Interview with Louise Mushikiwabo, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Rwanda

The Rwandese president Paul Kagame came to Belgium early December 2010 in the framework of the European Development Days. His visit was anything but uneventful: several braved the bitter cold and snow to express their anger or support for  him. Kagame addressed 2400 Rwandan from the diaspora in Europe, but did not meet with king Albert II, nor with prime minister Leterme. In the end, he did not show up at the Development Days. Instead, Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs, Louise Mushikiwabo addressed the audience in a panel on gender and development.

Earlier, in July 2010, the Spanish prime minister Zapatero preferred not to be seen publicly with Kagame. Meanwhile in the Netherlands, a debate was initiated on the budget support for Rwanda. Reasons for this animosity was the recent controversial UN report, pointing at Rwanda as one of the responsible actors of the war crimes and alleged genocide, committed in Eastern Congo in the 90s. The  imprisonment of opposition leader Victoire Ingabire, who lived in  as a refugee the Netherlands for 16 years, heightened the controversy for the Dutch.

Following a brief encounter during the Africa-EU summit in Tripoli, MO* had a long talk with Louise Mushikiwabo in the lobby of the Brussels Conrad Hotel. The Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs paints a picture of a dynamic and ambitious Rwanda, with a regime that is not side-tracked by ‘non-issues’.

Are you concerned about the public opinion in Europe on Rwanda?

Louise Mushikiwabo: In Belgium there are a number of Rwandans and Congolese who left their country in difficult circumstances. In the case of Rwanda you have people who are linked either to the old government or to the genocide. We do not expect these people to be supportive of the current government. To us politicians, this is normal. It is part of the democratic game. Protests are good, it is a good way to express frustration and unhappiness, as long as they remain non-violent. I hope that the same public opinion saw that 2400 Rwandans came to meet president Kagame.

Do you think that this negative public opinion will reflect on the country’s relationship with European officials? There were rumours that Kagame’s absence during the Development Days, and the fact that he did not meet with the Belgian Prime minister were linked to this.

Louise Mushikiwabo: I think people really need to calm down. (laughs) Really, when I heard those rumours, I was just laughing. Because I am involved in the booking and planning of meetings I know what actually happened. Meetings were not finalised, they were being discussed. There was a conflict of calendars, so it was difficult to plan the times. That is all there is to it. (laughs)

President Kagame met with the Belgian prime minister in September, less than two months ago. Belgium has no issue whatsoever with Rwanda, we have actually excellent relations. The president was invited to the Development Days as a special guest to talk about an issue he is very much qualified to talk about (gender). It didn’t work out at the last minute, but he was here. It is really as simple as that.

The relationship that Rwanda has with the international community in general is marked by extremes: extreme fans and ardent opponents. How does Rwanda deal with this?  

Louise Mushikiwabo: There is one element that you are forgetting in your question. There are people who love Rwanda to death and those who could not be bothered. But there is a large group of people in between: the people that do not know much about the country. Those are mostly the people we want to  interest in Rwanda. There are few who know, and either they know very very positively, or they have their own prejudice. That is the reality of Rwanda, which has to do with the history of the genocide. It has left consequences, including reputational ones. We feel that as a nation, we have done very well, coming from nowhere. But we are also very conscious that we still have a long way to go, so we try to remain very humble in our achievements. We just feel that we are on the right track.

On the very negative elements, we know where they come from. There are people who want Rwanda to behave in a certain way. It is not going to happen, because Rwanda responds to Rwandans. So there are people who first of all do not understand that and secondly, people who do not like it.  But we are really not trying to please everybody. We are trying to make sure, especially us as a government, that we are responding to the needs of the people of the country. Listening to them. Making sure we are delivering as best as we can.

Because we have reached a level of stability in the country, we intend to provide as much information as we can, about the country and what is happening, much more than we have been doing before. We don’t even expect everybody to agree with us. Where people want to debate things or give their opinion: it’s fine. But we have our priorities as a nation. We intend to continue delivering and working better. We intend to continue giving the people of Rwanda a sense of belonging and a sense of achievement. That is really very important. If some people do not understand it, sometimes we call debate, sometimes we give explanation, but we really cannot be derailed in any way by what some people somewhere else think.     

But also inside Rwanda there seems to be mounting criticism and opposition, even within the president’s party (FPR). Recently those three ex-FPR generals openly displayed their disagreements with Kagame in a widespread report.

Louise Mushikiwabo: Rwanda is not the only country where people leave office or get fired. It happens everywhere. So, for us, we do not understand why it should be such a special deal. As far as the country is concerned, this is just a minor distraction, a non-issue. Of course for us who travel, and are in the international circles, we are more aware of these things. The average Rwandans could not care less, though. There are more than ten million Rwandans who don’t know, and who don’t even think this is something that should distract them in any way.

Is the recent UN report alleging Rwanda’s involvement in a genocide in Eastern Congo also a minor distraction?

Louise Mushikiwabo: Oh no, that UN report on crimes committed in Eastern DRC is a serious issue for Rwanda. It touches on the very foundation of where we are today, of what we are doing today. It is a report that was done with an ill motive. But it is also a report that really doesn’t make any sense.

First of all it alleges that the Rwandese army went deliberately into the Congo to kill Hutu Rwandese citizens. At that time, our army had already been mixed. Some of the commanders at the border area were even people who used to be in the former army. So, how is anybody going to plan to kill their own? How is an army that is ethnically mixed going to be given orders to go kill one group? Are they alleging that we created mono-ethnic battalions within the army? I mean, how did we do it? It doesn’t make any sense. Secondly, if one wants to go after Hutu citizens and kill them, there were many in Rwanda. Why go to the Congo, why not kill them right there in Rwanda? We repatriated 3.2 million refugees in the country. How can you want them dead and then spend all this effort to bring them back in the country? It is a report that requires people to take a deep breath, sit down and examine. To understand it, you have to go into specifics. That is the absurd part of it.

You also dispute the methodology of the report.

Louise Mushikiwabo: First of all, people must understand that it is a report that covers a country 80 times the size of Belgium. Even if it is a part of it, it is a huge territory. It takes less than seven months to investigate crimes committed over ten years? That in itself is a problem. Secondly, how can anybody who is trying to find out what happened in the refugee camps in eastern DRC in the 90s, not talk to the actors who were there? Our army was there, there were other armies as well. There were seven countries that are accused in that report. What methodology is it that is not even going to hear their version of the story? You might dismiss it, but at least make an attempt to listen to them. So for us it is a big mistake to judge Rwanda based on that report.

This is really a very serious attempt to change history, to rewrite our history, to create situations that never took place. That is why Rwanda has reacted very strongly against this report.

What does Rwanda do in the meantime about the humanitarian situation in Eastern Congo?

Louise Mushikiwabo: Working closely together with the DRC is the best prevention there is. Militarily we have the joint operation Umoja Wetu (Our Unity), to work against the FDLR (Forces Démocratiques de la Libération du Rwanda) in particular. As a group that is entrenched in different parts of the DRC, they are a problem for both countries. It was a very successful operation in the sense that it has destabilised the FDLR. They are still there but their operational capacity has been shaken. The joint operation was a clear signal that there is not going to be tolerance for them any longer.

There are people who want Rwanda to behave in a certain way. It is not going to happen, because Rwanda responds to Rwandans.
On the economic front, - which is very critical, because that is what the people want -, we have been discussing a number of specific economic ventures that we can do together. One is the exploitation of methane gas in Lake Kivu. Rwanda has already done some work on that, but we invited the DRC ministry of energy and the government to join us so we can work together. We now have almost concluded negotiations for a Rwandan airline, Rwanda Air, to fly to Kinshasa. The paperwork is very advanced and we are looking forward to that. We are working very closely with the DRC on the dams  for the Rusizi River, for common benefit in terms of hydro electric energy. We also have quite a large amount of cross-border trade in agricultural products, both on the Bukavu Rusizi side en de Goma side, with people crossing basically every day, trading in crops  and agricultural products.

MO*: What are the major challenges for Rwanda, internationally and internally in the nearest future?

Louise Mushikiwabo: Energy. Because it affects everything. It affects industrialisation, transport and it is extremely expensive. We are trying to find a solution, by looking at alternative energy, renewable energy, hydro power, solar energy. We are looking for ways to first of all create and produce enough energy, but also make it accessible and affordable. That is a major challenge that really affects our economic growth.

We also struggle with the development of human capacity. A major part of it has to do with the genocide where people were either killed or fled, leaving a serious gap between the top political people and CEO’s and the lower levels. The middle part of our workforce remains a problem. We are trying to remedy that by adjusting our educational system, by training and by looking at other countries that had that problem.

Internationally,  we want to use our diplomatic reach to bring more trade and other opportunities to Rwandans. We are trying to move away from the traditional diplomacy of creating good relations. We want to bring something tangible to the people of Rwanda. We have good relations now with a number of countries. We are  in the process of opening embassies in Africa where we were not represented such as Nigeria and in Senegal,  but also in Asia of course. The challenge is to device a proper approach for Asia, but we see enormous opportunities in a number of countries. It is a challenge because it is something new, because it takes some learning and it also takes the right people to do that kind of work.

Otherwise, outside but close to home, we are very much involved in regional integration. Both in the East African Community and the Great Lakes CPGL, two organisations we are very much committed to, and try to bring the whole country with us. Rwandans have embraced regional integration very much.

With regard to regional integration, what were the points raised by Rwanda at the Africa-EU Summit in Tripoli?

Louise Mushikiwabo: Rwanda had two issues for discussion. One was the EU-Africa discussions on the economic partnership agreements (EPAs). Our position was very much informed by the position taken by the Ministers of Trade of the African Union (AU) took in Kigali last month. We wanted to make sure that the conclusions and the resolutions of that meeting  and the substance of it, would be reported at the Summit.

The second issue was something that was agreed on at the level of the African Union, in Sharm-el-Sheik in July 2008 on the abuse of the otherwise very good principle of universal jurisdiction. It is an issue of particular interest to Rwanda as well. This has been under discussion between the AU and the EU for quite some time, but  we have had no breakthrough. We feel that the EU should give it more weight and give it time and discuss it in a manner that would allow us to reach some form of consensus.

What is the problem with this universal jurisdiction? Is it some of the genocide trials in Belgium or rather people like the Sudanese president Bashir that are being indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC)?

Louise Mushikiwabo: This has nothing to do with the ICC. Rwanda does not believe in the ICC, we have not signed the treaty

What Rwanda, with the entire AU, brought to the discussion in Tripoli, is the level of unfairness in international law that is there to serve the Western world, and in particular some Western judges, to humiliate and go after African officials. It is a very big issue.

We do not dispute the legality or the potential merit of the principle of universal jurisdiction. It is there to allow countries to go after war crimes and other serious crimes against humanity for citizens of other countries. So, it is a very very good principle, because these crimes need to be punished. In our experience, though, judges in Europe have been serving the interests of European politicians, and even some exiled Rwandans, by indicting Rwandan officials. It has to stop. Otherwise every judge, who wakes up in any European country, is going to use that law against anybody in Africa. Frankly we see it as a racist move. This international law and this mechanism, is now being hijacked by people for their own political interest. We feel that as a continent, and as the AU we should not allow that kind of “universal” tool to be used by European judges against anybody they want. And we know for a fact that there is a number of Europeans who have committed crimes, serious crime in Africa, including in Rwanda. So the question today is: if we are to indict some European officials today in Rwanda, would the same principle apply to them?

Are there any plans to do that?

Louise Mushikiwabo: Definitely! If a principle, a legal international legal principle is to be used, it should be used by everybody, used cautiously and used for the right reasons. For us it is just a question of mutual respect. In Tripoli we were talking about our partnership in the spirit of the Lisbon meeting three years ago. As we do not see partnership in that respect, so we thought it was an important issue to bring up.  Of course a number of other African countries feel the same way. I think when it comes to justice, every country will make its own judgment in terms of what is important for them and what is not. The only thing is that it should be done properly, whether it is done by Africa or Europe. Certainly, as things stand, there is nothing that keeps Africans from going ahead and preparing their own indictments against European actors who are guilty of some serious crimes in Africa. There is nothing at all that would prevent us from doing that.

How did you see Europe and Africa in Tripoli? Is there indeed more African unity? And does Europe realise that Africa is changing?

Louise Mushikiwabo: Due to some global changes, Africa has a more important voice than before.

More united? I would say yes. And again, that is because of the global changes taking place today. So when we talk about the issues such as climate change, as a continent we can relate and we can bring our experiences together and have a position.

Europe as a whole seems not to accept the reality that Africa has a different mindset, a different way of doing things, that Africa is looking to other parts of the world to interact and to do business with.

Take the example of China: all countries are looking at China, so why shouldn’t Africa?  We are being told that Africa and China are going to get together and ignore human rights . This is just a very erroneous way of analysing and looking at things. I would not blame China for ignoring labour laws and human rights. If that were to happen it would really be the fault of us Africans. It is up to us, to look after our citizens, so they do not get abused. It is up to us to negotiate in a smart manner.

Meanwhile I think that Europe should just understand that there is competition when it comes to Africa. It needs to gear up to work in that context.

Europe remains a very important partner. Between Europe and Africa there is a tradition and a history, we are used to one another. The EU in particular is making a difference in Rwanda and we work very well together. But that does not keep Rwanda from looking elsewhere and combining all kinds of opportunities coming from other places. So there is no exclusivity in this relationship. We feel these days that Europe is uneasy about this. It is just a situation they have to accept.

Maak MO* mee mogelijk.

Word proMO* net als 2968   andere lezers en maak MO* mee mogelijk. Zo blijven al onze verhalen gratis online beschikbaar voor iédereen.

Ik word proMO*    Ik doe liever een gift