Bill Frist, MD
On Friday afternoon, July 18th, we arrived in Kigali tired and a little dizzy after eight hours of flying across East Africa in a Cessna Caravan at 13,000 feet. Rwanda signaled itself from the sky as we crossed the Akagera River, which forms the boundary between Tanzania and Rwanda. It is in fact the southernmost tributary of the White Nile. On the Tanzanian side, the land seems untouched by human hands, but in Rwanda, cultivated fields and planned settlements with gleaming silver roofs catch the eye. I later learned that these settlements, known as "imidugudu" in the national language, Kinyarwanda, were a government initiative to provide housing and improved health and education services to the millions of former Rwandan refugees who returned to the country between 1994 and the end of the decade.
That river, engorged with corpses young and old, provided photographers who were unable to enter Rwanda during the genocide in 1994, some of the first unequivocal images of what was being perpetrated on the other side.
At the airport, I was met by Ambassador Richard Sezibera, a medical doctor who serves as a senior adviser to President Paul Kagame. During the civil war, he served as a frontline medic. Dr. Sezibera later served as Rwanda's ambassador in Washington, as a Member of Parliament, and now works on regional security and economic development issues, including the negotiation of Rwanda's MCC Threshold Program.
After a few minutes at the hotel to get refreshed, Mauro and I headed downstairs to an SUV waiting to take us over to President Kagame's residence in Kiyovu, the oldest part of the capital. We were told there was no need to wear ties for visits at home, but that message didn't get relayed to the president himself, who was standing alone in the driveway in a suit to meet me as the car pulled up!
We walked a short distance down to a part of the house where the President often receives guests. Though he sometimes seems stiff in public, he is in fact a warm and lively man with a keen sense of humor. I thanked him for offering to host the ONE delegation at his ranch on Lake Muhazi for three hours of conversation and lunch. We then discussed his strategy for tackling the challenges facing Rwanda.
We talked about Rwanda's recently-approved MCC Threshold Program, which will focus on the professionalization of parliamentary staff, judges, civil society, and the media. Rwanda's successful implementation of this program should help it to improve its scores on MCC's indicators to qualify for a full Compact down the road.
We also talked about Rwanda's long-term vision. President Kagame, for example, sees Rwanda as a hub for the region, not just for professional services like insurance, banking, law, and accounting, but also for logistics and transportation. Plans for an ambitious new airport south of Kigali have already been drawn up. I told the President that my good friend from Memphis, Fred Smith, the founder and CEO of FedEx, was someone he ought to get to know.
After a few false starts, the President's efforts to attract high-quality foreign investors to Rwanda are beginning to pay off: this is evident in the $200 million commitment from Dubai World to invest in tourism facilities in Rwanda, the Altira Group's $100 million investment in banking and real estate, and an ambitious effort led by Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Fox River Financial Resources, in partnership with the African Development Bank, to build a major new railway from Tanzania through Rwanda (and, when conditions permit, into Congo) on a commercial basis as a true public-private partnership.
I offered condolences for the five Rwandan peacekeepers who had been killed the week before in an ambush in Darfur while escorting international police observers. Vastly outnumbered, the Rwandan soldiers performed impressively, fighting off a coordinated attack for more than three hours; this was no ragtag band of janjaweed, but rather an assault carefully planned by military professionals. Rwanda knows the reality of genocide, and it was among the first countries to offer troops for the international force. President Bush stopped in Rwanda earlier this year and thanked the country for its service there. We should all acknowledge Rwanda's sacrifice.
Nevertheless, the Rwandan soldiers did not have to die. The Armored Personal Carrier (APC) in which they were traveling, donated by a Western nation that I won't name, broke down, and their machine guns jammed, forcing the soldiers out of the vehicles into hand-to-and combat. Helicopters requested by the UN failed to arrive, along with much other urgent material.
President Kagame's incredulity and anger at this state of affairs was clear, and I shared it. But his determination to maintain his forces there despite their neglect -- and if necessary to find the money for the equipment himself -- is truly inspirational. If all the member states of the United Nations had that level of commitment, the reputation of the institution would be much higher.
We shared another point of agreement: international justice contains the risk of political manipulation. That's why I opposed U.S. ratification of the International Criminal Court statute while I was in the U.S. Senate. We could foresee that these mechanisms would be used to generate frivolous prosecutions of U.S. officials and U.S. military personnel. Rwanda is being targeted in this way by European judges who claim the right of universal jurisdiction, issuing indictments based on one-sided evidence by opposition groups, including genocide revisionists. Accusations of this nature must be dealt with in a credible, neutral forum with appropriate safeguards against politicization.
Rwanda's successes and bright future are often attributed to President Kagame's extraordinary leadership. That was the refrain we heard from Rwandans from all walks of life during our visit, and it did not sound like blank praise. The tone is one of great respect, not of fear. The President is determined and bold. He is happy to take risks, and prepared for the consequences, good or bad. But he is also surprisingly quick to claim that Rwanda's achievements thus far are "modest", and that the country must not be complacent. He also says that whatever Rwanda has achieved, Africa as a whole can achieve. There is no magic formula, and Rwanda is not special. It's just that its tragic past has taught it the value of perseverance, determination, and above all, self-respect.
Kagame is indeed a model leader, both as a military commander, and now as the chief executive of a developing country. But the styles of leadership required for a guerrilla army and for a state are starkly different. The first kind of leader issues orders and enforces discipline. The second convinces, persuades, and forces others to take responsibility.
I witnessed the President in action myself last year when I attended the annual government retreat in Akagera. I got the feeling he spends a lot of his time saying the same things over and over, building consensus and doing the hard, thankless work of making public institutions work -- sometimes with meager results. Kagame's real achievement is to have made the difficult transition from general to president. It is a shift that very few world leaders have made, and it is one of the principal reasons I have hope for his country. This is a president who imagines a future Rwanda without himself at the head of it.