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Oppenheimer Lecture
Paul Kagame, President of the Republic of Rwanda
Arundel House, London
Thursday 16 September 2010

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It is a great pleasure to be here at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and an honour to speak on the "Challenges of Nation-building in Africa", with special focus on our country, Rwanda.

This is a topic that is pertinent to us in Africa, but it is equally important for developed countries since nation building is a continual process.

Let me start by expounding on what, in my view, constitutes nationbuilding in general, before I move on to discuss what nation-building has entailed in Africa and in our country.

Nation-building is a long and challenging political process, but one that leaders, together with the citizenry, must undertake with seriousness.

We must understand that most nations have their unique circumstances and each one, throughout history, has built and developed itself around certain distinguishing core features.

The first of these has always been the conscious cultivation of a national identity, the sense of belonging, based on shared values, tradition, history and aspirations. National identity is the foundation of social cohesion.

The second is the establishment of institutions and laws of governance which formalise the relationship between the leaders and citizens, and their expectation of service delivery.

The third feature is the participation of citizens in the governance process by choosing a system that serves them best, selecting their leaders and playing an active role in decision making.

Then there is economic transformation - it is only right for the people to expect a qualitative improvement in their lives. Part of nation-building, therefore, includes establishing the climate and mechanisms for economic development for the whole nation.

It is worth mentioning that the process of nation-building can only be internally generated and led; it cannot be achieved from the outside, however well meaning. This does not mean that we can't learn from outside or that we do not appreciate support for our initiatives.

For a country coming out of conflict, the first priority should be one of stabilisation and security, which requires strong internal political leadership, systems and institutions. In essence, this is a precondition for successful nation-building. There is need for restoration of order, peace and stability for the building to happen.

All these features must be conceived and implemented within a broad vision of the nation.

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen;Esteemed audience: For over sixty years of post-colonial rule, nation-building in most African countries has been an up-hill task as a result of the disruption and fragmentation of our societies caused by our former colonialists. There is no doubt that colonialism created some conditions that made it difficult for newly independent African countries to function as proper nation states and the ramifications are still felt today.

However, this cannot absolve the failures and weaknesses of some postcolonial African leaders who have tended to indulge in a blame game that is not helpful.

The fact of the matter is that we cannot shy away from the heavy responsibility we bear of managing our own affairs, and leading our people.

Today, the Africans and African leaders are challenged to alleviate poverty and ignorance, and to bridge the technological gap necessary for sustainable development. Where this responsibility is not taken seriously, you see weak states and you see failure in nation-building.

Africans also inherited weak administrative structures, inappropriate, and not tailored to the needs of our countries.

I won't dwell much on the cold war and the competition for influence that engendered proxy wars, which caused instability and slowed the process of nation-building. They were instigated by the colonialists with the sole purpose ofsatisfying their interests.

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen; I would now like to share with you our experience in Rwanda, which has had its share of challenges regarding nation-building. Our history in the thirty years following independence was marked by the near absence of characteristics of a functioning state, working in the interests of all its citizens.

From independence in 1962 up to 1994, Rwandan governments based their legitimacy on a fundamentally flawed premise of exclusion. These governments destroyed the identity and unity on which the Rwandan nation had been founded and exclusion became institutionalised.

The conditions of conflict and destruction were made possible by this type of leadership which championed division and sectarianism.

Because of this fundamental deficiency, when faced with the challenges of legitimacy, this leadership fell back on the ideology they were familiar with - the so-called ethnic identities, which in effect fragmented Rwanda.

There were other attendant weaknesses. The politics of exclusion inevitably leads to loss of legitimacy, which meant that governance was exercised through coercion rather than consent. National resources were then diverted to keep this coercive machine in place, corruption was used to maintain a semblance of effectiveness, and the available resources were poured into the preferred regions of the leaders.

A preoccupation with remaining in power and meeting the demands of a sectarian constituency did not allow for the investment of meagre resources in education, technology and business that were needed for socio-economic transformation. 

This state of affairs had two related consequences.

First, the economy stagnated and levels of poverty remained high.

Second, it led to heavy dependence on foreign aid that had devastating consequences on the development of the country. It led the people to believe that they could rely on perpetual handouts from donors for their livelihood and therefore need not work hard.

Most of the donor funds remained in the wrong hands and, to a great extent, served to entrench corrupt leadership. But equally, these funds gave donors undue political influence in our domestic affairs.

It is instructive that Rwanda's budget before 1994 was financed almost 100% by external funding. Today external support ofthe national budget is less than 50%.

The loss of legitimacy by post-colonial governments and the necessity to prop them up by undemocratic means had other consequences that militated against effective nation building. Leaders were notaccountable to the citizens, but rather, to their foreign benefactors. It also led to increased repression and exclusion. The tragic consequence of all this was the genocide in 1994.

Informed by the failures of past governments, the government of Rwanda has since 1994 approached the challenges of nation-building in a different way.

We have adopted and implemented policies that foster national unity, promote reconciliation, peace and security and development. We have set out to build a nation of laws and institutions.

The first step was to correct a historical wrong and institute inclusive politics. The Rwandan people learned the hard way the danger of politics of exclusion where the winner takes all, and have opted for a model that builds on inclusive politics of power sharing and consensus building.

At our stage of development, we recognise the important role of the state in service delivery, and as an enabler of economic productivity.

In order to make this effective, it was necessary to build strong institutions of governance at different levels of government, and at the same time decentralise authority and decision-making so that ordinary people's voices are heard, and so that decisions of government reflect their priorities, needs and input.

It is also clear to us that for effective service delivery, accountability and transparency are key.

In dealing with some of the threats to the unity of our country, we realise that the most effective remedies come from our own historical experience.

And so, when faced with a huge and divisive problem of millions of genocide suspects and an equally large number of genocide survivors living in the same country, and in many cases, the same neighbourhoods, we referred to our culture and came up with a workable solution.

We chose a multi-dimensional view of the problem - justice, reconciliation, healing and forgiveness - and sought a system that would enable us to move forward. Through Gacaca courts, Rwandans were able to administer a difficult but necessary restorative justice in spite of opposition from many quarters.

Another major objective of our government has been the socio-economic transformation of our country. Governments exist to enable their people to lead reasonably good lives. This requires policies and mechanisms that facilitate increased production, more trade and attract investments.

African countries, and Rwanda in particular, recognise that we will develop if we enhance trade among African countries and beyond, and have free access to international markets, trading in high value products. It is imperative, therefore, to establish good relations among nations on the basis of mutual respect.

African governments should eventually aim to wean ourselves off aid as an important component of our development effort. This does not mean that we do not recognise the value of aid.

Rather, aid should be used to create conditions which will make it possible for us to live beyond it, because aid should not be an end in itself, nor is it a substitute for business, innovation and hard work. Aid that does not defeat poverty creates perpetual dependency, which in turn deprives Africans of dignity and self-esteem.

In conclusion, let me say that nation-building is like building a house. You start with the foundation before you build the structure. The foundation comprises security, peace, and stability. But let me also reiterate that, while acknowledging the value of external support and partnership, nation-building cannot be dictated from outside. It should reflect and be informed by the history and particular circumstances of a country.

And so, a nation that cannot find home-grown and innovative solutions from within itself to the numerous challenges of survival and growth is doomed to failure, no matter how much support it gets from external sources. It is with this in mind that Rwandans have sought to solve the numerous challenges we have met by drawing from our history, culture, and experience, as well as drawing support from others.

I thank you for your kind attention, and welcome your questions and observations.


His Excellency Mr Paul Kagame was re-elected as President of the Republic of Rwanda for a second seven-year term on 9 August 2010.

His family fled pre-independence ethnic persecution and violence in 1960, crossing into Uganda where Kagame spent thirty years as a refugee. As a young man, he joined current Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Army (NRA) and fought as a guerrilla against the government of Milton Obote.  Subsequently he served as a Senior Military Officer in the Ugandan Army before returning to Rwanda to lead the Rwandan Patriotic Front's (RPF) four-year struggle to liberate the country.

Kagame assumed the presidency in March 2000, after being elected by the Transitional National Assembly. He began his first seven-year presidential term in August 2003, after winning the country’s first democratically contested multi-party elections.

About the Oppenheimer Lectures

Since the inaugural lecture by Nicky Oppenheimer in 2005 entitled 'Africa needs a hand-up not a hand-out', prominent speakers have included Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, President of Liberia, and Rwandan President Paul Kagame.