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Rwanda’s president signals intent to make conservation his country’s next battle

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n 1957, a child was born in a Tutsi refugee camp on the border with Uganda. He rose through the ranks of the Ugandan military before overthrowing the barbarous regime and helping to install his commander, Yoweri Museveni, in power. When the genocide against the Tutsi began, he led a force to take back his country, where he now sits in power.

As I sit opposite Paul Kagame, it is clear to me that the shadow of that genocide of 1994, in which Hutu militias killed, tortured and raped almost a million members of the Tutsi minority as well as moderate Hutus, still falls upon his foreign and domestic agenda.

“When visitors come to Rwanda,” he tells us. “I advise them to first visit the genocide memorial, before then seeing the rest of the country [to see our progress]. We’re trying to move away from our ugly history, to give people hope.”

For President Kagame that misses the point. What matters is recognising a genocide occurred and who the main target was. “OK, there are many Hutus that died. But they did not die as a result of being targeted for who they are.”

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We are sitting in the presidential complex in Kigali, after a series of negative Covid tests, and the order of business is that President Kagame is to approve Rwanda’s entry to the Giants Club. The club was set up by The Independent’s charity partner Space for Giants — of which I am patron — to bring together heads of state, businessmen and donors to support conservation initiatives. It is a strong statement of intent from the country to co-operate more on environmental issues.

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On conservation, he explains that nature is at the heart of Rwandan life. “Where we are right now,” he says gesturing to the trees outside, “those are not trees that have been planted. We just came and built in a forest.” He goes on to label his joining of the Giants Club “a meeting of minds”.

Custodianship of the environment is not distinct from the well-being of people, he tells us. “With the displacement of populations after 1994, our country almost became a desert because people were cutting [so many] trees for firewood and makeshift homes. We saw the immediate effects of that and carried out a campaign of reforestation.” Rwanda has three national parks, the most famous of which is the Volcanoes National Park in the north-west of the country.

“In conserving the environment, you can actually realise economic benefits equal to or better than what we used to do,” says the president, comparing current conservation policy to previous extractive industries like gold mining. A permit for one morning’s hike to visit the gorillas costs $1,500 (£1,080) for international tourists, or $500 for locals, a boon for the country of 13 million people which is heavily dependent on tourism.

 Evgeny Lebedev with Paul Kagame at a signing ceremony to officially welcome Rwanda to Giants Club

Evgeny Lebedev with Paul Kagame at a signing ceremony to officially welcome Rwanda to Giants Club

(Plaisir Muzogeye)

But then the pandemic came, which the president admits has been devastating for all aspects of Rwandan life, including tourism revenue. “It has drained the limited resources we have.”

The economy shrank 0.2 per cent in 2020. The World Bank has warned that half a million more people, mostly in rural areas, have been pushed into poverty. Lockdown measures have been damaging in Britain and the US, but “devastating” in Rwanda. “There are many people who need to earn a daily income to feed themselves and their families, and we tell them to stay home.”

He confesses that he is mystified that Rwanda has been placed on the UK’s red list of countries and wonders whether there is a political motive. “We’ve asked the embassy, the ambassador, we’ve had ministers talk to ministers in London,” he says. “The answers they give are revealing, in the sense that they don’t actually give you a reason.”

“Worse still, the statement on the ban came on the same day that Rwanda was declared number six in the world in its management of this pandemic [by an Australian think tank]”.

He claims that the Rwandan biomedical lab has seen no evidence that the South African variant of Covid-19 is present and appeals to the UK: “If you have information that we have it, we need to know it.”He adds: “You’ve categorised us with counties where they have said they had no Covid. You’re going to compare us with this?”

Rwanda has been held up by some as a model for how the global south should handle pandemics. There is an 8pm curfew. Mask usage is mandatory in all public spaces — and it is observed by urban schoolchildren and rural construction workers alike.

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The country has recorded fewer than 20,000 cases and 300 deaths. But others criticise the government for excessive force in applying restrictions, which has resulted in thousands of arrests with curfew breakers taken to the national stadium in Kigali and detained there overnight.

For the Rwandan authorities, however, that is simply what was needed to avoid a catastrophe. What it has achieved is for life to go on in a way that is unimaginable in much of Europe.

But where some observers laud an efficient, successful government that has brought rapid development and prevented the bloody events of 1994 from happening again, others see a harsh police state with little tolerance.

I ask the president whether his government risks undermining Rwanda’s reputation with a string of controversies including the alleged kidnapping and trial of Paul Rusesabagina, as well as the alleged assassination of an opposition politician in South Africa.

Mr Rusesabagina achieved international prominence after the film Hotel Rwanda (2004) depicted his actions as the manager of the Hotel des Milles Collines who protected refugees during the genocide. He became a prominent critic of the regime and has been accused of links with terror groups. His lawyers have denied the charges.

“Let’s even assume all those things exist,” responds Mr Kagame of the allegations of extraordinary behaviour by the Rwandan state. “Why don’t people want to know the truth about how Paul Rusesabagina became a hero? The people who lived in that hotel at that time, why don’t you listen to their stories?”

Some survivors of the genocide who hid in the hotel claim that Mr Rusesabagina exaggerated his actions and charged guests. The director of the film, Terry George, has written that the script was extensively fact-checked by experts and journalists on the ground.

Mr Kagame also responds directly to an article written by George, which claims that Mr Kagame thanked him for making the film back in 2004, and only turned on Mr Rusesabagina when he criticised his rule. “This is rubbish. I have no quarrel with anybody making a film about anything. But if somebody is going to take advantage of that film, out of context for his own benefit, economic or political, it is absolutely wrong… It is an insult to those who died, and that is an understatement.”

The president also accused him of starting a group that was responsible for an attack in southern Rwanda which killed nine. Mr Rusesabagina denies this.

Mr Kagame adds that the country as a whole should not be tarred by certain specific actions, adding that the UK and US also do what he calls “horrible things”, but does not go into further detail. One area in which President Kagame has taken leadership is the vaccine nationalism. Rich countries have ordered enough vaccines to immunise their populations three times over, while vaccinations have hardly begun in Africa.

“I hope you have brought some vaccines with you,” jokes Mr Kagame. “Again, sometimes we feel nobody is listening.” He is supported by the UN and WHO-backed Covax programme, which aims to supply 600 million doses to Africa by the end of 2021.

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Evgeny Lebedev and Dr Max Graham of Space for Giants with Paul Kagame in Kigali

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Evgeny Lebedev and Dr Max Graham of Space for Giants with Paul Kagame in Kigali

(Plaisir Muzogeye)

But he adds that the pledges mean little if Africa cannot begin vaccinating as soon as possible. “Vaccines will only be useful if you have got [them] in your arm. The question is: when?”

In June, Rwanda will host the Commonwealth Heads of State. It will be the first time the meeting is held in a country that is not a current or former British territory. Since he became president in 2000, Kagame has committed Rwanda to its francophone links but also to an English-speaking future.

On Rwanda’s relations with the rest of the world he says: “We will work with China, with the English-speaking world, we will work with the French, with the Russians. We are too small a country to start playing a preference game.

“We take our sovereignty very seriously. The ordinary people have a song that I’ve never forgotten. It goes like this: ‘We are afraid of nothing, because of what we have gone through…. there is nothing worse ahead of us’.”

And with that Rwanda’s soldier-president signals his intent to take on conservation as his next big challenge. His is a small country, but history is littered with occasions on which Rwanda has been underestimated.