Q&A: Rwandan President Paul Kagame

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Rwanda's President Paul Kagame speaks at the launch of his re-election campaign on July 20, 2010 at a rally in the capital Kigali.

Under President Paul Kagame, Rwanda is developing faster than any other poor country. But human-rights groups regularly accuse him of being an authoritarian. He spoke to Alex Perry, TIME's Africa bureau chief, at his offices in central Kigali in May.

TIME: Are you satisfied with your achievements?
Kagame: It's progress beyond our expectations. That doesn't mean we have done everything. We need to keep in the direction we want to move in — [towards] a nation that is back on its feet, where the people can feel their dignity has returned, and they can prosper. To bring people together and feel a sense of unity and purpose, it's like going back to the real nation of Rwanda, [which] was not divided at the beginning. I find a lot of pleasure in that, much more than leadership.

There's a contrast between your success and your coverage. How come you're not more popular?
Kagame (laughs): You raise a very interesting question. Bringing this country back from total devastation then all of a sudden from outside there is this picture painted: Kagame. Authoritarian.

In Rwanda, we take the lead. [We say]: 'So much has been spent on us, and you are so proud of helping, but where has it gone? The end result has been the perpetuation of poverty.' They [do] not like it. The rich world assumes they are the ones who shape and define everything, address every problem: 'Rwanda is a small country, an African country, a poor country. We must make them do what is right. It cannot be right on its own.' It is absolute contempt. But if I am solving my people's problems, it doesn't matter how much you abuse me.

In your view, there is a Western attitude that essentially translates as: There is a right way of doing things and the West has a proprietorial hold on that. The West describes it as universality and neutrality, but you say comes across as imposing, inappropriate, wrong-headed and sometimes disastrous.
Absolutely right. I do not do right just because the West has demanded that. We are also people who want to do what is right — and right for us — and which must also be seen as right by others. We do not accept that other people's views and values must always prevail over us. We are people who can think for ourselves.

You have an extraordinary sense of purpose.
It was in me before I [even] realized it.

But the problems and circumstances I was born into and grew up in, being a refugee from my childhood, for close to three decades — there is lot you go through and these things tend to shape you. I remember one time when I was still in primary school in the late 1960s, I asked my parents: 'Why are we refugees?' My father attempted to go through the history and I said: 'But you, did you do anything wrong yourself?' Really interrogating him. Asking: 'If you went back to Rwanda, what would happen to you? Is it because of you? Or because of someone else?' This conversation, I am sure, went deeper than I felt. And I translated it into something as I grew up. I always try to tell right from wrong. I feel I have the energy and will to stand up to challenges and express myself, for myself and for others.

Some extrapolate from your character a tone for the government, sometimes seen as determined, other times as austere and intolerant.
That's not true. I enjoy and encourage debate. But I am also not afraid of expressing my views strongly and attempting to convince people. Being single-minded, focused, expressing my views, [putting myself] at par with anybody, if this is what I am accused of, I am guilty. But being a tyrant? How can I be intolerant and be strongly behind the reconciliation process that has taken place? We accommodate murderers. [If I was intolerant] I would have gone out killing them.

Do you see attitudes changing, a recognition of Rwanda's right to run its own affairs and that there is more than one way to develop?
Yes and no. There is public acclaim: 'We want you to do things for yourselves.' But in practice, they are still pulling strings. The onus is on us. We can't demand self-determination and then be seen to be doing wrong things that create a pretext for people to come back and say: 'But look at what you are doing.' We must be seen to be right. We must be seen to be holding ourselves to high standards, to integrity, to self-worth. We have to be convincing.

How long do you go on? Do you see yourself stepping aside in the broader interests of having a revolving, democratic leadership?
It is a question of doing what is right. My leadership of this country hasn't been out of me wanting so badly to be there. It comes with challenges for your family. There are sacrifices. Circumstances put me here and I served my country — and happily that has gone well.

[But] my country should continue to do well even when I am not here. Continuity, for us, does not mean Kagame continuing to be President. When it comes to that time, I will do the right thing and it will be in the interests of this country. In these elections [on Aug. 9], if somebody beats me, I would not try to stay for a second. When my time is up, it's up.