French President Emmanuel Macron visited Rwanda from 27-28 May 2021 as part of his charm offensive to win over Francophone Africa. While visiting The Kigali Genocide Memorial, where the remains of 250,000 Tutsi victims of the 1994 Rwandan genocide are interred, Macron made headlines around the world when he said:

“France has a role, a history and a political responsibility in Rwanda. It has a duty: it must look history in the face and recognise the share of suffering that it inflicted itself on the Rwandan people by opting for too long to keep silent instead of examining the truth.”

Emmanuel Macron. 27 May 2021. Rwanda

Macron made it clear that this statement was not an apology because France “had not been complicit in the 1994 genocide”. This distinction was not lost on the President of IBUKA, the non-government association whose mandate is to preserve the memory of the genocide and defend rights and interests of survivors. Egide Nkuranga was disappointed that Macron’s words had not met expectations. However, President Paul Kagame acknowledged that the truth was “more valuable than an apology.”

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Macron at The Kigali Genocide Memorial on 27 May 2021. Photo credit: Jean Bizimana, Reuters.

One Twitter user, @Amine19O, said: “Macron is the first French President who has figured out that they have completely lost any influence on Rwanda. He arrived there yesterday and finally recognised the 1994 genocide. A cheap attempt to win them back”

FRANCE’S ROLE IN THE RWANDAN GENOCIDE

Even though Rwanda was colonised by Germany (1884-1916) and Belgium (1916-1962), it was France that established itself as the biggest donor in the 1970s by providing both development and military assistance. The relationship intensified in 1989 after the fall of the Berlin Wall when French President Francois Mitterrand changed the French foreign policy by linking economic assistance to the spread of multiparty democracy in Africa. 

Mitterrand was a close ally of the Hutu Major General Juvénal Habyarimana, who served as President of Rwanda from 1973 – 1994. The Dulclert Commission, which was tasked with investigating France’s role in Rwanda from the start of the Rwandan Civil War in 1990 until the genocide (7 April – 15 July 1994), found that Mitterrand had a “strong, personal and direct relationship with the Rwandan head of state…[which meant that]…requests to protect and defend the Rwandan president are always relayed, heard and given priority”. 

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Paul Kagame led the RPF to victory with an army that was better trained, equipped and disciplined that the Hutu-led military in 1994. Photo credit: unknown

When the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded Rwanda from neighbouring Uganda, Mitterrand viewed this as an example of Fashoda, the need to reassert French influence in countries susceptible to British influence, and doubled down his support of the Hutu-led government. The RPF was backed by Uganda who were in turn received support from the United States. At the height of the Rwandan Civil war in 1991, Uganda spent 10 times more on US weapons that year than it had in the previous 40 years combined. 

The Dulcert Commission found that the Mitterand government had turned a blind eye to warnings from French diplomats and military on the ground that a massacre was imminent. The CIA also sent warnings in January 1994 about ethnic cleansing that would kill hundreds of thousands of Tutsis. When the genocide started on 7 April 1994, European and American troops evacuated their citizens and left defenceless the Tutsi to fend for themselves until the RPF took control of the country.

France did intervene when it led a UN Security Council sanctioned operation from 22 June to 21 August 1994. Operation Turquoise was greeted with suspicion as a military operation disguised as humanitarian assistance, though the Dulclert Commission cleared the French of any wrongdoing. The French were accused of allowing the killing of Tutsis to continue for more than three weeks after they had arrived and supposedly secured part of the country and for letting the Hutu militia escape to the Democratic Republic of Congo where they continue to pose a security threat to this day. Some militia were given safe passage to France where they live freely.

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The French at a Hutu refugee camp in July 1994. Photo credit: BBC

Tensions between Rwanda and France have remained tense since 1994 and diplomatic ties were severed in 2006 after French anti-terrorism magistrate, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, sought an international arrest warrant for Kagame for assassinating Habyarimana which triggered the genocide. Relations started to improve after Nicholas Sarzoky visited Rwanda in 2010 and Kagame has visited France at least five times since 2010.

Macron is trying to make amends and restore French influence over Rwanda. But there is much work to rebuild the trust and the motives may be driven more by economic gain than an atonement of sin.

FRANCE’S BUSINESS INTEREST IN RWANDA

Macron’s delegation to Rwanda included 15 business leaders such as Ivorian-French heavy-weight, Tidjane Thiam, who is the Board Chairman of Rwanda Finance Limited, the developers of the Kigali International Finance Centre (KIFC). Thiam is a scion of prominent political families in Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire and internationally known as the former CEO of Credit Suisse and Prudential.

Other companies in the delegation included: Egis, an engineering company that works in road and airport operations; Eutelsat, the third-largest satellite operator in the world; M2i Life Sciences, which provides sustainable technologies for agriculture and health; Hydroneo, which develops, finances, builds and operates small and medium-sized renewable energy plants; and, Tactis, which deploys broadband, 4G and 5G mobile networks. 

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Rwanda is one of the fastest growing economies in Africa and ranked 38th on the Doing Business index (2020)

WILL FRANCE ACHIEVE ITS GOAL IN RWANDA?

In November 2017 and amid much fanfare during his first visit to Burkina Faso, Emmanuel Macron promised that France would return some of the precious African artefacts that are housed in museums such as the Musee du quai Branly. Since then France has agreed to return an underwhelming 26 artefacts out of 90,000. 

Will Macron’s trigger an investment boom for French companies that will overtake Portugal, the UK, India and the UAE as the leading investors in Rwanda? Only time will tell. 

© 2021 Muloongo Muchelemba. All Rights Reserved

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