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Two views of President Paul Kagame [Journey to Rwanda]

Rwanda President Paul Kagame
Sue Horton, Op-Ed and Sunday Opinion editor of The Times, is in Rwanda on a two-week Gatekeeper Editor fact-finding trip organized by the International Reporting Project. She is chronicling her trip on the Opinion L.A. blog.

Sunday night, Nov. 6/Monday morning, Nov. 7: My great hope on the brutal back-to-back flights to Rwanda (seven hours from Washington to Amsterdam, followed by an eight-hour flight to Kigali, Rwanda's capital) was to have a seatmate who didn't try to engage me in conversation. That was not to be, but I ended up happy about it.

On the first leg, a plump, smiling Ugandan introduced himself as soon as I sat down. A healthcare professional, he'd been in Washington -- his first trip out of Africa -- for meetings. I'm reluctant to say any more to identify him because of the things he told me.

He wanted to talk about his region, so I asked him about Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame. I told him  I found it tough to figure out Kagame because on some things -- economic development, healthcare, infrastructure -- he's made huge strides, while on human rights issues he hasn't been as great.

My seatmate jumped in immediately on the Kagame-as-despot side.

"He rules by terror," he told me flatly. Sure he runs in elections and wins overwhelmingly, he said, but it's because Rwandans are terrified not to vote for his party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front. He dismissed Kagame's accomplishments, saying that "look at who they're benefiting. They're not benefiting all Rwandans." The situation was complicated, he acknowledged, in the post-genocide world, but if all the country's citizens are now simply Rwandans, not Hutus or Tutsis, as Kagame insists, then why are Tutsis getting all the good government jobs and benefiting so much more from development?

His great hope was that the Arab Spring would continue to move south, eventually getting to Uganda and neighboring Rwanda.

When I got on the plane to Kigali in Amsterdam, I found myself again sitting next to a Ugandan (the plane flew on to Entebbe after discharging its Rwanda passengers). This man, it turned out, had a master's degree in urban planning and worked as a project manager for an agency bringing drinking water and sanitation projects to rural Uganda. He is a big admirer of Kagame as well as of his own president, Yoweri Museveni.

"You have to understand that Africa is different," he explained. In Uganda, for example, much of the country still doesn't have clean water to drink or an acceptable way to handle human waste. Many places have no electricity, or they have it for only a few hours a day. Roads are unpaved and, in the rainy season, sometimes impassable. In his view, only a strong leader who isn't worrying about elections can get things done. If Kagame or Museveni had real worries about being elected every four years, he said, they'd have to spend two years of each term on reelection campaigns, during which time progress would be diverted by politics. First, he said, countries needed relatively benevolent, strong leaders with a vision for moving the country forward. Then they could think about democracy.

RELATED:

Journey to Rwanda

--Sue Horton

Photo: Rwandan President Paul Kagame attends a Commonwealth meeting Oct. 28 in Perth, Australia. Credit: Paul Kane / Associated Press

 

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