By Belinda Luscombe
Seventeen years on, how has Rwanda dealt with the aftermath of the genocide?
We had a National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, which brought all Rwandans of different backgrounds together to discuss their past, our past, what went wrong and how we can find a remedy. I think people are trying to say, we are better than this. We didn’t deserve this. We can draw lessons from our history but not be trapped there.
Why is it that changes of power are so difficult in Africa, particularly among former rebel leaders like you?
I don’t know, but it happens. We have people who come with promises that they will put everything in place and allow the country to move [forward] but later on find reasons not to leave. It remains a black spot in our politics.
How long do you intend to be President?
I’m serving my second and last [seven year] term.
How do you respond to critics who are concerned that you say the most basic human right is economic prosperity and that you downplay political freedom?
I think people with these kinds of concerns deliberately distort what we say. We have never said that economic development should come at the expense of democracy or freedoms. Never.
How effective do you think you and the African Union can be, particularly in halting unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.)?
It’s really very difficult, because you can’t have leaders of one country run another country or dictate to other leaders. We try to achieve the maximum we can by speaking to each other, by working together. It might [result in] limited progress, but if we have people who progressively do their best, we can move forward.
Even if it seems African leaders are turning a blind eye to their neighbors?
Turning a blind eye is not limited to Africa. That’s why things go wrong in a place for too long. I think a lot that goes on in D.R.C. has a bearing on what happened in the past, when the West had a hand in there for decades.
You were a refugee in Uganda for 30 years. Does that influence the way you regard refugees who arrive in Rwanda?
[Having been] a refugee informs much of my thinking. It’s very close to being dehumanized. If I can prevent anybody from living such a life, I will do my best to do it. Some of the borders are really kind of — and should be — irrelevant.
Speaking of borders, how are the mountain gorillas?
There’s a very interesting phenomenon that has been taking place in the last five years. Gorillas move very freely, so they come from the Uganda side and from the Congo side to Rwanda and have tended to stay much longer than is usually expected.
Because it’s safer in Rwanda?
Researchers can’t find any other explanation. So when we know the [gorilla] families have come from D.R.C. or Uganda, we have a mechanism where we share [tourism] revenues with these countries.
You’re an eager tennis player. If you could switch jobs with any player in history, who would you choose?
I admire Roger Federer a lot. Let’s start with him.