Mixed Emotions Follow Controversial Election In Rwanda

Rwandan President Paul Kagame won reelection yesterday with more than 90 percent of the vote. But critics argue that the victory is tainted by government oppression. Host Michel Martin speaks with James Kimonyo, Rwanda’s Ambassador to the United States, about Kagame’s win, his plans for the nation, and his response to critics who call him a dangerous strongman.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

One of Washington's most prominent female congressional leaders seeks answers to the question of why African-American men are having such a difficult time in this recession. And we speak with a young man who seems to have done everything right and still can't find permanent work. That conversation in a few minutes.

But first, to Rwanda's presidential election. It was the second since the 1994 genocide that left some 800,000 people dead in a matter of weeks. The voting took place yesterday and there was never really a doubt as to who would win. Incumbent President Paul Kagame faced only token opposition from three minor parties that usually align with the platform of his ruling party. That along with the banning of two opposition parties from taking part in the election, the suspension of two newspapers and the expulsion of a human rights researcher have led even a close ally like the United States to raise concerns that Mr. Kagame is becoming a classic strongman.

Still, the country's impressive economic growth and improvements in areas like women's rights have won praise from the international community. We wanted to know more about what is ahead for President Kagame's likely second term, so we've called Rwanda's ambassador to the United States, His Excellency James Kimonyo, and he's with us now in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

Ambassador JAMES KIMONYO (Rwandan Ambassador to the United States): Thank you, Michel, for having me.

MARTIN: And, Mr. Ambassador, early returns show that Mr. Kagame earned more than 90 percent of the vote. To what do you attribute this impressive result?

Amb. KIMONYO: I think I should say the impressive results from these elections are based on the performance of President Kagame and his government in terms of delivering on his promises. And I think people are raising their voice to say, yes, we appreciate what you have done for us and thus we are voting you for the second time.

MARTIN: And what are some of those accomplishments? I've identified a couple of them, the certainly increased exports. Rwanda is a net exporter of food, unlike a number of other countries around the world, increased foreign investment, more children receiving education. What else?

Amb. KIMONYO: Let me say that Rwanda has drawn a road map towards achieving middle income status by the year 2020. In 2000 (unintelligible) we sat down together, people from public service, the private sector (unintelligible) organizations, experts, to design this road map which is called Vision 2020. And this vision, we outlined the number of programs that we have to implement to be able to achieve that vision.

The other thing is (unintelligible) understand our background and our history, we've (unintelligible) that was divided along ethnic lines, which (unintelligible) in 1994 Tutsi(ph) genocide. And the president has worked with (unintelligible) to foster reconciliation among our people. We are seeing very positive results in this situation where you have thousands of perpetrators living together with the victims of genocide in the same communities and be able to work together to build their country.

And the health care system in Rwanda has been praised to be the most effective health care system on the continent. I think we are the only country that has medical insurance for public servants, but to also the population. We have community medical services that are not found anywhere on the continent.

MARTIN: You would suggest that most of the population is covered by some form of medical insurance? It's near universal coverage.

Amb. KIMONYO: Absolutely. Yeah.

MARTIN: So what are the goals for the second term?

Amb. KIMONYO: When I refer to what he's been saying, and I was just - when we talk about economic development, remember that Rwanda was ranked country number one in terms of doing business by the World Bank, which has attracted millions of dollars in terms of (unintelligible) investment. That's one of the important aspects of his achievements during the last seven years. And I think that is one of the key things that he kept on talking about for the next term.

MARTIN: The question, of course, Mr. Ambassador, is whether this unity and growth has come at the price of human rights and a healthy political dissent. I mean one of the people who was quoted in the coverage of the election over the weekend said that Mr. Kagame is bringing Rwanda into political maturity. But politically mature countries generally have some form of healthy dissent. And the question is, is the unity at the price of a healthy dissent?

Amb. KIMONYO: Let me say that I think there has been a very biased and slanted reporting and information about Rwanda. The story of Rwanda is different. The story of Rwanda is success in many, many areas, including the unity and reconciliation. The problem has been opened - the reporters from across the world who lack necessary information on the ground, they tend to copy from each other. Human Rights Watch will quote reporters, Without Borders, Reporters Without Borders will quote Freedom House. And they recycle the same information.

MARTIN: Okay. But there are individuals who are Rwandan citizens who have raised these concerns. Obviously Paul Rusesabagina is very well known, but there's also Joseph Sebarenzi, the former speaker of the parliament, who was a former Kagame ally who says that he was harassed under threat of his life and had to flee the country. He's not a foreign reporter. And how do you respond to his concerns?

Amb. KIMONYO: Using the examples of the individuals you just mentioned, but I should say in general that most of these critical views that you see comes from the people who actually participated in the genocide in 1994.

MARTIN: Mr. Sebarenzi, you're saying that his family participated in the genocide? He was living in exile at the time. He's also a Tutsi.

Amb. KIMONYO: I'm saying in general.

MARTIN: Okay.

Amb. KIMONYO: But for the specific cases of Mr. Rusesabagina and Sebarenzi, they didn't participate in genocide.

MARTIN: Okay, those are the two individuals who have made public concerns and who are well-respected individuals and as in Mr. Sebarenzi's case, was a former speaker of the parliament, who was an ally of Mr. Kagame's, who spoke of him of great affection. And he now says that because he tried to make the parliament a more independent legislative body, which is the custom and the norm in most politically mature democracies, that he was harassed and driven from the country. And your response to that is?

Amb. KIMONYO: Yes, yes. Let me start with Paul Rusesabagina. Paul Rusesabagina, I think, has been on this program, on other program at NPR. He's considered to be a hero for having saved 1,000-plus people during the genocide, which is not true. The survivors of genocide in that hotel will tell you how they survived. You can ask an American...

MARTIN: I don't - forgive me, Mr. Ambassador, I fail to see how maligning Mr. Rusesabagina's reputation addresses the questions about Mr. Kagame's governance now. And I've asked you about Mr. Sebarenzi, who is a political leader like Mr. Kagame.

Amb. KIMONYO: I'll tell you. Because you need also to check the credibility and integrity of the individuals that you are (unintelligible).

MARTIN: Is it your view - and let me just jump in to say that if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Rwanda's ambassador to the United States, His Excellency James Kimonyo. We're talking about the reelection of Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame, by very large margins earlier this week. And we're talking about the question of whether or not Rwanda, despite all of its impressive economic and infrastructure gains, is sufficiently tolerant of political dissent.

And what about the political parties that were barred from participating in this election and the two opposition newspapers that were banned or suspended, rather? I mean is it Mr. Kagame's argument that all of these entities were, what, fomenting division?

Amb. KIMONYO: Banning of two newspapers, Michel - you've been, I think, in this business for a while. Is it absolute freedom of speech or you must have limits where if you encroach the rights...

MARTIN: And what was the encroachment? What was the encroachment?

Amb. KIMONYO: You see, our history is still very fresh. We had Tutsi genocide in 1994. Our society is still very, very fragile. The contribution of media and press during genocide is very well known. Their participation was as important as what the militias did. Now, you have journalists who are ethically not able to try and promote and build the process we are building in terms of consolidating our society, to bring together pieces that were torn apart by the politics, including the contribution of the media.

Now, I was forced, because of those two incidents and because I saw the reports and people keep on refiling and recycling the same two incident. And I decided to conduct a survey, that has this happened in Rwanda only, or even around the world in the U.S. and U.K. and other parts of the world where you have strong democracies. All is fine with that, Michel. Thousands of journalists in this country being put into prison, just because they reported and they were asked to provide their sources of information. And they say my source of information is anonymous or I'm covering my source, and this person was imprisoned.

MARTIN: Name one.

Amb. KIMONYO: I can give you...

MARTIN: Name one.

Amb. KIMONYO: I can give you a list. Mira(ph). Mira, from New York. Yes.

MARTIN: Who? Imprisoned in the United States?

Amb. KIMONYO: Absolutely. And I can give you a list in every state. And you have cases in Germany. You have cases in Canada. All the journalists, not because they were trying to divide the society, maybe reporting about black and white, no, no, they were reporting about 9/11, and they did not want to reveal the sources of information.

MARTIN: I think I take your point, Mr. Ambassador.

Amb. KIMONYO: So, what I'm saying, for instance, of someone who equated President Kagame with Hitler, and his picture is on our newspaper always had the background of a swastika, I don't know how you call it. This...

MARTIN: And people equate President Obama with Hitler, but they don't go they aren't arrested for that in this country.

Amb. KIMONYO: Do you know what happened with the person who said Obama is like Hitler, from Iowa?

MARTIN: He was not arrested for that.

Amb. KIMONYO: Yeah, but...

MARTIN: One could arrest president - something for causing harm or for threatening physical violence. But one is not arrested for having a photograph of the president as Hitler.

Amb. KIMONYO: But I'm saying these papers were suspended.

MARTIN: And is your argument that that is justified?

Amb. KIMONYO: Yeah, it's justified. As long as you encroach the rights of our society, that you can be sure, Michel, you will have no regret of saying nobody's going to be allowed. Because when the genocide happened in Rwanda, the whole world the entire world was just watching. And if we leave these people to continue instigating and inciting the public, and to end up inciting a conflict, nobody will come to save us. I think we have the responsibility to shape our future.

MARTIN: Mr. Ambassador, what do you make of the concerns expressed by Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson. And there is no standard by which the United States has not been an ally of Rwanda and a supporter of Rwanda, and considers itself a close ally of Rwanda. And he has raised these concerns. What is your response to that?

Amb. KIMONYO: Johnnie Carson is a very good diplomat and very supportive of Africa. Now, Carson expressing those concerns, it is on the basis precisely on the basis of the distorted reports. And who have had very strong engagement with him and his officials to discuss some of these issues. For instance, the...

MARTIN: You don't think Mr. Carson has his own sources of information?

Amb. KIMONYO: He has his own sources of information. The embassy...

MARTIN: So, he's misled? He's been misled is your view?

Amb. KIMONYO: He got the information and he raised the concern. He did not condemn Rwanda in any form. He just raised the concern and we had the meeting, and he presented, case by case. And it's the responsibility of the ambassador, a sitting ambassador, to go and talk to the government. And I think I had good meetings with Carson and his officers.

MARTIN: To, finally - Mr. Kagame, assuming the election results are confirmed, as everyone expects it will be, he will serve for another seven years. Is there a limit to how long he plans to serve?

Amb. KIMONYO: I think the constitution's very clear, is two terms, seven-year terms, and he's done one. He's going to take the second one and has made it clear that for him he wants to leave institutions strong enough to continue the work in Rwanda.

MARTIN: James Kimonyo is Rwanda's ambassador to the United States. He was kind enough to join us from our studios here in Washington, D.C. Excellency, thank you so much for coming in.

Amb. KIMONYO: Thank you.

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