For Kagame, a year as AU chairperson was not enough, but it was a period of much excitement and activity, and set the tone for better things and priorities for the continent.
But it comes at a huge price. One of these is being misunderstood by your peers and running into political storms in a continent where the “mine-is-bigger-than-yours” attitude stinks to high heaven.
When you run a tiny, landlocked country such as Rwanda, with no massive mineral and oil resources, you work twice as hard to earn the respect of your peers, even when you have proven at home that you have what it takes to lead.
And that’s exactly how Kagame did it - hitting the ground running and working until his last day in office at the AU. With the lessons learnt and experience gained from leading the AU, he goes into a more challenging and daunting task as chairperson of the East African Community (EAC), an economic bloc comprising Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya.
With criticism from some quarters about the AU reforms introduced under his tenure, Kagame says he is confident he and his team paved the way for Africa to achieve its developmental goals and meet its Agenda 2063 targets, provided there is continuity in the work they started.
When he talks about his 12 months at the AU helm, he uses the word “we”, and never “I”, to drive home the point that it was a team effort and not the one-man show some of his detractors made it out to be.
Among these critics is former president Thabo Mbeki, who thinks the reforms made the AU technocratic.
But Kagame has hit back arguing that he was never a one-man show and that he leaves an AU in better shape to fund itself and to achieve its goals. The relaunch of the Peace Fund, which now has nearly $90million (R1.24billion) in its kitty, coming from 50 member states, is a remarkable achievement by any standard.
Kagame says working with some of the best brains on the continent, they have carved a clear path to achieve the continent’s developmental goals and build a better Africa for all.
He isn’t fazed by criticism because he believes the results are there for all to see: the African Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA) will soon be up and running and an ambitious initiative to raise billions for Africa’s healthcare was launched in Addis Ababa on Saturday.
He chaired the meeting and urged fellow Africans and the private sector to work together to ensure investment in healthcare.
“The current global context requires us to increase domestic funding for the health programmes that have made such a tremendous difference in the lives of our people over the past two decades,” he told the opening of the summit a day after the meeting.
In an exclusive interview with The Star in Kigali, the capital, ahead of the AU summit at the weekend, Kagame hit back at Mbeki for his comments.
“I think there are lots of inaccuracies in what is being said. It’s a complete misrepresentation and it’s not even wise. It’s just wrong, it’s not correct,” he said.
“Therefore, that raises another question: what is the reason? That one I don’t want to guess, I don’t know.”
Kagame is evidently infuriated by Mbeki’s remarks, which have further strained relations between Pretoria and Kigali, coming in the wake of serious diplomatic tensions between the two.
“I don’t know what is at play here, but since we took over, we had a good team from parts of the continent, people with pan-African ideas, men and women of integrity, who are passionate about Africa.
“Second, we carried a wide-ranging consultation process with institutions, leaders of government I didn’t apply for the position. I didn’t even put my name forward. The idea came (of reforms) came from African leaders, including myself. We agreed on a need for these reforms.
“You can’t say something that has existed for 20 years is perfect, it can’t be changed. Times are changing, globally, so must the AU. You can’t say, ‘don’t touch it, nothing is wrong with it’.”
Part of the criticism Kagame faces is that he didn’t consult adequately and was moving “too fast” for some leaders.
Kagame responds to the claims. “We didn’t depart from our obligations. Those accusing us are not coming with specifics; they just say we are moving too fast. But there’s nothing wrong with an AU that’s efficient and modern.
“Change must happen in our continent. What’s the problem with moving fast? (Even then), we are consulting always.
“I am not one to do a job for three years when it can be done in three months. (Most of) the accusations are general, with no specific area of concern. There’s nothing wrong with technocrats.”
Perhaps the criticism has a lot to do with Kagame the man. One of Africa’s youngest leaders at 62, he is no saint and, depending on who you listen to, he is either a ruthless dictator or a disciplined former liberation war stalwart who has traded his machine gun for peaceful transition and transformation in his country.
Whatever the public opinion of Kagame, as leader of the tiny East African country, he has run Rwanda like a business, focusing on growth and development, zero tolerance to corruption, infusing youth and experience.
The result is that Rwanda is probably the only country in Africa where the public service is clearly more efficient than the private sector - a story of optimism and resilience and an example for the rest of Africa, a continent dying for a good story to tell.
After the genocide of 1994, Kagame’s liberation movement, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), inherited a bombed out shell, a wreck. But when you arrive in Kigali today, 25 years later, you can feel the rising spirit of a people thirsty for peace, economic and political stability. Rwanda is the envy of its peers.
At the centre of Kagame’s regime is a people-centred government that focuses on youth and on delivery. The idea is to build young people who can compete on the global stage.
Also, key in Rwanda’s success story is excellent governance, underpinned by accountability at all levels of government, and a public service that is efficient, professional and effective. The government does its work, and creates a conducive climate for the private sector to thrive, creating opportunities and boosting the economy.
There is zero tolerance to corruption, which had eaten into the fabric of Rwandan society pre and post -genocide that wiped out more than a million Tutsis and displaced over 1 million others in just 100 days. Some are still in neighbouring countries.
Over the years, Rwanda has transformed into a country driven by a knowledge economy that has unleashed the entrepreneurship in Rwandans, some of the most innovative people on the continent.
The country has also worked on its agricultural potential, as well as a booming tourism sector, where conferencing is one of the potentials to draw the attention of the world to its backyard. Visitors can get visas on arrival and opening a business is as easy as opening a can of Coke.
This medley of political will, good politics, governance and zero-tolerance to graft has given Rwanda this amazing energy which has managed to bury a painful history of conflict.
With this firm foundation, the country has become a subject of writings by business experts and will no doubt become a case study in business schools across the world.
Indeed,the global stage has noticed and invited Rwanda to share its best practices. The latest opportunity is at the World Government summit in Dubai this week. Rwandan officials shared best practices in areas such as tourism and agriculture, showcasing how, in 25 years, they have turned around the fortunes of the country, anchored in nation-building values of unity, respect and inclusivity. That Rwanda was selected as a guest country this year shows it punches above its weight.
Yet despite Rwanda’s success story, Kagame doesn’t claim to have a blueprint or all the solutions for Africa’s many challenges.
But his clarity of thought on what needs to be done in Africa is difficult to ignore, despite some murmurs from some like Mbeki about reforming the 55-year-old AU.
He has used the same zeal, energy and approach in his job as AU chairperson as he did to rebuild Rwanda.
During his tenure, the focus was a stronger, financially stable and capable AU which was healthy enough to meet its Agenda 2063 goals, while also competing on the global stage, speaking with one voice.
That’s the message he took to the G20 recently, and to the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit in South Africa last year, where he represented the continent. He wants to see better representation of the AU, through the chairperson, at these global gatherings. “I don’t see why the AU chairperson is not there when other bodies are there.”
Is he happy with the work he did at the AU?
“We made a lot of progress in many areas. There was excitement amongst Africans. We have everything we need in Africa for a future we want for ourselves,” he says, his face lighting up.
His biggest success at the AU must have been the ACFTA, which was adopted and will be in force in a few weeks. Some countries signed the instrument at the summit in Addis Ababa, and it is hoped all 22 will have signed by next month. Eighteen had already signed when I met him in Kigali.
The ACFTA is a game-changer for Africa, where calls for countries to trade better with each other have grown louder in recent years.
He explained this further at the AU summit: “We will only realise our full promise by joining together our historically fragmented markets and making it easier for people, goods and services to move across our continent.”
Coming from a small, landlocked but vibrant country, Kagame understands that regional and continental integration play an important part in boosting trade and investment in Africa. For Rwanda to soar further, it will need to play in bigger markets and be ready for the population boom in the continent, which is predicted to reach 2.5billion people by 2050. Most of these will be the youth.
Under Kagame last year, the Protocol on the Free Movement of Persons was also adopted and now awaits implementation. It will finally see the African passport come into use. A Single African Air Transport Market is also in the making.
A lot could have been done, but in a year, one can only do so much.
As he handed over the chairmanship to el-Sisi at the weekend, Kagame hoped the work of the past 12 months could continue in the best interests of the continent. He set the tone for what needs to be done.
“At this summit, we will consider guidelines for a common African approach to digital identity management. The purpose of this initiative is to increase economic inclusivity and trust for our citizens particularly in the context of growing regional integration.
“This is only the first step of what must be a consistent and comprehensive effort by AU and all member states to prepare for the new technologies that are remaking the entire global economy, especially artificial intelligence, machine learning and data mining.”
“We should not fear these changes, or attempt to delay them. That would be futile and counter-productive. They are the engines of productivity and prosperity for our youth.
“But in order to secure our place, we must face the world as a unified bloc, and work closely with other regional organisations and the private sector to ensure that the rights and interests of Africans are guaranteed.
“This urgent task is yet another reason why it was necessary to strengthen the AU’s capabilities. To fulfil our political objectives, we require an organisation that is agile, healthy, and effective.”