Rwandan President Paul Kagame followed a well-trod route to power in Africa, from child refugee to guerrilla leader to civilian president. Like other African strongmen, human rights groups have accused him of abuse of power, particularly for slow progress on human rights and for, they say, using the 1994 genocide as an excuse to repress the opposition. But since he deposed President Pasteur Bizimungu and assumed the presidency in 2000 and was formally elected in 2003, Kagame's government has also racked up impressive successes. It shows no tolerance for corruption, it has been hailed for its success in fighting HIV and AIDS and is one of the first in Africa to tackle overpopulation. Rwandan coffee is now some of the most sought after in the world and its eco-tourism industry is booming, but the effects of the country's bloody recent past linger on. Kagame, 49, met Africa bureau chief Alex Perry at his offices in Kigali.
TIME: What's your vision for Rwanda?
Kagame: This country has a very tragic history. Genocide, colonial history, and so on. So the vision is informed by this history, but built on the desire to say: 'We can make a difference. Rwanda can develop, can rebuild itself, can build a totally new nation from the one we experienced in the past.' We have to create an open and democratic society. We try to create peace and stability, a country of laws. We fight corruption. All these things are foundations on which we build socio-economic development. The vision is about development, stability, about letting that instability that has characterized Rwanda for so many years become history. Put a lot of value in our people, give them knowledge and give them skills, and make sure they are part of the process.
TIME: There are some analyses of the genocide that suggest the background to the ethnic division was overpopulation. Too many people, and not enough resources. If that's true, then development becomes a way to get past the divisions of the past. If people prosper, they don't fight any more. Do you agree with that?
Kagame: I don't think it's correct that the genocide happened as a result of overpopulation. The seeds of genocide were planted here six or seven decades ago, when the country was not overpopulated. For example in 1932, when the Belgians introduced the identity card, to make a difference between a Hutu and Tutsi.
But it is true that prosperity can really resolve some of these problems. If people are thinking about how to move forward, if people see the benefit in associating with one another and think in a broader way, you really have no time to hate one another. You start valuing one another instead.
TIME: How are you going to create this prosperity?
Kagame: The most important resource of Rwanda is the people of Rwanda. That's true in any country, but more so in Rwanda because of the lack of other resources. That's why we want to invest in healthcare systems and education, and why we made the choice to promote science and technology. We are looking at how to modernize our agriculture and shift from that to other things. So we are looking agriculture, tourism, energy, infrastructure, telecommunications, mining. And we are looking at setting up institutions and tax regimes that are favorable to investors. And do all this not just looking at Rwanda. We are trying to present Rwanda as the heart of Africa, to [make Rwanda ] attractive as an access [point] to other markets in our region.
TIME: One focus of yours is population control. You're trying to limit families to three children.
Kagame: We are not forcing people. There is no law. We are encouraging people by showing the benefit of smaller families. Our population growth is very high. And Rwanda is already one of the most crowded countries in the world. As much as the economy is growing and expect 6.5% this year population growth cuts a deep hole in that. And with the levels of poverty we have, the growth is simply unsustainable. The population is 9 million now, but in 10 years, it could be double. So we have to be careful. We are trying to formulate incentives for people to have fewer children. But it all starts with education.
TIME: You have an ambivalence towards the international community.
Kagame: Look at the past few decades. Rwanda was always among those countries that was praised for one thing or another. Even when there was nothing to praise Rwanda for, really. Under [former hardline Hutu President Juvenal] Habyarimana's government, people were talking about how Rwanda is peaceful, Rwanda is stable. But our people were just living on hand-outs. Now, the question comes for our donors and partners: having spent so much money, what difference did it make? In the last 50 years, you've spent $400 billion in aid to Africa. But what is there to show for it? And the donors should ask: what are we doing wrong, or, what are the people we are helping doing wrong? Obviously somebody's not getting something right. Otherwise, you'd have something to show for your money.
Rwanda has been poor throughout its history. Since independence, instead of getting better, it has got worse. Our per capita income is below $300 [per year]. Sometimes closer to $200. We need to challenge one another, we need to challenge ourselves. How can the developed world, the donor community, talk about funding different projects in Africa, yet after so many years, you do not find much that has been done? For me the answer is that there were mistakes on both sides. The Africans have not been able to take full ownership and responsibility for [work done in our countries].
The donors have also made a lot of mistakes. Many times they have assumed they are the ones who know what countries in Africa need. They want to be the ones to choose where to put this money, to be the ones to run it, without any accountability. In other cases, they have simply associated with the wrong people and money gets lost and ends up in people's pockets. We should correct that. We should be working together, and agreeing where to put money, so that we know it will make a difference and are able to monitor that.