cause, and to non-rwandans, he is always new.

It is no use for foreigners to remind us that he will not live forever, we know it, oh too well. For as long as he lives, however, having him lead us is a godsend opportunity to maximize his contribution, for I am not sure we ever will have another man like him. Rwanda certainly will, but not in my lifetime…

To which Anatole France interjects: “If the path be beautiful, let us not ask where it leads…”

There is no doubt Rwandans will elect Paul Kagame in the coming months for another five year term. While it may or may not be his last, supporters and critics alike are unanimous about one thing: said five years will be safe and prosperous for Rwanda. Their query then is merely academic: “a president must be replaced because a president should be replaced”, they say. And Paul Kagame agrees with them.

Halas! We’ll cross that bridge when we reach it, in five years time. For now though, let’s just wish him a long, healthy and happy life, and I promise in return, to speak to the man in the mirror, and make some changes… And so should we all!