Rebooting Rwanda

A Conversation With Paul Kagame

The president in London, September 2009.
The president in London, September 2009. (Luke MacGregor / Courtesy Reuters)

On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down by unidentified assailants. The next day, the killings began. Over the next three months, as the international community stood by, an estimated one million Rwandans—Tutsis and moderate Hutus—were systematically slaughtered by Hutu extremists, mostly using clubs and machetes. The genocide, one of history’s worst and certainly its quickest, finally ended in July, when the Rwandan Patriotic Front seized control of the country. The rebel army was led by a 36-year-old Tutsi former refugee named Paul Kagame, who promptly took political control: serving first as the de facto leader of the country while defense minister and vice president and then, in 2000, assuming the presidency. During Kagame’s two-decade rule, Rwanda has made spectacular progress. A country famously deemed “nonviable” in the mid-1990s has become one of Africa’s best-run, most orderly, least corrupt, and safest states, with a booming economy (Rwanda’s GDP has grown by an average of eight percent in recent years). But Rwanda’s success has come with a darker side: opposition politicians have been jailed or killed under mysterious circumstances, journalists complain of harassment, and Kigali has been regularly criticized for meddling in neighboring Congo’s long-running civil war. In late February, Kagame met with Foreign Affairs managing editor Jonathan Tepperman in Kigali to discuss these controversies, his tenure, Rwanda today, and the legacy of the mass killings two decades ago.

April 7 marks the 20th anniversary of Rwanda’s genocide. The village gacaca courts finished work in 2012. The ICTR [International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda] expects to finish work this year. Tens of thousands of convicted criminals have been amnestied in the last two decades. Given all this, how far has Rwanda come in terms of reconciliation since 1994?
Well, it starts with understanding where we have come from and then seeing where we are today, and looking at the difference. We have come from a genocide and the devastation that characterized it. Almost the entire population was displaced. There was confusion, death, despair, and so on.

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