By way of a necessary background to this ode to Paul Kagame, I was recently in Kigali, Rwanda’s neat, orderly and impeccably clean capital city of this country of a thousand hills. For most readers, especially the incurious Nigerian reader the mention of Rwanda, immediately conjures musty memories of some sort of a tragedy that happened some twenty years ago. That would be the nightmarish horror of the wholesale slaughter over three months in early 1994 of close to a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus by Hutu extremists determined to establish a Hutu imperium, ostensibly to redress the historical primacy of Tutsis in Rwandan society.
This genocide against the Tutsis holds its own execrable place in the damned roster of man’s inhumanity to man, and even more, thanks to the globalized networked society, the whole world, Africa included, knew what was happening in real time, and did little to stop it. But that was then, this is today. The forceful forward looking vision of Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame has led Rwanda from the genocidal graveyard of near state extinction unto unprecedented growth and development that continues to confound the pundits, silence the naysayers and showcase especially to Africans what a tough, honest, visionary and administratively capable leader can do, and to put it in Churchillian terms, Paul Kagame 'snatch victory from the jaws of defeat'.
Admittedly given the present morass that this country is in, it will be difficult not to make asymmetric comparisons between Nigeria and Rwanda, and our own historical leadership failures, especially since we have so deftly and repeatedly strove to snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, but I leave those comparisons to the reader’s own judgement. But even so, some comparative economic indicators are worth considering. Between 2006 and 2011, Rwanda reduced its poverty rates respectively from 57 per cent to 44.9 per cent and in roughly the same time in Nigeria, the poverty rates in Nigeria doubled to now directly affect the overall well being of 112 million Nigerians, who are chronically without food, shelter, water, sanitation healthcare and education.
It must be understood that most state governments in Nigeria have a larger annual budget than this small country of 10 million people with one of the highest population densities in the world. Poverty, specifically the structured and planned reduction of the poverty index is really the only true measurement of a country’s development, and in Nigeria, never mind what the apologists will tell you about the economy growing at 7.4 per cent, the bottom line of all bottom lines is if it directly and positively lifts its citizens out of poverty in a sustainable way for at least 20 years.
By this singular measure, Nigerian leaders past and present have collectively been a catastrophic man-made disaster. The converse is true of this remarkable landlocked country whose astute, patriotic, visionary and eminently capable soldier-statesman is the closest thing that we have to that durable African leadership archetype the 'benevolent dictator'. The post independence history of Africa is littered with the bones of the archetypal 'African Big Man', that one indispensible leader solely capable of uniting and welding fractious tribes into one glorious nation, and as is typically the case, acquiring great wealth and many wives along the way. Paul Kagame is nothing of the sort. He is a thoroughly modern, tweeting and practical philosopher-king, wise to the ways of the world and a lover of wisdom in the Platonic sense, who must be credited with re-founding the new Rwandan republic that, (okay, admittedly a little bit effusive here) mirrors Plato’s own utopian city-state, the beautiful Kallipolis. So why do I love Paul Kagame? Let me count the ways.
I did meet Paul Kagame about seven years ago when he was being honoured by the Africa-America Institute, during the crowded week of the UN General Assembly. Up close, he was an extremely polite and yet serious minded conversationalist, who listened intently, before making his often pointed rebuttal, politely of course. His tall slender frame belied the intensity of his direct in your face gaze, and you could feel the steely resolve and implacable will of this soldier turned statesman. I came away with the impression that this man was not to be trifled with, he was a battle hardened warrior, equally at ease in waging war or making peace. And why not, Kagame’s life has always been mission oriented; as a young soldier fighting the Ugandan army of Milton Obote alongside his mentor Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s president since 1986, through the various failed peace efforts to stop the killings in Rwanda and on to final military victory in 1994, Paul Kagame has been through the crucible of life that forges and tempers many a man, however oftentimes with varying results. He learnt the right lessons from his life’s experiences and he has put it to good use in his mission to save and rebuild a new Rwanda, actually 'welding and uniting fractious tribes into one glorious nation'. The man is a 'man’s man', and we love him for that.
I also love that in the post conflict battle for the realignment of power and international influence, he gave a long slender 'le finger', to the French and Belgian colonialists mostly responsible for the dark social engineering that pitted the Hutus against the Tutsis and directly caused the multiple genocides that nearly destroyed the social cohesion of the country. By switching the official language from French to English, he batted away over a century of French and Belgian cultural influence and created a young modern bi-lingual work force of young people who now benefit from twelve years of compulsory education, all covered by the state.
I also love Paul Kagame because he has from a historical perspective finally exorcised the malevolent ghost of Belgium’s King Leopold, whose dark and sinister legacy can be felt in present day Democratic Republic of Congo. In overcoming the Belgian colonial legacy in Rwanda, Kagame also subliminally re-wrote the Conradian narrative of central Africa being the heart of darkness. “The horror, the horror,” depicted in The Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s racist trope (comprehensively dismantled by the ever living Chinua Achebe) about the clash of savagery and civilization, no longer exists in this new 'pearl of Africa'. In Rwanda, Kagame has created a new heart of lightness, whose illumination will hopefully over time enlighten the entire continent.
All right, enough of the adulation, is there a chance that I might one day eat my words? Perhaps, but personally, I don’t thinks so. The key thing for Kagame is to sustain this development for another decade or so, which brings into question the issues of succession and transition when his present term ends in 2017. I don't think he will outlive his welcome as so many other once promising African leaders have done. This is a man clearly aligned with his own sense of destiny and history, and a thoroughly self possessed African leader cut from a different bale of cloth. Bill Clinton is on record to have referred to Kagame as “one of the greatest leaders of our time.” I think he is right.