Rwandan President, Paul Kagame was appointed Chairperson of the African Union on Sunday as the annual summit of the pan-African organisation got underway in Addis-Ababa, Ethiopia. He replaced Guinean president, Alpha Conde, in the largely ceremonial role which rotates around the various African regions. The AU chairperson chairs the bi-annual AU summits and also represents the continent in international summits, like the G8, G20 summits.
This will be the second position he’s holding, after being chosen to also lead the African Union Reform Process in 2016. He alluded to this fact in a speech he made after he was confirmed as the Chairperson, calling it a “double trust.” “It is a solemn honour, to accept the call to serve as Chairperson of our Union. Thank you for your double trust. First as the leader of the reform process and now as the leader of our Union,” he said.
This appointment seems to continue the trend of appointing Africa’s big men into one of the most important roles on the continent. Men like Congo’s Sassou Nguesso, Muammar Gaddafi, Robert Mugabe, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, all career authoritarians, have all held the post in the past. And Paul Kagame, who has been President for 18 years, fits this mould. However, he might be an exception to the rule.
Not that he isn’t a career authoritarian; that is left for the people of Rwanda to decide, especially after he has been accused of human rights violations. However, he has overseen perhaps the greatest economic growth in history, figuratively helping the East African country rise out of the ashes of a genocide that killed at least 800,000 people and destroyed most of the nation’s public infrastructures.
Now, Rwanda has seen unprecedented economic growth, that has it has been touted as a model for other African countries. Rwanda’s economy grew 8 percent between 2001 and 2013. It is also one of the most inclusive democracies in Africa, even though there are those who say it is not a democracy. 64 percent of Rwanda’s parliament is female, the most among democracies in the world. The country’s literacy rates have increased, life expectancy increased from 33.4 in 1990 to 54.7 in 2015, while Gross National Income increased likewise in the same period from 847 to 1617. The country has also is also invested in its infrastructures.
Perhaps, his most important quality is the ability to create relationships across board with investors. His much-documented relations with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Starbucks’ Howard Schultz, and Costco’s Jim Sinegal are examples of how he takes matters into his hands. As he emphasized the need for ‘free movement’ among African countries, it looked like the Union finally had a chairperson who knew what he was talking about.
There has been much talk about a continental free trade area, which is expected to boost intra-Africa trade, and this was one of the mainstays of Paul Kagame’s first speech as AU chairperson. ‘Free movement’ which entails the free issuance of visas at various entry points to most countries on the continent has already been pioneered by Rwanda. Starting January 1, 2018, Rwanda began to offer a free 30-days visa on arrival to Rwanda. This same policy is set to be applied to all countries on the continent in 2018, according to Kagame. “We are nearly ready to launch the Continental Free Trade Area, and freedom of movement of persons is achievable in 2018,” he said during the speech.
Africa needs a new direction, one that isn’t governed by the old generation of dictators, who represent a dying breed and who have no solutions for the young leaders of today. Although Kagame represents the old generation, he also represents a leader willing to chart a course on issues of economic growth. He might not be the leader Africa, and indeed the AU needs right now, but he could set the stage for the African Union to start to mean something.