Hands Off Please, President Kagame is a Magnate

I live in London, in a modest one bedroom flat. Each month, I painfully transfer £620.75p to my landlord so he can let me stay. I have never stopped telling myself that this is a lot of money. A lot indeed considering that for the same amount, I could get a five bedroom detached and gated house, with a big garden, a swimming pool and a tennis court in one of the plush neighbourhoods back home. The good news is that I am paying this from my own account.

For now, I will whine and whinge but I must continue to work my socks off if I am to remain resident in my present address. I am also energized by the belief that as a student, life will get easier once I am done with my studies. Then, I so hope, to start earning more, and possibly buy myself a house.

But why all this rent and bills nonsense? You see as a Rwandan student who has been struggling all year around with my tuition, accommodation and food, I was shocked to learn that just this week my president travelled to the US for a UN meeting and spent £12,000 a night on a hotel room. It might have begun as a rumour but the thought of a man who in August 2010 was voted into power by an electorate 60 percent of which according to UNDP live in poverty (and 42 percent in absolute poverty) splashing out on luxury while on a foreign mission is yet to sink in.

When news first broke that President Kagame ( who many still praise for using aid money so effectively and being a down to earth head of state) was living in an expensive presidential suite at the luxurious Mandarin Oriental, those with a highly bent inclination to the regime in Kigali rejected the news as “utter tabloid gossip”. I remained sceptical but was never surprised. With African heads of state, anything is possible and one should never rule out anything unless they are absolutely sure.

Now that the hitherto rumour has been confirmed to be indeed the truth, I await the Rwandan government explanation as to the reasons behind this reckless expenditure. Four times I have tried to get in touch with those in the know in Kigali and no one wants to speak. Not even my most trusted source. An email to an old trusted general yesterday over the matter elicited a response akin to the kind you would expect from a chicken thief who’s been caught red handed drinking from the neighbour’s alcohol pot. “Hands off please”.

The news that the president of a begging state managed to sleep in a hotel which even the British PM (even though the UK might have afforded) thought expensive, will continue to astonish the world but as we await an inquiry into the Mandarin Oriental spree (accountability) questions must be asked as to whether our leaders are worth what they claim to stand for.

There is more to President Kagame than just the tough talking strict disciplinarian he has been portrayed as. While his peers in East Africa were being ostracised for spending fortunes on extravagant presidential motorcades and SUVs, Kagame’s admirers pointed to his well managed small convoy (usually consisting of his car, two land cruisers carrying his body guards and a third vehicle clearing traffic). However, the same man who on the face of it appears to be modest and down to earth, not so interested in a pomp lifestyle akin to most heads of states in Africa, was discovered to have spent more than 100 million dollars purchasing two executive jets – which he continues to use to ferry him for all his trips to and from Europe and the Americas.

No one denies the fact that presidents must and ought to be protected. In the case of Rwanda where the position of the president reigns supreme, and given the country’s history, one might understand the need to ensure that the head of state stays safe and well. And if the protection can be only achieved through hiring and residing in a safe hotel, then so be it. But such protection must be within a certain context, reasonable and some will say, necessary. If President Kagame had for example been visiting Kabul or Mogadishu where as we know security concerns are high one might understand the need to hire or reside at an expensive hotel. But this was the US. Many will say, one of the safest countries in the world. American authorities including the FBI and CIA will have known in advance that dignitaries from all over the world were coming to stay so you can rest assured their security was granted.

It will have been safe to stay in any of the good hotels around, just like some other heads of state or prime ministers did and  not necessarily the most expensive there was. A more modest hotel room of say £3000 would have done just fine. While it still would have been four months worth of my rent and enough to cater for a year’s Universal Primary Education tuition for 3000 Rwandan children, it would have been reasonable.

But does it really matter if a sitting head of state from a poor developing country decides to splash out on a trip out of his land? Should we really care that President Kagame while on a trip to the US suddenly decides to literally “sleep and eat like a queen or King”?

Some have argued that the president may have been outrageous with his hotel bill but we should not forget the fact that he was also in the US to solicit some business and investment for Rwanda. Indeed one outrageous argument was advanced just yesterday that the US trip followed the French trip from which Kagame raised close to 3o million Euros in investments and grants to Rwanda. The idea being that with all this money raised, £12,000 on a room should not be seen as a bad move. I wont say this sort of reasoning is stupid because it is.

As an offender, Kagame is entitled to a defence but this sort of defence is utterly out of order. First it negates the fact that this is not about where Kagame stayed but how much he paid to stay there and whether this was the best option possible. Secondly, it assumes that the money raised was for Kagame and therfore he had authority over it forgetting the fact that the aid advanced or grants given were forwarded to Rwanda as a State not its head of state.

I am not sure the government will want to get to the bottom of this but I wish those in charge could. If it was to turn out for example that PK footed the £12,000 – a night hotel bill from his own pocket, then like myself and my rent, he can sit down and hope for the same next time or even better if he works hard and earns more. Otherwise events in New York have only helped heap more scorn and ridicule to an exposed dancer whose moves people were already beginning to doubt. Someone had better call Racepoint. Over to you my little monsters…

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Author: ellyakanga

I am Eleneus Akanga. Welcome to my blog about my experience as a Rwandan journalist and all that comes with the trade in East Africa. It's been a great journey so far but very challenging at times. Join me, let's get cracking! ellyakanga@usa.com

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