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Will Paul Kagame, Kigali’s “Strongman”, Remodel the African Union Into a “Strong Institution”? 

Will Paul Kagame, Kigali’s “Strongman”, Remodel the African Union Into a “Strong Institution”? 
 Michaël Cheylan
Contributor on African issues

Mixed feelings. This is what Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, generates, he who officially took over as the new Chairman of the African Union (AU) during its 30th Ordinary Summit held on 28-29 January in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Two decades were sufficient for this former rebel military leader to transform this country of 12 million people, located in the heart of the Great Lakes region, one of the paragons of Africa in terms of management and governance.

When it comes to freedom and democracy, his record is however quite different. Paul Kagame became President in 2000. And he could stay in power, in theory, until 2034, as he was elected for the fourth time in 2017 with 98% of the votes.

In Africa, Paul Kagame nevertheless remains very popular. "He is the Lee Kuan Yew of the African continent" according to a Western diplomat holding office in Kigali. "At home, the results are striking. AU members thus reckon that he could do to the whole continent what had been done in Rwanda" said Olivier Nduhungihere, the Rwandan Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. 

Indeed, those who visit Kigali are often impressed, and all emphasize the cleanliness of the city’s streets, which have no other equivalent on the continent. An allegory that is alone meant to embody good governance. This is probably what the Heads of State and Government of the African Union had in mind when they had to appoint, in July 2016, one of their own to carry out the reform of the pan-African institution, criticized for its lack of ambition, efficiency, and its heavy bureaucracy.

Each obstacle must be overcome

"What differentiates Kagame from many of its peers on the continent ? Two things: the ambition to reform and the quest for efficiency" according to a member of the African Union Commission. There is indeed a "Kagame method" to reform and he intends to apply it to renovate the AU. 

A process, which, in fact, has already begun. Paul Kagame has immediately set up a steering committee composed of qualified individuals. They come not from the political sphere, but rather from the African Development Bank (AfDB), the McKinsey consulting firm, etc., and were selected regardless of their geographic origin and the sacrosanct balances that usually fit this kind of institution. "Only competence matters" one of them asserts. Each month, follow-up meetings (sometimes lasting up to seven or eight hours) are organized, and are, among other things, an opportunity to check whether the goals assigned in each previous meeting were achieved. Each obstacle must be overcome.

And given that time counts, "rather than waiting for the Summits, where the permanent representatives are consulted first, then the executive council and finally the Heads of State, the Rwandan President organizes seminars with his peers, during which measures are adopted symbolically" explains the journalist Michael Pauron. And to further accelerate decision-making, he sends his Foreign Minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, to various African capitals.

In addition, to ensure continuity in an institution where the presidency (both rotating and non-renewable) lasts only one year, Paul Kagame, whose relations with the Chairman of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, are very smooth, decided to rule via a troika, composed of the former, the current and the future President of the African Union. Thus, the Rwandan President’s work with his Guinean - Alpha Conde - and Egyptian - Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi - counterparts had already begun several months ago.

In his mind, action must replace words

Finally, the Rwandan Head of State, who does not want an innocuous or ordinary presidency, has a vision for the African Union. To implement it however, he is aware that the AU must first have the resources matching its ambitions,hence his will to raise the institution's self-financing rate - since external contributions today account for nearly 80% of the budget - by introducing a 0.2% tax on certain import products. For Paul Kagame, it is a matter of priorities. "Will without power is useless" he often tells his visitors. In his mind, action must replace words. 

Will Paul Kagame succeed in reforming the former Organization of the African Union, which became the African Union in 2002? Whatever one’s opinion of him, one must hope he does. First for Africa, which needs more embodied and strong leadership to weigh in international institutions and forums. Then for the world - and Europe in particular - as it needs a credible and influential counterpart on the continent, in order to jointly settle issues that are increasingly transcontinental (shared development, global warming, migration, fight against radicalism and terrorism, etc.).

On 11 July 2009 in Accra, the capital of Ghana, Barack Obama, then President of the United States, declared in a famous speech: "Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions". One can hardly disagree. Nonetheless, the fact is that today, the strongman of Kigali is probably one of the very few leaders on the continent capable of remodelling the African Union into a strong institution.

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