Rwanda’s 2017 presidential election: Philippe Mpayimana5 min read

“I decided to use every method I could to transform my society”


As told to >> Leo Nelki Göpfert Photos >> Leo Nelki Göpfert

I wanted to be a journalist since I was a small child. I was determined. I cannot explain really, I didn’t know where it was going, but I was happy with my job and I spent ten years working just as a journalist. In Congo I was living as a refugee in the forest. I was still a journalist, but working only in refugee camps. In the bush, life was very miserable, two years of misery and two years of walking on foot through the jungle. It was very hard to live there, but it was the same for all Rwandans then, even in Rwanda. It was misery and tragedy. I am not special. I had some friends who helped me get a flight and a job in Europe.


For some years I was a teacher; I taught French and English and then, when I reached France in 2003, I began to work in other jobs because in France, you know, we have many lives to live. Most of the time I was an activist for human rights.


At first I was a refugee. When you arrive as a refugee, you have to learn to live there and it takes many years to learn to live in France – to gather your family and find a job. It was difficult. I began to work two years after my arrival, and three years later my wife and children joined me. Then I began to learn again, to continue my studies in journalism and teaching. I got my diploma in 2013. It is so recent, like yesterday.


It was not a happy time. I did many jobs in France but what I wanted was to be a journalist full time. I wasn’t interested in staying in France and looking for a job for many years so I thought it would be better to return to Africa. When I came back to Rwanda I saw that there are many opportunities and ideas and you can help others and find a good job here. Not only can you find a job but you can also help create jobs. That is what motivated me to return to Rwanda.


In France I thought about how anyone can continue to live without his family. When I thought about my country, I thought first about my family: my mum, my brothers, my sisters. I was beginning to understand what is most important to me. Some people don’t worry about their family. They say “My country is not good. There is no freedom” and they forget their family. I think it is good to think about them because when you join your family, that is when you understand your country. Then I came here, and I saw that Rwanda had changed, and the airport in Kigali was not so different from the airport in Paris, and there was a lot happening. So I said “Why not stay in my own country?”



I was not at all thinking of becoming president at first. I came firstly to see my family. I then created an advertising business in the newspaper and thirdly I came to present my books. I am a writer, I write for Rwandans, so why present my books only in Paris? Why not in Kigali? The first time I came to present my book, the people were not very interested. So I translated the book into Kinyarwanda and I put the focus on the needs of my country and I came back. But it was the same; Rwandans were not interested in debating ideas in books. That book was a political project. I wanted politicians to debate about my ideas, so I thought, why make others do what I can do myself? It was when they were talking about reviewing the constitution, when every Rwandan was not interested in voicing their opinion – that’s when I decided to get involved. My first decision was not to be a presidential candidate; it was just to be a politician for some time and then maybe in ten years… who knows? But I saw that in Rwanda things were moving very quickly. I saw that it was time to promote debate. I had tried with books, I had seen that they were not interested, but as I was welcomed back, I decided to use every method I could to transform my society.


The great thing about the campaign is that everyone is informed of my wishes for the country. It is very interesting to meet the people in this way because it had made my heart heavy to see that democracy and debate are dying away in Rwanda. I don’t want the country to have only one party; I don’t want the country not to challenge some ideas. Of course they challenge me too, and what I like is that they do so with respect. We can hope that if we continue, the country will become more open. Even now I am going on Rwandan television in five minutes. It will be the first TV debate in Rwanda. The country will see how an opposition candidate is free to express his opinion. It is not easy to try a new way of governance, new politics. The first priority in Rwanda is always to help reconciliation, because of our history. Now I want to debate other problems in Rwanda, but it is not easy. Some say “Let’s begin that next year” and I say “Let’s go today.” I have always been determined. Only now can I understand what I am, and what I have always been – even as a child. You never know what you will be when you are young, but now I understand who I have always been.