The towering, lithe man strode into the room stealthily, as if careful not to startle his guests. Although his entry snuffed out the hushed conversations, his presence lacked the imposing feel of your vintage African leader.
For the six foot two President Paul Kagame of Rwanda does not exude the Big Man aura around him like many of his peers on the continent. Rather, he wears this shy, self-effacing mien that belies a steely leader who pulled his country from near obliteration 24 years ago when Hutu supremacists killed nearly a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in three months.
Today, Mr Kagame stands tall, literally and figuratively, as his country savours an impressive record on many fronts.
Referred to variously as the “African Singapore” or the “Switzerland of Africa,” Rwanda has, under Mr Kagame, leapt from a backwater country to a rapidly modernising tourism and investment hub, putting to shame the larger African economies that have enjoyed relative peace and prosperity since independence.
President Kagame is in the room to field questions from students of the Africa Leadership University School of Business on ‘Umwiherero’ (hideout) — the National Leadership Retreat beloved of his government.
In the audience are the Zimbabwean telecommunications mogul and philanthropist Strive Masiyiwa and the Ghanaian Fred Swaniker, the university’s founder.
Prof Catherine Duggan, the vice-dean of the school, starts the session with a question on the difference between operating during the liberation years and now in government.
“I thought you would ask me about the World Cup,” Mr Kagame responded, smiling only slightly, alluding to his country’s Sh4.6 billion Arsenal sponsorship deal that has courted controversy mainly in the Netherlands and the UK — Rwanda’s main donor countries.
Kigali has defended the deal to have the top-flight English club’s players sport shirts inscribed ‘Visit Rwanda’ on their sleeves for the next three years, saying the money is part of its marketing budget and was sourced from funds earned from tourism.
“The liberation struggle had a lot to do with firefighting. The cost of failure was high,” Mr Kagame started, speaking in his characteristic soft-spoken manner.
“The situation was not forgiving if you delayed even for a second. We got used to that phase (where) it mattered to get the details,” he said, letting out a glimpse into what could explain his strict modus operandi that has yielded a ruthlessly efficient government.
Government employees in Rwanda are required to be at their desks by 7am and are promptly sacked if they don’t deliver.
Mr Kagame said he could not think of any other way his country can reach where it wants to be than by accounting for its steps.
“It is good to look at the bigger picture, but it’s not an empty picture; it builds on certain layers of detail…otherwise the big picture will just remain a name. This is what makes the difference,” he said.
And that difference is stark: Near-zero corruption, investor surge, a working healthcare system, high literacy levels, better internet service than some parts of the developed world and a good network of paved roads.
A man with little formal education, Mr Kagame is a consummate reader. “I am afraid of saying I don’t know. I will try to have an idea,” he explained during the session.
“How do I wait and hope everyone is doing their thing right?” he posed rhetorically.
“Sometimes I find I’m reading things I don’t even need to read, because my mind is still hungry," he told The Telegraph in a past interview.
He honed this hunger for detail as a guerrilla fighter in Yoweri Museveni’s rebel army, where he specialised in intelligence gathering.
It was from Uganda that Mr Kagame led the guerrilla forces of his Rwandan Patriotic Front that routed the Rwandan Army in July 1994.
TOUGH ON GRAFT
“We start by having a conversation with leaders. We agree, then each one goes back to what they have to do. Then after some time you want to go back and check,” he said on the leadership retreat.
He describes his working relationship with his government officials as “cordial” and sometimes “uncomfortable”.
“The relationship is that of working together for the common good, but I am not expected to be very nice to you. Sometimes we deal with the hard stuff and it can be uncomfortable.”
“You are a cabinet minister with resources to spend, but ultimately, it’s for the people. If you take them for your own use it’s not right,” he says nonchalantly, but anticorruption czars in Rwanda enjoy real power and can use it zealously if need be.
Mr Kagame was reluctant to address the question on how he can leverage his position as the current leader of the African Union to influence change on the continent, suggesting that his priorities were in Rwanda.
Journalists were let into the interactive class at the Kigali Convention Centre to soak in Mr Kagame’s wisdom; not to ask questions.
And the liberation war seems to be the soundboard for all Mr Kagame does. Any conversation with him must somehow hark back to that time.
“During the struggle one could come to you and say press on, come I will sell my chicken. You might think it is a small thing, but it means a lot. It reflects the passion with which one believes in a cause,” he reminisced. And this is the kind of dedication Mr Kagame appears to expect of the people he leads.
He doesn’t tire to remind all that Rwanda’s circumstances are unique — a trump card he employs often to deflect Western criticism on the country’s democratic record (politicians who tried to oppose him in last year’s polls were brutally suppressed).
The international media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, has also labelled Rwanda one of the harshest media environments in the world.
“This was a dead country 24 years ago. There is the film Shooting Dogs, which really depicted the UN in bad light. It became the mission of the UN to shoot dogs to stop them from eating bodies, yet they could not stop people from being killed. In 1994 bodies were strewn all over the country,” says Mr Kagame.
He traces the monthly sweeping of Rwanda’s streets — for which the country has become world-famous — to a visit to Kigali by Tanzania’s founding President Julius Nyerere in the aftermath of the genocide.
“When Nyerere came here in 1995, he marvelled: ‘How do you guys afford to smile?’ I said this incredible capacity to overcome the 1994 madness can be used to remake Rwanda. It doesn’t need any money to do it.”
An admirer of Nyerere, who once invaded Idi Amin’s Uganda, Mr Kagame has been accused of employing similar tactics in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, where he backed the rebel group that overthrew Mobutu Sese Seko, and then became enmeshed in a new war there that roped in six countries.
After the national cleaning picked up, Mr Kagame moved to the real things — the infrastructure.
“In our minds we wanted to write a better story for ourselves. As we succeeded in one thing it demonstrated we could succeed in the next. So, our momentum grew, compensating for our bad name,” he explained.
Despite his strongman tactics, one can’t help but feel genuine support for Mr Kagame in the streets of Rwanda.
“Kigali was nothing. Everything was destroyed. It’s like a country has been born again,” says Mr Philbert Ndahiizo, a taxi driver who was 22 during the genocide.
“This development you see,” he told me, pointing at a section of the shining capital dotted with modern skyscrapers and criss-crossed by smooth, clean roads, “started only around 2000 because there were so many orphans and so many genocide widows to attend to.”
That year is also when Mr Kagame became president after his predecessor Pasteur Bizimungu resigned.
ASIAN TIGER MODEL
One of the new areas in the rapidly expanding Kigali is the special economic zone, a 276-hectare piece of land near Kigali International Airport, donated by the government to boost manufacturing.
The government builds infrastructure — roads, electricity networks, water, sewerage system — and facilitates licensing designed to favour companies exporting at least 80 per cent of their products outside the East African Community.
Mr Kagame has modelled Rwanda on Singapore and the other 'Asian Tigers’, which jumped out of poverty in less than a generation through a disciplined, authoritarian leadership and entrepreneurship.
And for now Rwanda appears on course to becoming a high-tech commercial, banking and communications hub of east and central Africa in short order.
Some analysts, however, fear this progress is a little too intimately tied to the personal power and goodwill of the 60-year-old leader who has ruled the central African nation for close to two decades.