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When Paul Kagame rode into town

Jun 07, 2009 Leadership, Sunday Nation

I saw last week that it is possible to begin a day in exasperation and end it in exhilaration.

I was travelling to Mombasa to attend a board meeting, and found an inexplicable traffic jam near the Nyayo Stadium. I had allowed enough time for Nairobi’s absurd traffic problems, but this was a little more serious. Policemen were blocking all access to Uhuru Highway.

I sat in one place for more than 45 minutes, and realised that my chances of catching my flight were ebbing away. I noticed that the policemen on duty were not just the usual traffic cops: there were more senior officers with their trademark bigger stomachs milling around holding walkie-talkies. No doubt, this jam was caused by the big people.

Suddenly, we were allowed to move, and my taxi driver made a valiant attempt to get to the airport in record time. I had by then reconciled myself to missing the flight. As we entered the airport precincts we saw a convoy of official vehicles coming out. Some important personage was in town.

I burst into the terminal expecting drama, but was surprised to find everything moving sedately. Why? Because my flight was delayed by an hour! So, delayed by one set of inefficiencies, and saved by another. Go figure. I sat down to reflect on our national ‘take-off’, and how it would ever happen if we carried on like this.

So much for the exasperation. The exhilaration came later, when I realised the important visitor was Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, and he was in Kenya to attend the National Prayer Breakfast.

Here is some of what he said there: “For those societies that exhibit features of real or latent conflict, the single most decisive and pressing task facing them, and their leaders in particular, is to confront the root cause of instability before degenerating into conflicts or even wars.

It cannot be otherwise – because real solutions cannot come from anywhere else but from within. It is only the leaders and citizens of such nations that can fully grasp the high stakes involved – and as such, only they possess the power and tools to arrest the disintegration of their nations.”

I began paying real attention, especially as I was receiving many text messages commenting on president Kagame’s landmark address. The real exhilaration came that evening, however, when the man himself was interviewed on NTV’s ‘On The Record’ programme. I listened to Kagame speak, and was soon mesmerised.

In 2006, when Senator Barack Obama passed through Kenya, I wrote that we had been in the presence of a real leader. In 2009, I am happy to write it again. President Paul Kagame is the real deal.

There can be no doubt about the scale of his achievement. This is a man who inherited an utter, ineffable disaster. A million people had been slaughtered in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. The country was a total ruin. Yet one man stepped forward to provide the vision, authority and intelligence to resuscitate a dead nation. And as I watched Kagame during his NTV interview, I began to see why.

Whether or not you agree with him, there is no doubting Kagame’s authenticity. And that is the big difference. This is not a man playing to the gallery, seeking votes and approval and awards. He is a man on a mission to rescue his country and secure its future. Watching that interview, I had to resist the opportunity to stand up in my room alone and applaud. President Kagame had various opportunities to blow his own trumpet; he took none of them. He talked at length of his team, his projects and his strategy. His no-frills approach was entirely refreshing, and put to shame the slow-punctured peacocks we normally get on these shows.

One column cannot do justice to what we must learn from Kagame and Rwanda, and so I will continue on this theme next week. But let me leave you with some words quoted recently in the New Yorker:

“There is one thing that gives me courage in life. I was in Rwanda during the genocide. I saw what Rwanda was during the genocide. And after the genocide I saw Kagame come to power. He was still young. I saw the challenges that lay before him, and today, when I see what Rwanda has become, I say it’s possible…Because if there was ever destruction in the world, it was the destruction of Rwanda. Because the country was empty, the banks had been emptied, the Army had fled, the people had fled, all the infrastructure gone. But the Rwanda of today, I don’t know if it is a miracle or what – but there is a man. A single man…Rwanda has no resources. And Congo with all this, why has it not developed? Why not? Why not? Because there is not a man.”

That was Laurent Nkunda talking, two weeks before he was arrested by Rwandese forces.

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