“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.