For the few years before the formation of the African Union in 2002 to replace the Organisation of African Unity, and the first few years following that, there was a wave of Afro optimism, and many people held that the 21st century would finally be the “African Century”.
There’s still time for this to become reality but equally, it could also become another dead dream. This is against the recognition that Africa missed great opportunities in the past 65 years of independence partly because it didn’t look far ahead to the challenges it would face – or if it did, it didn’t prepare for them.
Charles Onyango-Obbo interviewed Rwanda President Paul Kagame to explore what world Africa can build for itself this century as the Kusi Ideas Festival looking to the next 60 years in the continent gets underway in Kigali on December 8, 2019.
Let’s start the African future story with Rwanda. Early this year you had the 25th Kwibuka (1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi commemoration). Today, Rwanda is held up as a success in post-conflict recovery and an example in several areas.
However, looking ahead, the United Nations projects that by 2050 Rwanda’s population could be nearly 19 million. There’s a view that 19 million would be beyond Rwanda’s “carrying capacity”. What is Rwanda doing to ensure that these numbers are not a crisis in 25 years?
President Paul Kagame (PK): Nineteen million Rwandans only by 2050? I am hoping they will be more! Those concerns are valid, but they assume that the Rwanda of 2050 will be as it is today. That the country and society will not have transformed.
The challenges of the future are not going to be more complicated than they are today. With the investments being made in education, the spread of technology, and more people living in urban areas, we are doing what it requires for Rwanda to be a very different society by then.
You see Rwanda as a city state, kind of, in the coming decades?
In many ways, yes, and it will have a bigger carrying capacity because it will be a transformed technological society, very different from what it is today.
What is your view of the trajectory of the expansion of the East African Community (EAC)? The Democratic Republic of Congo has applied to join the EAC. There is a sense that unlike what is happening, for example, in western Europe, there are strong centripetal forces at play in Africa.
In the wider East Africa, some see Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti and, likely, Sudan all in the next 10 to 20 years becoming EAC members, or the EAC dying and a new bloc with a new name being born in its place. Do you see this happening in this period?
The best thing is for the East African region to continue to push to come together, similar to other groups in other geographical areas. It is the basis on which DRC has asked to join. It is also the same basis upon which the partner states of East Africa will have to consider admitting them.
The shape of the EAC will definitely change in the years ahead. As early as when Hailemariam Desalegn was Prime Minister in Ethiopia [2012 – 2018], he said that they would like to be part of the EAC. The logic of this is not just geography, but history and culture.
The development of the Northern Corridor [the transport infrastructure in East and Central Africa, providing a gateway from Kenya to landlocked Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, eastern DR Congo, and South Sudan] will require a deepening of integration.
And we see a similar picture in many places, for example, in Igad [the eight-country Intergovernmental Authority on Development bloc of countries from the Horn of Africa, Nile Valley, and the Great Lakes region].
That leads to the issue of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), and open borders in general, but to go at first by digging into what the CEO of Djibouti's Duraleh Multipurpose Port (DMP), Wahib Daher Aden, said in December 2018.
He said that with the improved prospects for peace in South Sudan, Djibouti would resume port services to Juba. That, long-term, they look to extend the service to Rwanda and Burundi. Is that a working plan that’s out there, and how would it happen?
The wider issue here is how to connect to the African hinterland, and across Africa. Looked at that way, it has already started. Dubai Ports World just launched an inland cargo-handling port in Kigali.
It will serve not just Rwanda, but beyond, for example, eastern Congo and, when the situation improves, Burundi if they haven’t created their own, or if they want to use it. Already, many people from eastern Congo go through here to other places to look for things.
This time they may stop here and pick up whatever they want because there has been a connection with sources of goods people want. It is not just an inland port per se.
There have been plans to have things move from Mombasa, come to Kisumu, cross Lake Victoria, which is not being utilised. We are looking at the speed and the cost.
It goes to the central question of what will be the “killer app” in African development. AfCFTA is one of the grand visions, but the building bloc will surely have to be the small pieces, especially the link between East and West Africa, and southern and north Africa.
Regional economic blocs are a good stepping stone to the wider pan-African free trade area. The first step is to have things working in each country, even with different kinds of constraints. Having addressed that, it is about how countries come together in sub-regional groups.
The “killer apps” for Africa’s development have to be the ones that help it solve the problems that keep it from realising the opportunities awaiting it.
Africa has to define itself, not just by geography but by history, culture, business, trade. There are things we need to identify that form good reason for us to come together and identify the opportunities – but, also, the challenges we face in common.
While we talk African unity, there is another song on the other side saying, “No, don’t allow them to come together, divide them, because if they come together and address their challenges they will be a problem for us, they will be a competitor, we will deprive ourselves of where to go and dump things.” That is another threat.
Climate challenges are a given. It is not whether you want it or not, even if you are doing the best yourself in one country, what somebody else is doing wrong will come and affect you.
We have to think of working collectively because so many problems are cross-border. In northern Mozambique, there are reports that terrorists who have launched attacks there in recent times are from all over Africa and neighbouring regions, from Somalia to Yemen.
There are so many killer apps we need, sometimes you ask, which of these problems do you solve first? But you can see how wider integration can stand us in good stead in dealing with most of these issues.
You have been very critical of “liberal democracy” and its “Western limitations”, and argued that politics, ultimately, makes sense if it’s rooted in the unique conditions of peoples and countries. From that view, every country would have its own “unique democracy”. If one accepts that, surely it is still possible to broadly speak of “African democracy”. How would you describe the shape and characteristics of that “African democracy” – if it’s still evolving? How might it look when it’s mature in, say, 15 years?
I am still to be proven wrong over my critique of liberal, or Western, democracy. Democracy is not a stand-alone product. It must fulfill a purpose. It must work for a people.
Does it deliver good results? If it does, then surely it has served that society well and it’s valuable. If it is successful, how can it be undemocratic?
Sometimes in developed societies, they will even explain dysfunction and say this is democracy. Democracy is not dysfunction; it must allow things to be delivered.
What is democracy supposed to provide if not a level of satisfaction people are feeling in the sense of security and prosperity. How are these separable? If it is democracy, then it is a democracy that works and delivers results. Democracy has to put food on the table, and security.
I have been told many times that “democracy is messy”. That dysfunction is democracy – no matter the [political] cost. How can a mess and dysfunction be good? You can’t be striving to be delivering democracy that is a mess. That cannot be an objective. So, my view simply is that democracy is that which delivers good results for a society.
To close, on a lighter note, you are a big sports fan and, assuming you are a betting man, make a wager on these three. First, you are an F1 man, and Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton has just won his sixth championship. Will he win a seventh title next year?
Yes, for two reasons: one is the technology of his car and the other is himself. He has been prepared since he was a child and does not seem to be losing it. The whole team is my favourite.
Secondly, Pele predicted an African country would win the World Cup by 2000 – he was wrong and there are people who haven’t stopped laughing at him. When do you think an African country is likely to win the World Cup?
(Laughs). I am not sure when it comes to the World Cup. Part of it has a relationship with our level of development.
Why is it that we are so rich and yet so poor? Is it because we don’t know what to do? Most of us know, but we don’t do it. I have watched almost all the World Cups of the past 30 years.
It is not that they are playing badly. At the beginning they are beating the best teams but as they keep going, they go in convinced they are going to lose, and worse still, sometimes they are happy to lose to somebody.
Some of these guys are happy to have lost to a French team because they expect it, and after losing they rush to a player to have his jersey.
And, yet, Africans are the best football players. But for them to perform to their best ability, they have to be in the mix of others, not on their own.
Thirdly, and finally, Rwanda and Eritrea are fast-rising cycling powers in Africa, joining South Africa, which has been at it longer. When do you think either a Rwandan or Eritrean cyclist will win the Tour de France?
There are so many fast-rising Rwandan cyclists, and (in) Eritrea] too. What is notable is the remarkable growth in their confidence. So, I think, soon.
(*This interview was published after the Kusi Ideas Festival).