To her supporters, mainly people who have interacted with her in previous roles, she is extremely humane, hardworking and hates mediocrity. But to her detractors, most of whom knew her after she became President Kagame’s Chief of Staff, Mpambara is a “terrible human being”.
Welcome to the world of the reclusive Ines Mpambara. She is largely called Ines. In a span of 20 years, the youthful-looking technocrat has risen from journalism lecturer to be a central figure inside President Paul Kagame’s small decision-making circle.
When Kagame became President in 2000, after abrupt resignation of embattled predecessor Pasteur Bizimungu, Ines was director of the school of journalism and communication at the National University of Rwanda, based in southern Rwanda. Today, its the University of Rwanda, bringing together all public universities.
With her stewardship, the few students who went through her administration, will remember her as the director who provided the best possible learning environment.
Mpambara put up a spirited fight fiercely opposing government and university plans at the time to fill up university faculties with hundreds of students. The University’s Rector at the time Dr Emile Rwamasirabo admired her style of work, and gave her benefit of doubt. He left her to plan the school as she saw fit; and it worked magic.
All classes in the school of journalism and communication were NO MORE than 25 students. This was a rare feat. Even the science courses, where you would expect few students, had more students than the journalism classes.
To qualify for journalism school, you had pass am entry exam, both written and oral. That was after you had already passed the high school national exam with very high grades. Admission to the school was NOT automatic. In 2001, for example, while more than 150 sat for the entry test, less than 50 were selected. Randomly ask anyone who attended journalism school when Mpambara was director, why they joined, they will confess it was The-Faculty to attend. It was classy to be in journalism school.
These 50 attended year one, and then divided up into those either joining journalism or communication streams in the 3rd year. In the journalism stream, there were 23. Such a class number ended with her tenure. Today, journalism classes have class numbers that cannot be spoken about.
Donning dreadlocks, and always casually dressed, Ines Mpambara had come from Canada where she did her journalism school. At the school in Rwanda, she referred to all faculty students as “Mes Enfants” (my children), though some students were fit to be her parents. However, her “Mes Enfants” was used respectfully, no one felt undermined as you would expect.
From her insistence, journalism school got more money than any other faculty. Much of it donor funding. Nearly all its teaching staff were Americans, Canadians or French – which allowed students at the time to get better training. At a time when computers were a luxury in the whole country, journalism school and computer science department were the ONLY places with a computer lab at university.
Barely a two months went by without a training workshop for journalism students conducted by either experienced Burundian journalists, or visiting Canadians and Americans media industry executives or university professors. During this period, students were writing real stories for international media. Mpambara hired a permanent French lecturer who worked with students on the then university newsletter “New Butarean“. It was training tool for many editors today. Some had international internships courtesy of Mpambara.
By 2003, journalism school had Radio Salus, one of the first radio stations in Rwanda, began working. All the iconic broadcasters, popular on broadcast airwaves today, said their first radio words via Salus Radio microphones. The school had expensive state-of-the-art cameras equipment, while many other faculties went without the most basics. Soon, Mpambara set her sights on university television, which idea died when she left.
Around 2006, government established an autonomous agency to handle the country’s health campaigns. There were plenty at the time. It was called the Health Communication Center, which was to be aligned with the Health Ministry. It is said Mpambara was “borrowed” from university because the administration there had refused to relinquish her. They didn’t want to lose such an energetic force in the university’s ranks. She became director of this new Center.
While there, Mpambara brought all media on board to ensure health campaign reached everyone. One project she brought was directly holding meetings with Editors asking them to bring funding proposals. Unlike in recent times where such government contracts are reserved for state-leaning media, Mpambara mobilised all media she believed had sizable audience.
Within no time, Ines Mpambara was reportedly tapped by the First Lady Jeannette Kagame’s Foundation at the time called PACFA. There are unconfirmed bits of information from the time that a year after Mpambara had left the Health Communication Center, her predecessor was unable to spend hundreds of millions from donors and they demanded it be taken back.
Within a very short time of working for the First Lady, Ines Mpambara was taken by President Kagame’s Office. In February 2009, Mpambara was appointed Deputy Director of Cabinet (Deputy Chief of Staff). She had been the Senior Social Policy Analyst in the Strategy and Policy Unit (SPU), a unit that is like the heartbeat of Rwanda.
By this time, many in the public domain were asking who this lady Ines Mpambara was. A few months later, in September of 2009, Mpambara was elevated to the full ‘Director of Cabinet’ or what is known in the west as ‘Chief of Staff’. In Kagame’s office, had been held by military Generals and former ministers.
Until this Wednesday late night on February 26, Ines Mpambara has been Chief of Staff to President Kagame – making her the longest serving in the role. In that role, Mpambara has seen it all. For 11 years, Mpambara knew who was coming to cabinet and who was going out, before the appointed candidates themselves knew.
But along her journey to the high table of political power in Rwanda, it seems Mpambara has stepped on many toes. Her detractors see her in the worst possible mirror you can imagine. Inside the country, except for the highly sugarcoated rumour-mill, no one has ever come out to say anything negative publicly about Mpambara.
But the exiled dissidents don’t have kind reviews of her. Many were powerful officials close to power and President Kagame himself. They have called her names, manipulated her photos online in attempt to demean her, and they actually call her “the Real Prime Minister”. Much of the language the exiled dissidents have published online to describe Mpambara cannot be used in our pages.
The talk inside closed doors among senior officials about Mpambara is of admiration and loathe, in equal measure. A lot has done the rounds, with some claiming how she erupted in rage against senior officials when it emerged they had not implemented the President’s directives to the letter. There are many, many stories of this kind.
For past 11 years, there had never been discussion about Mpambara, or mention of her name, until President Kagame hinted at her last week, without citing her names.
In a hard-hitting speech, as usual at the annual Government Retreat, President Kagame angrily spoke about the sacking of 3 cabinet minister. He revealed how he had given directive via his staff (of course Ines Mpambara) to Health Minister Dr Diane Gashumba to ensure everyone “without exception, including me” is tested for the coronavirus before boarding buses to retreat venue.
The Health minister apparently, via chats, was giving vague explanations about the country’s readiness to deal with a possible outbreak. All throughout, Kagame was kept updated about the back-and-forth chats.
Kagame told the intently listening audience, that the Minister did not seem to want to avail kits for coronavirus testing for officials. Kagame said he called the minister to find out why it was so difficult to decide on such an issue. He said on asking whether there were enough kits in the country, the minister responded that there were 3,500 kits.
Kagame said a counter-verification team, from the security agencies, informed him there were only 95 kits. Armed with this new information, Kagame says he again called the minister to find out why there was conflicting information.
“The minister told me ‘you know, you see, I think you misheard’…” said a visibly irritated Kagame at the government retreat, giving rare insight into what transpired before the Prime Minister Dr Edouard Ngirente had issued a statement the day before announcing the resignation of Dr Diane Gashumba.
There have been many stories on obscure websites owned by Rwandan exiles about this particular incident, with dramatic scene depicted. None can be verified.
And them, without warning, a statement was aired on the state broadcaster RBA, as usual, of a cabinet reshuffle on this Wednesday night. Ines Mpambara is the new Minister in charge of Cabinet Affairs.
It is an equally powerful cabinet role, sold to President Kagame by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in his role as unpaid advisor several years ago. The cabinet affairs minister essentially helps the Prime Minister, in this case Dr Ngirente, to coordinate government operations.
The role that the public is used to seeing with regard to the Cabinet affairs slot, is that Cabinet Resolutions are signed by this particular minister.
Ines Mpambara is going to be the name on those Cabinet Resolutions from now onwards. She will also be the face at the Prime Minister’s side wherever he goes.
Ines Mpambara’s family life is not public, as this story, is the first such text trying to piece together her profile. It is said she has young children, and married to an architect, who worked in Kigali City but left many years ago into private practice.
And by the way, Ines Mpambara still maintains contact with her former students, often attending reunion evenings. All of them are either top media editors, high profile communications executives in international organisations, or in senior government roles.
After Mpambara left university, she removed her dreadlocks, for short treated hair. And as she rose through the ranks of the President’s office, she has maintained a near-bold head. Nearly all the President female staff, who are mainly young, have short natural hair. The style has also recently become trendy for other ordinary people.