A Thousand Hills by Stephen Kinzer is the biography of one of Africa’s most accomplished leaders who is now president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame. This excellent narrative captures the trials and tribulations of Paul’s life as a young boy in exile in Uganda, an adolescent struggling to make sense of a hostile world, a struggling young refugee who seeks opportunities to learn and grow, a soldier fighting in a revolutionary struggle against a dictator in Uganda, an intelligence officer with international training in Cuba and America, a leader who steps up to take the baton from his fallen soldier and childhood friend and leads an armed invasion to take back power for an oppressed minority, and finally a war hero who saved millions of people’s lives and stopped the Habyarimana government-sponsored genocide when he and his army overthrew an oppressive totalitarian regime. As vice-president and then president since 2003, he has spent his life working for the establishment of a country that is peaceful and stable, which pursues economic development to the benefit of everyone who lives there. As Rwanda’s most powerful man he is not without critics and Kinzer does an admirable job of depicting his weaknesses and strengths. This case study will review his leadership strengths and weaknesses as well as the threats and opportunities that emerge.
Kinzer summarizes two strengths and two challenges in the final chapter as a proven track record of results as is underscored by the hope he inspires in honest observers of his accomplishments, considering the dismal and humble beginnings post the 1994 genocide (p. 337). The challenges involve the inclusion within the society of vast numbers of onetime killers as well as foes to his government living outside Rwanda. Another challenge stems from the human nature of desiring more and more power and in the corrupting tendency that is exacerbated when power is not allowed to be challenged.
How did Paul Kagame become so effective at leadership? Are there some lessons that can be distilled from this large case study? I found his self-determination to be his most powerful strength. This is captured in a quote at the beginning of the book where he says, “we have within ourselves what we need to stand up to these challenges” (p. 1). Paul is a proud Rwandan and he will not beg from another person as is evidenced by his disappointing rebuff from a fellow refugee relative whom Paul asked the help of. This relative had become influential in selecting candidates for a scholarship to study in Switzerland and when Paul asked if he could apply, nothing came of it. “He sent three other people to study there. It was not because they had better academic credentials, but he related better to them. Maybe if I had insisted and continued begging, he would have done it. It’s part of me – I don’t like begging or insisting” (p. 16). That, together with similar rebuffs as a young man struggling to make his way and formative years in conflict-ridden refugee camps were catalysts for his fierce independence. This strength in the eyes of the world is, however, as we Christians know, a wide chasm whereunto many are lured to fall because God gives grace to the humble but resists the proud.
“If there is not higher power in your life than yourself then it is easy to read the rebuffs as actions of a hostile world but when you remember that God is sovereign and either wills or allows everything to happen then you conclude that Switzerland or flying airplanes is not God’s will for your life.”
It is this self-determination, arrogance, and pride that is the raw material for strong autocratic leaders. Kinzer summarizes this point when he says, “leaders of guerrilla armies must have unlimited self-confidence. They train themselves to see the world through an ‘us-versus-them’ lens and are deeply suspicious of everyone outside their own inner circles. Without these qualities, Kagame could not have won his war or begun resurrecting a country many believed was beyond resurrection. Yet considering the generally corrupting tendencies of power, especially in a political system where there are no countervailing checks and balances, this mine-set can also lead to trouble” (p. 332).
I have collated the similar virtues of unwavering purpose, resilience, and self-discipline as another powerful force at work within the life of this results-oriented leader. Despite the pressure brought to bear by outside governments and forces represented in Western human rights groups, he has remained resolute that what Rwanda needs more right now than political and ideological freedom is security and that is best established in an autocratic style of government. Kagame said, “Some people keep making stupid and unfair noises about us. They don’t know what we prevented from happening. That it did not happen is what they should really be trying to tell people” (p. 328). His and his government’s resilience is exemplified in the legend of living in the inhospitable Virunga mountains for two years while they battled the French-backed army of Habyarimana and marched on foot, carrying munitions on shoulders, into Kigali in 1994 to liberate the nation gripped by demonic hatred. His fighters were a well-trained and highly disciplined army and the discipline came from Paul’s self-discipline and flowed down the ranks, creating what some have considered being the “the best-educated guerrilla army in history” p83. This strict disciplinary code included eleven capital offenses like murder, rape, violent robbery, desertion, and acts “intended to disrupt, destroy, divert or otherwise work to the detriment of the Front” (p. 83). These same honorable morals have permeated into the government today where corruption is seen as a drain on progress, cancer to be forcefully eliminated and something this strong leader has no qualms enforcing as is evidenced by the fact that he confiscated luxury motor vehicles of government officials, closed down restaurants and schools for not having adequate hygiene and maintains a watchful eye on the net worth of 4000 government officials to ensure they do not milk the system for private gain. He has a strong dislike of nepotism and none of his family is employed in government or businesses that stand to profit by such unhealthy alliances.
These strengths once again have the counter-balanced weaknesses that emerge in a leader who lives them so genuinely as he does. Paul is an angry and impatient man who lashes out at anyone who stands in the way of his goals. People around his inner circle are not comfortable genuinely sharing their criticisms of him and his government because he doesn’t take criticism very well.
I am reminded in contrast to a book by MacDonald, “Ordering Your Private World”, where he gives four ways to grow in our ability to listen to others, the fourth being ‘listening for the kernel of truth hidden in the criticisms’ (p. 126).
“a motivated and politically knowledgeable soldier will fight with more engagement than one filled with pure hatred”
His work ethic is super-human, and people find it hard to keep up with him (p. 325). He has zero tolerance for poor results of those who work for him in government. He admits that work is a priority in is life (p. 325) even before family or acquisition of knowledge, health, or human friendships. “It’s all right to fail to succeed, but not to fail to try” (p. 325). This together with his keen intellect, as evidenced by his excelling as a secret service agent in Uganda, and his understanding of human nature, as evidenced by an understanding that a motivated and politically knowledgeable soldier will fight with more engagement than one filled with pure hatred; has resulted in a level of competence that is very hard to match by any political opponent. He explains and discusses his vision with his followers as evidenced by his many speeches to the country which call for engagement in his Vision 2020 program for Rwanda. He has the understanding to recognize that security is a foundational right of society and something the government must provide.
Paul is a risk-taker and doesn’t shy away from controversial decisions, as evidenced by his unconventional thinking which led him to retreat to an inhospitable part of the country where he and his troops could lick their wounds and gather strength and purpose for the assault ahead. Once in power, he knew that the evil thought in the escaping refugees to Zaire would always be a source for insecurity and he mounted two assaults on neighboring Zaire to stamp it out. He ushered in a period of peace by inviting the predominantly Hutu to re-enter Rwanda and thereby initiated the reconciliation between warring factions.
“he knew he did not at that time have the approval of the people”
I would be amiss to point out that Paul has an intuition that may be God-given because although he was strong enough to seize power initially in the early years of his offensive, his army came close enough to seize Kigali, he knew he did not at that time have the approval of the people, who saw them as an invasion force, an approval which would be crucial for him to remain in power and govern efficiently. He retreated and used his military prowess as a bargaining chip to negotiate a demilitarized zone that could provide security to his clan. He likewise saw the need to include Hutus in his negotiating team and eventually allowed a Hutu to be president before he took the reins in 2003. Similarly, he allowed an opposition leader, one who committed genocide in the previously hostile northern territory, to become a leader in his government. He saw that he can compromise for the greater good of society.
“The opportunities in his life were slim but he seized upon them and his challenges remain”
This concludes my scant depiction of a leader with multi-faceted and many strengths and glaring weaknesses founded in his not being a follower of Christ. The opportunities in his life were slim but he seized upon them and his challenges remain and declare war on his Vision 2020 goals to advance what was arguably the most impoverished nation in the world at the end of the genocide in 1994. Twenty-three years later and he is still making great progress, much to the consternation of the globalist elites who thrive on chaos and political instability.