Interview with outgoing British High Commissioner to Rwanda, William Gelling

Photo Credit: NMG

The outgoing British High Commissioner to Rwanda William Gelling, a critic of the Kagame government, spoke to Ivan R. Mugisha about democracy, the Rwandan elections, Brexit, diplomacy and regional integration.

What is your take on Rwanda’s democracy model?

Democracy, like everything else, is a process and, over time, these processes change.

I think the gains that Rwanda has made since 1994 in terms of reconciliation, socio-economic growth and infrastructural development are impressive, as underpinned by a model that is focused on results.

I imagine that, as the years go by and as we get further from 1994 — like how we saw in Germany after the Second World War — democracy in Rwanda will take a slightly more open form. But I am not a prophet, so I can’t see what that form will be.

I imagine that at some stage there will be a transition, and 10 or 15 years from now, there will be a whole new generation that will have different ideas on how democracy works.

Both the European Union and the UK said they did not support constitutional changes in Rwanda that allowed President Kagame to stay on. How did this affect your relationship with Kigali?

We made our views clear at the time. It is not a question of what we wanted; it is not up to us to choose what we want for Rwanda.

Our experience in Europe, particularly after the Second World War, taught us certain lessons that we try to hold up as European and British values.

Yes, we have had difficult conversations over the referendum to change the Constitution, but it has not changed or affected our relations.

You were criticised for undermining Rwanda’s decisions and pushing for a one-size-fits-all democratic model. You even held talks with opposition presidential aspirants. Did you try to influence the last presidential election in Rwanda?

Absolutely not. It is normal for diplomats everywhere in the world to engage with all political views: It is what the Rwandan High Commission does in London.

After the presidential election, you wrote a blog saying that you personally witnessed irregularities during the vote counting. Where did you see this and what was your reaction?

The EU wrote to the electoral commission highlighting these, so I don’t want to dwell on that, but there were certain issues with counting and some of the electoral practices on the day that give rise to grounds for improvement between now and the next polls.

But you said you personally saw this…

Yes, I was talking about issues with counting and methods of the day. We had a pretty good dialogue with the electoral commission and I hope and expect that they will be addressing those issues before the parliamentary elections next year.

The UN Economic Commission for Africa has said that the East African Community could lose $1.15 billion if it signs the Economic Partnership Agreement with the EU. Many scholars and even some EU parliamentarians think this is not a good deal for the EAC. Do you still hold the same views?

For countries that want to become middle-income economies, the EPAs protect their market access to Europe.

Look at Kenya, for example, it is a really big deal, and Rwanda looks at the future and wants to protect its market access to Europe once it becomes a middle-income economy.

Britain voted to leave the EU. Isn’t it ironic that you still believe that the EAC should trade with the EU?

Brexit has nothing to do with economics. It had to do with politics. What caused that vote was a feeling in the UK that integration had gone too far in certain areas. We certainly would like the EU and the EAC as closely related in trade as possible in the future.

Do you think the EAC countries are borrowing too much?

We have seen in Europe exactly what happens when states borrow more than what they can repay and what that can do to their systems.

You want to avoid being in the category of debt distress and you don’t store up problems for the future.

I think Rwanda is not in that situation and, in East Africa, I really hope that governments make borrowing decisions with long-term macroeconomic stability at the back of their minds.

A UK court last August ruled against the extradition of five genocide suspects to Rwanda. Doesn’t this fuel the belief that Western countries have failed to deliver justice over the Genocide Against the Tutsi?

I personally have great sympathy for what the Rwanda government says, and the ruling was a surprise and a disappointment. The next step for us is to see how those people can be tried in the UK, and we are discussing with various agencies to see this happen.

During your time in Rwanda, the country has been criticised by lobbies like Human Rights Watch for undermining freedoms and rights. Do you agree with them?

Rwanda has been a transforming society and it will continue to be. There are areas where we have concerns, and we make those clear.

In 2015, Rwanda suspended BBC’s Kinyarwanda programme after the BBC aired a controversial documentary on the genocide —The Untold Story. Two years later, why haven’t the sanctions been lifted?

That is in the hands of the BBC and the Rwandan regulator. We believe that having as many news outlets as possible is important, and that firms like the BBC have their own editorial control.

It is not the duty of the British government to control what they should or shouldn’t broadcast.

Do you think The Untold Story was a fair report?

I don’t think it was a good programme, and I can see why it offended Rwanda so much. These things happen from time to time, but I hope for a good ending because it is better to have more news outlets.


William Gelling succeeded Benedict Llewellyn-Jones, in Rwanda in January 2014.

Mr Gelling joined the FCO in 2001. Before the Kigali posting, he was the private secretary to the Foreign Secretary, advising him on the Middle East, Africa, the UN and the Commonwealth.

Before that, he variously led the team dealing with negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme; was posted to Baghdad as liaison officer between the British Embassy and the Multinational Military Headquarters; served for three years in Pakistan, covering political, conflict and extremism issues; and was attached to a British trade office in India.

He also speaks Urdu and French. He is married, and received an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2013 for his contribution to British foreign policy.

SOURCE: The East African

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.