Have Rwanda, France finally buried the hatchet?

Saturday May 26 2018

Rwandan President Paul Kagame and French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France on May 23, 2018. PHOTO | URUGWIRO

Rwandan President Paul Kagame and French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France on May 23, 2018. PHOTO | URUGWIRO 

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The visit by Rwandan President Paul Kagame to France last week has been billed as the beginning of a new era in bilateral relationships between the two countries, whose relations have been rocky.

The visit, which coincided with an international conference on technology bringing together start-ups and investors at the Elysee Palace, which Mr Kagame attended, was unique in a number of ways.

First was the fact of a youthful president of France who carries far less baggage in all matters Rwandan than the French Old Guard who served in the administration of the late Francois Mitterrand.

That is the cohort that Kigali accuses of having played a key role in the Genocide against the Tutsis by supporting and militarily aiding the Juvenal Habyarimana regime which perpetrated one of the 20th century’s worst atrocities.

President Emmanuel Macron was 15 when the genocide was raging in mid-1994.

His age — as a breath of fresh air after the likes of French Presidents Mitterrand, Jacques Chirac, even the more conciliatory Nicolas Sarkozy as well as Francois Hollande. If one were looking for a leader who represents a clean break with the past, then it is Macron.


Real influence

From the point of view of Rwanda, “Macron’s untainted past” is likely to boost efforts to permanently mend relationships between the two nations.

“It looks like a new era in Rwanda-France relationships is coming,” said Meuilleur Murindabigwi, editor of Kinyarwanda language news website, igihe.com.

“Since the departure of Sarkozy in 2012, no further steps were taken to improve relationships, but the youthful Macron shows many signs of taking things well beyond where Sarkozy left them,” said Mr Murindabigwi.

Mr Sarkozy’s successor, Francois Hollande, was notable for his lack of interest in relationships between France and Rwanda.

And now Mr Macron, in signalling how serious he is about normalising bilateral relations, has done something that, until now, would have been unimaginable coming from a president of France.

He is backing the candidature of Rwanda’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Louise Mushikiwabo, to be secretary-general of the influential International Organisation of the Francophonie (OIM), the French-speaking world’s answer to the British Commonwealth.

The brief of the head of the OIM is to promote the interests of French-speaking countries, and by extension advance those of France, in culture, language, and economic cooperation that invariably is described as skewed in favour of France.

A Rwandan, and indeed someone like Mushikiwabo who speaks French like a native, would not be the first choice person expected to promote the interests of France.

The enmity, the accusations and counter-accusations of genocide and crimes against humanity, the intense mutual distrust that have largely characterised dealings between the two states would make a candidacy like Ms Mushikiwabo’s a non-starter.

But in endorsing the Rwandan, Macron may have been calculating beyond a mere show of conciliation.

The French leader knows that his Rwandan counterpart has, over the years, built real influence, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, and now that he chairs the AU his influence is even greater.

As chairman of the African Union, President Kagame’s stance on financing peacekeeping operations, and the continental body are of interest to Elysee, said Radio France International.


The broadcaster was alluding to the Rwandan president’s approach to the AU weaning itself off dependency on the West, beginning with the running of its immediate affairs.

One of Kagame’s reform proposals is for each African country to deduct 0.2 per cent of its income from eligible imports and contribute it to the AU Commission.

President Macron also leads a France that finally looks ready to move on from a past where it wielded outsized influence on the African continent, to one where realities dictate it change in a mentality that was long informed by colonial era master-servant relationships.

Mr Macron seems to be the man of the moment; one who recognises that the heydays of the Cold War era when European power dictated policy willy-nilly in Francophone Africa are long gone, and the wiser counsel now is to engage on more equal terms.

President Kagame said: “This partnership presents a new mindset on how we need to collectively address issues and each maintain ownership on ensuring the outcomes of the partnership benefit us all.”

It also was apparent that the theme of self-reliance through trade partnerships, and efforts to tap African innovation in information technology and other modern industries to grow the continent’s economies was integral to the agenda of the day.

In this latest meeting between leaders of the two countries, the hatchet was buried as the issues responsible for the usually strained relationship between them did not come up.

The Rwandan administration has often accused France of complicity in the 1994 Genocide of the Tutsis. Paris has lashed out in retaliation every now and then.

France’s continued refusal to do anything about dozens of Rwandan suspects of the genocide resident on its territory has particularly irked Kigali. To date, Rwanda has issued 42 arrest warrants against the suspects but the French have acted on only three of them.

Overcoming the acrimony will not disappear overnight. But the terms and tenor of the recent meeting between Presidents Kagame and Macron indicate real progress could be on the way. Finally.