Rwanda faces the daunting task of balancing its strategic interests abroad, specifically between Francophone and Anglophone blocs, as its Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo assumes the leadership of the International Organisation of the Francophonie (OIF).
The organisation brings together 54 countries and regional governments, representing 274 million speakers of French around the world.
Ms Mushikiwabo was elected on Friday as the Secretary General in Yerevan, Armenia, at the 17th Summit of the OIF. She is replacing Michaëlle Jean, a Canadian of Haitian descent, who in 2014 became the first woman and non-African to head the organisation.
Ms Mushikiwabo’s election came after intense lobbying by Rwanda, from 2013 when it initiated a campaign to rejoin the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), six years after it pulled out of the regional bloc. It was formally readmitted in 2016.
ECCAS is a regional community of 11 central African states — Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Sao Tome & Principe and Rwanda.
At the time, Rwanda argued that it was necessary to end its membership of ECCAS in 2007, to allow it to focus on the East African Community, which it had just joined, and avoid overlapping memberships.
Since then, Rwanda has actively revived bilateral relations with several French-speaking countries in Central and West Africa, with national carrier RwandAir launching regular flights to Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon and Cameroon. Trade and business missions have also been organised for the local private sector.
Analysts link Ms Mushikiwabo’s successful bid to France’s backing, specifically under President Emmanuel Macron who is seen to be keen to restore relations between the two countries that have remained tense with Rwanda insisting that France should admit to its active role in the Genocide against the Tutsi.
Despite Ms Mushikiwabo’s successful bid, France’s role in the genocide is expected to continue haunting the relationship between the two countries as it is a fundamental issue that remains unresolved.
Analysts say France is using Rwanda to advance its interests in Africa.
“France has long used the OIF as a tool to defend its interests overseas. Under François Hollande, France let Canada take centre stage, opening the door to Michaëlle Jean's candidacy — but Macron is taking back control,” French analyst and commentator Antoine Glaser, told French television France 24.
“And so, in supporting Mushikiwabo, he [Macron] is killing two birds with one stone. Not only is he restoring ties between France and Rwanda — he’s also ensuring that control of the OIF goes back to Africa, so that the task of safeguarding French interests goes through African leaders. It’s a masterstroke worthy of a chess champion.”
Critics opposed to Ms Mushikiwabo’s candidacy had pointed out the declining use of French in Rwanda, as well as the country’s human rights record and lack of political space and freedom of expression. But Rwanda continuously rebuffed the accusations.
French media referred to the 2014 demolition of the French-Rwanda Cultural Centre as a sign of Kigali’s loss of interest in the language and culture.
Christophe Deloire, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders, said on Thursday that “Francophonie’s ability to defend free press is at stake” with the Rwandan candidate taking over. The media watchdog has over the years criticised Rwanda’s press freedom record.
Other analysts link Ms Mushikiwabo’s successful bid to Rwanda’s foreign policy focused on increasing its global influence.
This year, the country declared its intention to join the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development mainly to lobby for private investment. If admitted, it would be the first African country to be accepted into the European-rich club membership.
Given that OIF is not a strong influential organisation on the global stage, Rwanda is expected to use Ms Mushikiwabo’s position to advance its strategic interests, including pursuing Genocide fugitives who remain at large in some OIF member countries.
It is also expected to promote Rwanda as an investment and tourism destination as its national carrier RwandAir is targeting expanding its footprint mainly in West and Central Africa.
However, Rwanda’s renewed interest in French Africa has sparked debate as to whether the country would going back to its roots despite having joined the English speaking community of the Commonwealth in 2009.
The country has since maintained three official languages — Kinyarwanda, English and French.