Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Jeffrey Gettleman finally got the opportunity to sit down with Rwanda’s controversial president Paul Kagame.
The three hour conversation was used in an article published in the New York Magazine profiling Kagame. The piece caught attention for a less-than-flattering depiction of the Rwandan president and even generated a bizarre response from the Kagame office.
Gettleman’s piece covers the range of views on Kagame. He is the leader who turned around Rwanda in the wake of a horrific genocide that should have sent the country in a tailspin. He is also the autocrat who stifles opponents in Rwanda and is accused of inciting rebellion in the neighboring DR Congo by supporting rebel groups.
Yolande Makolo, the communications director for the Presidency in Rwanda, responded critically to the article in allAfrica. She said that she turned down Gettleman’s previous requests to interview Kagame, but was convinced by a mutual acquaintance to allow for the conversation. When it did happen, Gettleman went well beyond the hour that he was allotted to speak with the president.
The article itself was disappointing to Makolo. She acknowledged that her contacts and colleagues considered the report to be balanced. That was not good news to her ears.
“I am sorry but “balance” hurts Rwandans, and Africans,” she wrote.
“Even when stories reflect more positives than negatives, the positives don’t carry as much weight overall as the negatives, which chip away at the agency we are working to accumulate. Balance thus erodes our reputation and standing in the global pecking order, keeping us on a pedestal that says we are and will perpetually be second class.”
(I tried contacting Makolo through Twitter to get more clarification on her discussion of balance and got no response.)
World leaders like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton heap praises on Kagame for his leadership. Some point to his willingness to play ball with Western nations. Gettleman says that it is in part due to a reduction in poverty levels. He is doing much better at helping out his country than his neighboring leaders.
Kagame seems like a godsend. Spartan, stoic, analytical and austere, he routinely stays up to 2 or 3 a.m. to thumb through back issues of The Economist or study progress reports from red-dirt villages across his country, constantly searching for better, more efficient ways to stretch the billion dollars his government gets each year from donor nations that hold him up as a shining example of what aid money can do in Africa.
The nature of Kagame’s power allows him to enact sweeping programs that benefit Rwandans. The government recently built a cancer center in Butaro with financial and technical support from Partners in Health, the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation and the Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center. Despite the fact that cancer accounts for only 5% of deaths in Rwanda, the goal is to improve health systems so they will serve Rwandans as the country continues to improve.
Another example is the nationwide HPV vaccine campaign. HPV has a direct link to cervical cancer. Vaccinating girls and women against HPV can all but eliminate a deadly form of cancer. A partnership between the Rwandan Ministry of Health, Merck and the GAVI alliance reduced the cost of the vaccine so that 2 million young girls can be vaccinated by 2015.
“We are a government that is evidenced based and result oriented,” said Minister of Health Dr. Agnes Bingawaho to me last fall.
Gettleman says he was astonished by the level of detail in Kagame’s goals, during their conversation. He also observed how asking the wrong question can quickly change the mood of the conversation.
It was a little scary how quickly he flipped from friendly to imperious. He clearly wasn’t used to confrontational questions, especially from a reporter. Kagame’s critics say he has snuffed out much of Rwanda’s independent media. One Rwandan journalist, Agnes Uwimana Nkusi, was recently given a prison term of four years for insulting the president and endangering national security after she edited a series of articles critical of Kagame.
The examples of repression in Rwanda is well documented by groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, but the international community continues to play nice with the country and its leader. Gettleman suggests that Kagame may be the most impressive and most repressive leader in Africa. That echoes a Foreign Policy poll of Africa experts who called Kagame the most effective leader and Rwanda the most overrated “success story.”
Reports that once glowingly praised Kagame and Rwanda are starting to turn the corner. Kagame’s 13 years of rule continues to raise questions about the balance between development progress and human rights.