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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW

Paul Kagame

Symbol of a Country and Continent in Search of a Survival Strategy

March 18, 2001|Robin Wright | Robin Wright is chief diplomatic correspondent of The Times. Her latest book is "The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran."

WASHINGTON — For a head of state in the 21st century, Paul Kagame faces a near-unimaginable challenge. The Rwandan leader is trying to rebuild a country from scratch after a wave of genocide so brutal that the pace of killing exceeded the Nazi Holocaust. At least 800,000--an average of 8,000 a day--died during the 1994 slaughter in the Central African mountains. Most were minority Tutsis hacked to death with machetes by Hutu extremists.

Most survivors of the bloodletting fled to other parts of the country or across the border. Economic activity ground to a halt. Neither schools nor hospitals functioned. Some 42% of women were widowed. Hundreds of thousands of children were orphaned; one in five became head of a household of other children.

Kagame, a former rebel leader elected president by parliament last year, is a microcosm of the Rwandan saga. The tall, rail-thin Tutsi leader fled Rwanda at age 4 in 1957 during earlier ethnic tension. Kagame's family came from the Tutsi elite outnumbered 7 to 1 by poorer Hutu farmers, who saw themselves as an oppressed majority excluded from power and wealth. For the next 30 years, Kagame was a refugee in Uganda, where he ended up joining the army. In 1990, Kagame led an invasion of Rwanda that eventually restored the Tutsi to power.

Kagame's influence now spreads well beyond Rwanda, a country smaller than Maryland. To prevent Hutu supremacists who fled to Congo from returning, Kagame dispatched troops across the border. By 1997, what started as a defensive operation ended the 32-year reign of notorious dictator Mobutu Sese Seku. In his place, Kagame helped install Laurent Kabila.

Kabila eventually turned against Rwanda, however, demanding that its troops leave Congo. The action provoked a crisis. Zambian, Angolan and Namibian troops lined up on Kabila's side, while Ugandan troops backed Rwanda. Despite a peace proposal signed by all five nations, the situation has been deadlocked for two years.

For all Rwanda's problems, Kagame remains an optimist. "I am not, for one moment, what has become known as an Afro-pessimist, a person who characterizes Africa as permanently destined to remain the center of the 'wretched of the earth,' to quote Frantz Fanon's famous phrase," he recently told several audiences in Washington.

To encourage a normal life for Rwandans, Kagame supports the national soccer league and attends games as often as his schedule allows. Married in 1989, he is the father of four children for whom, he says, he is trying to build a new country that will guarantee their survival.

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Question: Central Africa is facing the most serious set of crises since the region became independent from European colonial rulers in the 1960s, problems underscored by the assassination in January of President Laurent Kabila. Congo has armies from five nations occupying its land. Will it ever be controlled by one government again?

Answer: Maybe one government, one man sitting in Kinshasa, does not fully address the problems of people who are living in a huge country with the poorest infrastructure on the continent. Maybe the Congo would be better off with a federal government, with some provinces having some autonomy to govern themselves, rather than always tying them to the central government in Kinshasa. [But for the moment] it's one country, at least in terms of geographic interpretation, [and] the countries that are in the Congo have not claimed any piece of territory.

Q: How important is it for the rest of Africa to keep Congo together?

A: Rwanda today is different from what it was 100 years ago. It used to be bigger than it is. It was dismembered and nothing happened.

Q: Rwanda has thousands of troops in Congo. Under what circumstances will you withdraw them?

A: [When] Rwanda's serious security concerns are addressed, our troops will withdraw immediately. Rwanda is a very peaceful country, but it has come at the expense of keeping our troops in the Congo to ensure that these genocidal forces don't come back and disrupt our peace and our people.

Q: For a half-century, Tutsis and Hutus have engaged in repeated rounds of killings in both Rwanda and Burundi. What will it take to end the bloodshed?

A: You are talking about recent history, five to 40 years. But Rwanda has been a nation-state for 500 years, so it will take a better form of what happened during those four or so centuries before it was colonized. Colonial rulers played a divide-and-rule situation. They came and decided to play one section of the population against the other, at different times favoring one side and then the other. This was a game they played for easy governance. When colonialists left, the Rwandese who took over continued playing the same game--dividing the people of the country for political ends. That turned into genocide.

Rwanda should realize that the kind of diversity it has among its people should be looked at as a resource. To characterize a problem of Tutsi and Hutus as irreconcilable or permanent is wrong.

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