Surrounded and hounded by ‘hostile’ neighbours it was a matter of time before Rwandan President Paul Kagame run back into the arms of his colonial master, France, which he in the past accused of facilitating the 1994 genocide that left close to a million Rwandans dead.
Kagame accused France of backing the genocidal regime government, including arming and training Hutu extremists, and of protecting genocide suspects through the France-led military “Operation Turquoise,”
Ties between Rwanda and France ruptured in 2006 when Rwanda expelled France’s ambassador, Dominique Decherf and 29 of his staff, after a controversial French judge, Jean-Louis Bruguière, issued arrest warrants for nine high ranking Rwandans alleging that they shot down former President Juvénal Habyarimana’s jet that resulted into the genocide.
Although the two countries restored their diplomatic relations in 2009, France has had no ambassador in Rwanda since Michel Flesch’s resignation in 2015 the same year France blocked the nomination of Rwanda’s ambassador to the European Union.
In February 2010, then French President Nicolas Sarkozy rushed to Kigali to mend ties. Sarkozy admitted France had committed an “error of judgment” and “serious mistakes” at the time of the genocide but did not apologise. His remarks disappointed Rwanda, and bilateral relations did not improve.
In reciprocity, President Paul Kagame flew to Paris too. Kagame’ visit was the first of its kind by a Rwandan head of state since 1990.
The relations between the two countries showed signs of improving during Sarkozy’s administration, but later changed course.
So when the French President Emmanuel Macron travelled to Rwanda on May 27 the two-day state left tongues wagging.
Obviously Macron is not Nicholas Sarkozy, his predecessor, in methods employed to reclaim France’s lost African friends.
What has changed between Sarkozy and Macron?
Rwanda wanted to be given access to genocide suspects hiding in France. Rwandans living in France who are suspected of perpetrating the genocide — including the then-president’s wife, thought to have been a mastermind of the massacres — have also largely escaped prosecution.
Rwanda also wanted France’s archives that prove France’s role in Rwandan genocide declassified. Mr. Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande, declassified some documents relating to Rwanda, but French researchers said too much of the primary historical record was still off-limits.
Archival documents show that the French government was a close ally of the Rwandan regime that planned and perpetrated the mass slaughter of an estimated 800,000 people, most of them members of the Tutsi ethnic minority. Historians say a son of François Mitterrand, the French president at the time, was also a close friend of the Rwandan leader whose government organized the genocide.
When confronted with improving relations with Rwanda, Macron started by ordering an investigation by researchers and historians of France’s role in the genocide. He allowed the findings to be published even though the report blamed his country for the 1994 Rwanda genocide.
“France did not understand that, in its efforts to prevent a regional conflict or a civil war, it was in fact standing by a genocidal regime. By ignoring the warnings of the most lucid observers, France assumed a terrible responsibility in a chain of events that resulted in the worst possible outcome, even though that was exactly what [France] hoped to avoid,” Macron said.
Macron agreed to open the Rwanda archives of Mitterrand, who was in charge during the genocide. Macron declassified the archives.
Then when Macron travelled to Rwanda on May 27 he made statements that sounded more or less like an apology. And this was an acceptable position for Kagame although not for all Rwandans.
This was made clear when the streets of Kigali remained quiet on Thursday, with none of the banners or flags that usually accompany a high-level visit.
In fact the Rwandan President was quick to write off the need for an apology. Kagame described Macron’s words as “something more valuable than an apology – they were the truth.”
Macron has also been lauded by Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who said his approach represented “a change from the neo-colonial positions of the past.”
At a press conference in Rwanda, the French President announced that his country would cooperate with Rwanda, to bring to justice genocide suspects who live in France. Pursuing genocide suspects has been a key agenda for the RPF government.
It should also be noted that it is under Macron’s watch that Félicien Kabuga, one of the most wanted suspects and chief financial of the Rwandan genocide, was arrested near Paris in May 2020. Kabuga is under trial at The Hague after his arrest nearly a year ago in France.
Rwanda has issued around 30 arrest warrants for genocide suspects living in France including Agathe Kanziga Habyarimana, the widow of former President Juvenal Habyarimana, who successfully fought in French courts for a residence permit to stay in France.
Therefore, what Sarkozy failed to achieve Macron had achieved with calculated humility to win the hearts of Rwandans. And analysts believe Kagame could be finally “returning home”—to France.
Indeed, Macron is different from his predecessors. When he became president in 2017 he said there was “no more Africa policy from France”.
He supported former Rwanda Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo’s to become the Secretary General of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) at the end of 2018.
Renewing of vows of marriage between France and Rwanda comes at a time Rwanda is preparing to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in late June.
After Rwanda, a nation without any formal historical ties to Great Britain, was admitted into the Commonwealth in 2009, France reconsidered its hostility towards former colony and deliberately took steps to encourage Kagame to talking terms.
Rwanda was first colonized by Germany in the late 19th century and then by the Belgians. The country later held close ties to France.
After independence from Belgium in 1962, Rwanda was one of the 30 Francophone countries in Africa where the business and official language of communication was French.
Paris adopted Rwanda as one of its own. It offered military and economic cooperation that led to soldiers responsible for the genocide and the former Rwandan elite being educated in French schools.
After the genocide in 1994, a large number of Rwandans who had lived in exile in neighbouring Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, all of which English-speaking Commonwealth countries, flooded into Rwanda, and sought to change the language of administration and education from French to English.
In addition Rwanda joined the East African Community in 2007, the main languages of which are English and Swahili, in order to promote greater regional integration.
Rwanda became the 54th nation to join the Commonwealth at the 2009 CHOGM to forge closer ties with the wider English-speaking world.
But even before formally being admitted to the Commonwealth the English had been added to the list of official languages.
Government officials learned English. Many university lectures were conducted in English. Some media organizations introduced English as medium of communication.
The British Council in Kigali offered free consultancy and financed the transition, both directly and indirectly.
Street names, such as Avenue Paul VI, were replaced with Kinyarwanda names and numbers. The parliament at some point discussed shifting from Right Hand Drive to Left Hand Drive, but agreed it was too costly and made no economic sense.
Apparently, the RPF did not want to be monopolized and dictated upon by the Francophonie through Paris. So they lobbied Canada, Australia, Nigeria, South Africa and many more to exit the Francophonie family and join the Anglophone family.
East African allies also played a major role. At the time Rwanda was formally admitted into the Commonwealth Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was chairman (2007 to 2009). In fact, as Uganda hosted CHOGM in Kampala in 2007, President Kagame attended as an observer.
Many in the European mainstream media, NGOs, and the academia were up in arms against Rwanda’s membership into the Commonwealth. But above all, France was on the receiving end of humiliation.
The plan in Kigali however, was to keep one foot in the French maiden grouping – La Francophonie.
This was not just a slap at Paris but a coup. France had been Rwanda’s master for three decades. After securing membership into the commonwealth group, businesses from Paris dried away.
Kagame’s game plan
Rwanda is hosting CHOGM in June unless the second wave of Covid 19 worsens. And automatically Rwanda will become the chair of Commonwealth. CHOGM was to be held in Kagali in 2020 but unfortunately East Africa was at the peak of Covid 19.
The Commonwealth meeting will take place about a month after French President Emmanuel Macron visiting Rwanda.
But also Rwanda will be playing a crucial role in organizing the 50th anniversary of the International Organization of La Francophonie (IOF), an organization of 88 French-speaking nations, in November, during the summit organised on the island of Djerba, in Tunisia. Former Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo is the Secretary General of La Francophonie.
Rwanda’s president has also announced his plans to exempt from visa requirements foreign nationals from member states of the Commonwealth of Nations, the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) and the African Union. The move allows him to play the African integration card while also keeping British and French powers finely balanced.
However, what is clear is that Kagame may pay more allegiance to France as long as Paris unlocks its money taps to bankroll Kagali’s frail economy. Kagame’s more frustrated with the nosy British and Americans that are always questioning his human rights record and democratic tenets.
Paris has made a major strategic push for influence and commercial success in Africa in recent years, and Kagame is an influential actor on the continent. It is therefore likely that France will help Kagame overcome all his shortcomings.
Macron is also expected to name a new ambassador to Rwanda, the first accredited French envoy since 2015.
Why Kagame, Macron now?
Unlike other leaders of western countries, Macron is prepared to overlook Kagame’s dark human rights record for long term benefits.
Kagame has been repulsive and intolerant to “outsiders” that interfere in what he’s doing in Rwanda. He’s been very tough on western media in particular, most especially those who accuse him of human rights violations.
So Kagame will be glad to work with an ally that is not obsessed with Rwanda’s internal governance methods.
Secondly, of late Rwanda has developed serious disputes with neighbours that may not to be resolved soon.
Yet the theatre of conflict with these neighbours is likely to shift to the Democratic Republic of Congo that has become a sanctuary of different rebel groups. Kigali accuses Burundi and Uganda of sponsoring Rwandan rebels, including the FDLR and RNC.
For their part, Burundian officials accuse Kigali of supporting the South Kivu-based Burundian rebel group, RED-Tabara, a claim that Rwanda rejects. After the May 2015 aborted coup plot, Bujumbura said its perpetrators like General Godefroid Niyombare and many other opposition leaders who allegedly played a direct or indirect role in it, enjoy shelter provided by Rwandan authorities.
And Uganda claims Rwanda supports ADF, its rebels based in DRC.
These accusations and counter accusations have resulted into bitter border disputes. An attempt was briefly made by Burundi and Rwanda to revive working relations when intelligence and military chiefs and foreign affairs ministers of the two countries met. But it stopped at that.
For Uganda and Rwanda, the border between them remains closed since 2019.
However, Uganda and Kenya have officially announced deployment of troops to the jungles of the DR Congo at the invitation of President Felix Tshisekedi. Rwanda and Burundi also have military presence in DRC, which they have denied.
Therefore the current state of affairs worries Rwanda. Embracing France at this point seems the right thing for Kagame to do. Macron’s foreign policy in Africa is to reclaim France’s former colonies and protect them. Therefore, shielding Rwanda from her enemies is a role France would gladly play.