Rwanda’s economy is one of Africa’s best performers, and many say President Paul Kagame has played a big role in that. President Kagame has championed economic changes that opened up the nation’s economy and created significant growth.
But Mr. Kagame has faced his share of criticism, too, about his grip on power and whether Rwanda offers a level playing field for all investors.
President Kagame sat down with Wall Street Journal Editor in Chief Gerard Baker to discuss, among other things, the move toward populism in the U.S. and Europe and what it might mean for Africa as a whole and for Rwanda. Edited excerpts follow:
MR. BAKER: President Trump hasn’t spoken much about Africa, but we do know that he stands for a very assertive nationalism. You, of course, have been very much a leader in the globalization movement. If President Trump makes good on his promises to be an assertive nationalist, what does it mean for Africa and Rwanda, in particular?
MR. KAGAME: If President Trump is still being figured out by those who elected him, it’s probably going to take us some time to understand what the new administration means for Africa.
If you look at previous U.S. administrations, there are a number of good things that happened for Africa in terms of trade and health. But overall when you look beyond that, you don’t find a clear U.S.-Africa policy in place for those years.
So when a new administration comes, you want to wait and see what they want to do—not so much for Africa but with Africa. Because I want to see Africa get its act together and be able to do business with the U.S., or with any other country.
Some positive things might come out of a Trump administration. Maybe it will push African nations to think about what we can do for ourselves to develop our economies and engage in more trade and investment with each other.
MR. BAKER: The political trends in much of the developed world do seem to be turning against globalization. Can the kind of global economic cooperation we’ve seen in the past 20 years—and that has benefited Rwanda—survive the populist trends we’re seeing?
MR. KAGAME: I think it can survive, but not on the basis of one entity doing a favor for another entity.
All of this, whether it’s nationalism or populism or globalism, is driven to a great extent by self-interest. And if people realize there is more to be gained by working together, then that might come back. Or this may force people to find out what was wrong in the first place with the system we had. Maybe we needed to be doing more in the area of governance and cooperation, so that where one gains, the other also is gaining.
As we wait to see what unfolds, Africa should be learning lessons and saying, “Maybe we shouldn’t be entirely depending on this. We should also be doing certain things with each other.”
Africa has lots of natural resources and plenty of human capital. How for all of these decades have we failed to organize, to come together, to make full sense of this? Intra-African trade and investment is still very low. Why is that?
MR. BAKER: Since the tragedies of the 1990s, Rwanda has been one of the more successful stories in Africa economically. You’ve had sustained growth and improvement in living standards. You’ve risen significantly in World Bank rankings of good governance, social progress, health care and education. What can other countries in Africa learn from the Rwandan experience?
MR. KAGAME: Every activity we have been involved in is centered on our people. Rwandans for us come first. How are they involved? How are they participating? How are they benefiting? It’s key. We aren’t trying to compare ourselves to others; we are comparing ourselves with ourselves, where we have been and where we are today.
MR. BAKER: What about investment? One of the criticisms of your government is that despite Rwanda’s favorable economic performance, there isn’t a level playing field for investors because government-supported businesses get favorable treatment. Is that a fair criticism?
MR. KAGAME: Those behind such criticism may be thinking it is fair, but I think it is mostly based on ignorance.
Here are a few facts. One, in 2009 about $140 million or so came here in the area of direct foreign investment. By 2014 we had $560 million coming in from outside. And the trend is continuing in that direction.
Two, Crystal Ventures, [a government-backed investment company], started during the liberation struggle, way before we came into power. And when we came to power, it continued, but on the basis of transparency and accountability up to this day. In fact, it was made public that Crystal Ventures, which was TriStar before that, invested in areas that weren’t attracting investments either domestically or from outside.
For example, it initiated bringing telephone companies into Rwanda. And when this gained the interest of the private sector, Crystal Ventures pulled out.
So they were going into areas that people thought were risky. It was partly because they were associated with the party in power, and we wanted to see a difference made in our country.
MR. BAKER: So no private-sector companies, domestic or foreign, are facing unfavorable treatment?
MR. KAGAME: No. And I would challenge anybody to bring any proof of that.
MR. BAKER: Let’s talk about political conditions in Rwanda. You’ve been elected twice, two seven-year terms, with enormous majorities. You’ve changed the constitution to enable you to run for a third term. By any measure, you obviously have been very popular in Rwanda, but your opponents say you have been silencing your critics. How do you respond to that?
MR. KAGAME: You have made it appear that your political system is perfect and you want others to emulate it. But you keep being surprised by what your own system is producing.
Some of the things that are unfolding, whether in Europe or America, haven’t surprised me. I saw this coming.
When you hear about fake news and all kinds of stuff, I sit back and think, “What you have been hitting us with is coming back to hit you.”
MR. BAKER: Is it fake news, the criticism of you?
MR. KAGAME: There is no effort to follow things and find out what happened or why it happened. It’s always, “Oh, somebody has been arrested. It is President Kagame who has arrested him. This person must have been in the right, and the government is in the wrong.” This happens year in and year out.
You say I changed the constitution. I didn’t.
MR. BAKER: It was ratified in a referendum.
MR. KAGAME: If you want the truth, it is the people who changed the constitution, not me. And even if I hadn’t agreed to run for another term, the opposition would have had something to say.
My satisfaction lies in the fact that we haven’t been involved in doing anything wrong against our people. We are developing our country. If we don’t take care of ourselves, nobody will. And as long as Rwandans want to do it, we will do it.
As other nations struggle with their own situations, we will be listening for the lessons they want to give us. But we will not be distracted from what is good for our country.
Wall Street Journal