It was all glamour as Rwanda President Paul Kagame took oath to steer the country’s business for the next seven years on Friday in the capital Kigali.
The inauguration ceremony marked an end to fun-filled countrywide campaigns that attracted millions of emotional supporters.
Having led a guerrilla and later conventional force that removed the genocidal regime from power in 1994, Kagame enjoys overwhelming popularity especially among the youth.
“He is our saviour,” says Rene Kabanda, 28, a youth leader from Gisenyi.
“In him we see progress and transformation,” he adds.
Kabanda was among thousands of RPF supporters who thronged Amahoro Stadium to witness Kagame’s swearing-in ceremony.
At least 20 heads of state from different African countries including Uganda, Chad, Kenya, South Sudan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Niger, Senegal and CAR among others graced the function.
Kagame, who has in recent months been a subject of fierce criticism by western media and human rights groups, knows the advantage of consolidating ties with African leaders.
“The presence of so many brothers and sisters from around Africa, Heads of State and former Heads of State, honours our nation deeply and gives us strength,” said Kagame as he opened his speech.
“Africa has been with Rwanda when we needed you most and nothing gives our people greater pride than contributing, together with you, to the greatness of our continent,” he added.
“Standing alongside us today are numerous friends of Rwanda from around the world who have always kept our country in their hearts and worked hard to advance it. We welcome you home.”
Kagame has in recent months spearheaded efforts to ensure independence and effective of the African Union, a move that has rubbed western entities the wrong way.
A solid African Union would be a big thorn in the flesh of neo-colonial entities thus putting Kagame in a permanent line of fire.
The African leaders could have as well wanted to show their solidarity with Kagame by showing up in big numbers.
Kagame tactfully lashed at the west which continue to accuse him of human rights abuses and manipulating the constitution to maintain his hold onto power.
“Every attempt that was made, whether from within and especially from outside, to denigrate the process and glorify the old politics of division, only made Rwandans more defiant and more determined to express ourselves through the vote,” said Kagame as his supporters cheered him on.
“All along, we have had to fight to protect our right to do what is best for us, and we will, without any doubt, continue to do so,” he added.
During the RPF war, the regime of the time obtained military support from France in terms of soldiers, tacticians, war planes and artillery but was defeated by Kagame’s forces.
As he spoke, Kagame sought to evoke memories about the liberation struggle to inspire and reassure the nation of victory.
“It is important for Rwandans and our fellow Africans to feel reassured that attacks on our character only make us stronger, provided we respond with clarity and conviction,” said Kagame.
The mood was already charged as Sudan President Omar Bashir had earlier wooed crowds by waving his clenched fist, a symbol of resistance RPF used in the presidential campaign.
“Our experience is that we will be vilified anyway, no matter what. So we might as well do what we know is right for our people, because the results are much better, and the costs are much lower,” said Kagame.
He said those who are worried about Rwanda’s welfare should feel at ease.
“We are the best students of our own shortcomings. Much as we have lost a lot of time, more recently we see that it is no longer business as usual in Africa,” he assured.
“There is really no justification for all the effort that goes into cutting Africa off from itself, as if sharing lessons and experiences with one another might be harmful, without adult supervision.”
The function was spiced with cultural dances and a colorful parade of the country’s defence forces.
Held under heavy security manned by the elite Republican Guard, the function attracted people from all walks of life.
Women and children trekked long distances to grace the ceremony.
As he concluded his speech, Kagame extended a hand of friendship to his critics.
“To that end, we in Rwanda will continue to be firm believers in real partnership and cooperation with friends around the world, which has benefited us a great deal and which we deeply appreciate,” said Kagame, adding, “When we are fighting for a just cause, there is no reason to fear anything whatsoever, because God is always on our side. This speaks to all of us in Africa.”
As he continues to occupy the highest political office in the land, Kagame said the next seven years will be very important for Rwanda.
“Our priority is to deepen the moral pact with all the young women and men who voted for the first time, and with such passion,” he said.
“The ambition of these young men and women is remarkable. We see your determination to work hard, achieve a lot, and become the pride of your families, as well as an asset to the entire nation,” he observed.
“We must ensure that Rwandans have high-quality education that fully equips us to compete in the services and industries of the future,” said Kagame.
He moved ahead to emphasize the role of the private sector which he said is absolutely central.
He admitted that the Rwandan entrepreneurs and business leaders, who started from zero, have transformed the country for the better and laid a solid foundation.
The president said Government will do its part to increase regional and continental integration and promote the free movement of Africans, while investing in strategic infrastructure and technology.
He further said Rwanda’s prosperity and security depends on the security and prosperity of all our neighbours, and beyond.
Kwezi Tabaro, a political affairs commentator, says Kagame’s speech “sets the tone for what is going to be a more combative relationship between Kigali and the West.”
He says Kagame’s campaign in the past election was more about/against opponents outside rather than in Rwanda.
“His emphatic victory was over “them” and not anyone in Rwanda. So it’ll be interesting to see how he navigates the murky waters of international relations as both President of Rwanda and Chairman of the AU,” said Kwezi who lives in Uganda.
“He’s stature in the region might be overshadowed by Museveni but he’s going to take on a bigger continental leadership role.”