In Summary
  • Rwanda has, under Mr Kagame, leapt from a backwater country to a rapidly modernising tourism and investment hub.

  • Government employees in Rwanda are required to be at their desks by 7am and are promptly sacked if they don’t deliver.

  • The liberation war seems to be the soundboard for all Mr Kagame does. Any conversation with him must somehow hark back to that time.

  • Despite his strongman tactics, one can’t help but feel genuine support for Mr Kagame in the streets of Rwanda.

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.

"AFRICAN SINGAPORE"

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.

ARSENAL DEAL

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.

EFFICIENT GOVT

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.

KNOWLEDGE HUNGER

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”.

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