Recently, Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, agreed to meet Jeffrey Gettleman, a New York Times’ editor. In his article, Jeffrey wrote, among other things, how Paul Kagame admitted to his habit of beating his subordinates on a regular basis.
In 2009, Kagame ordered two subordinates — a finance director and an army captain — into his presidential office, slammed the door and started shouting at them about where they had purchased office curtains. Kagame then picked up the phone, and two guards came in with sticks, David Himbara, another former Kagame confidant who also fled to Johannesburg in 2010, told me. Kagame ordered the men to lie face down, and he thrashed them. After five minutes, Kagame seemed to tire, and the bodyguards took over beating the men, as if they had done this before. Himbara said he was sick to his stomach witnessing the scene.
Just about every former colleague of Kagame’s I spoke to shared some sort of beating story. Noble Marara, a former driver for Kagame, told me that Kagame whipped him twice, once for driving the wrong truck and another time after someone else backed into a pole. “He really needs help,” said Marara, now in exile in England. “If I was to diagnose him, I’d say he has a personality disorder.”
Himbara had a different explanation. He thinks that despite Kagame’s self-propelled rise to power, he’s still deeply insecure. “He barely finished high school,” said Himbara, who holds a Ph.D. from Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ontario, and served as one of Kagame’s senior policy advisers. “It was always hard working with him, because we constantly had to figure out how to make him seem like the originator of ideas.” He went on, “After I once wrote a speech for him to give, he said to me: ‘You think because you have a Ph.D. from Canada you are smarter than me? You are a peasant! You go and read the stupid speech!’ And then I would have to say: ‘No, sir, you are the president, and in my hands it is a stupid peasant product. But in your hands it is something special.’ That’s how we had to flatter and appease him,” Himbara said. “It was crazy.”
When I asked Kagame about the beatings, he leaned toward me in his seat. We were about three feet apart, then two. I could see the individual gray hairs in his goatee. He didn’t interrupt as I detailed my evidence, with names and dates. He didn’t deny physically abusing his staff, as I thought he might, though he gave me a watered-down version of the 2009 event that Himbara described, saying that he hadn’t swatted anyone with a stick but shoved one of the men so hard that he fell to the floor.
“It’s my nature,” Kagame said. “I can be very tough, I can make mistakes like that.” But when I pressed him on other violent outbursts, he responded irritably, “Do we really need to go into every name, every incident?” He said that hitting people is not “sustainable,” which struck me as a strange word to use, as if the only issue with beating your underlings was whether such behavior was effective over the long term.
He grew even testier when I asked him about an expensive trip to New York in 2011. At the time, I heard that he spent more than $15,000 a night for the presidential suite at the Mandarin Oriental. It seemed out of character for a head of state who prides himself on frugal living, occupying a relatively modest house in central Kigali, not a crystal-chandelier palace like many other African presidents. I began to ask if he thought the Rwandan people would approve of such extravagance when Kagame glared at me and snapped, “Just a moment!”
It was a little scary how quickly he flipped from friendly to imperious. He clearly wasn’t used to confrontational questions, especially from a reporter. Kagame’s critics say he has snuffed out much of Rwanda’s independent media. One Rwandan journalist, Agnes Uwimana Nkusi, was recently given a prison term of four years for insulting the president and endangering national security after she edited a series of articles critical of Kagame. Another, Jean-Leonard Rugambage, was shot in the head on the day he published a story about Kagame’s government being suspected of trying to kill Nyamwasa.
“I have all these names associated with me,” he said, “some of which I accept, others which are not fair.” Before I left, he told me, almost in a whisper: “God created me in a very strange way.”