France and Rwanda aim to definitively turn the page on a quarter century of tensions as President Emmanuel Macron visits Kigali on Thursday to commemorate the victims of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Macron, who arrived early Thursday, is the first French leader since 2010 to visit the East African country, which has long accused France of complicity in the mass killings of Rwandan Tutsis.
Years of mutual finger-pointing came to an abrupt halt in March when a commission appointed by Macron returned a damning indictment of France's role in the bloodshed.
In findings accepted by the French government, the historians accused Paris, which had close ties to the ethnic Hutu regime behind the massacres, of being "blind" to preparations for the genocide and said it bore "serious and overwhelming" responsibility.
The commission found no proof, however, of French complicity in the bloodshed.
During his Kigali tour, President Macron’s first stop will be the Kigali Genocide Memorial which is home to remains of over 250,000 people victims of the Genocide Against the Tutsi.
While both countries are keen to forge ahead, survivors of the Genocide against the Tutsi maintain that France should apologise for its role and offer reparation.
In addition, survivors hope that France will stop offering a safe haven to genocide fugitives including Agathe Kanziga Habyarimana, the widow of former President Juvénal Habyarimana and a central figure in a powerful group known as the akazu, mostly made up of close relatives and influential Hutu extremists accused of planning and executing the Genocide against the Tutsi.
This follows the recent release of the years-long investigation by US law firm Levy Firestone Muse commissioned by the government of Rwanda in 2017 which concluded that France “bears significant responsibility” for enabling the Genocide against the Tutsi.
It followed the French government inquiry, led by French historian Vincent Duclert, which concluded that France bears “heavy and overwhelming responsibilities” for being “blind” to the planning of the Genocide against the Tutsi.
Egide Nkuranga, President of Ibuka, an umbrella body of associations that support genocide survivors, told The EastAfrican that they expect President Macron to acknowledge the evidence highlighted in the Duclert report.
“We expect the report to be just a beginning of a deeper research on the Genocide against the Tutsi. We expect the report to be evident enough for France to bring to justice genocidaires who are still roaming freely in France,” Mr Nkuranga said.
Apart from fully restoring diplomatic ties, France has recently supported Rwanda’s strategic interests, including backing Rwanda’s efforts at the United Nations Security Council to recognise “Genocide against the Tutsi” as the official reference of the 1994 genocide.
It also backed Ms Louise Mushikiwabo, Rwanda’s Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, to head The International Organisation of the Francophonie (OIF) which brings together countries where French is widely spoken, or which are deemed to have a particular affinity with French culture.
Dr Eric Ndushabandi, a political scientist who has extensively researched on the burden of memory of the Genocide against the Tutsi on diplomatic relations, says President Macron's visit might be more than just mending relations with Rwanda.
“Rwanda is a starting point for France to improve its influence in eastern Africa. Rwanda's economic growth, pragmatic politics, military influence especially in peace keeping, and hailed leadership gives it a good position on the block and a potential ally for France,” Dr Ndushabandi explained.
He added that France has started making symbolic reparations including facilitating the recent Duclert report and Macron's visit to Kigali.
On a visit to France last week, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who at one point broke off relations with France, said the report had paved the way for France and Rwanda to have "a good relationship."
Ahead of Macron's visit to Kigali, both sides spoke enthusiastically of a "normalisation" of ties.
French officials say Macron could also use the visit to name an ambassador to Rwanda, filling a post left vacant since 2015.
John Ruku-Rwabyoma, a member of the Rwandan parliament and Foreign Affairs Parliamentary Committee, describes Rwanda-France relations as “important” because both countries are trying to turn the page and move on. He expects President Emmanuel Macron's visit to Rwanda to be an important stepping stone for both countries to move forward.
Commenting on critics that say Rwanda is compromising too much with France, Ruku-Rwabyoma said that “there is no price any country can pay to compensate the lives of the victims of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. Turning the page and moving on is a more pragmatic way of improving both countries' relations.”
He expects both countries to have representatives as a result of the visit and renewed relations.
This point was also echoed by Frank Habineza, a member of Parliament and Chairman of Green Party. He sees President Macron's visit as an open window for business and economic relations for both countries.
“This is an opportunity for Rwanda's foreign policy and economy. The Green Party has long requested that Rwanda revises its relations with France because we cannot afford to have an enemy on the permanent seat of the United Nations Security Council,” Dr Habineza said.