Rwandan rifts in La Francafrique

Andrew Wallis
14 December 2006

When Dominic Decherf, French ambassador to Rwanda, pulled shut the door of his embassy in Kigali and locked up for the final time last week, expelled from the tiny central African country, seasoned observers of French-Rwandan relations expressed little surprise. The only shock was that diplomatic relations between Paris and Kigali had been, on the surface at least, cordial for so long.

The rift began when French judge Jean-Louis Bruguière called for Rwandan president Paul Kagame to be tried for planning the killing of his predecessor Juvénal Habyarimana in 1994, and issued arrest warrants for nine senior Rwandan officials. Habyarimana's assassination in a rocket attack on his plane was a trigger for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and is under investigation by a French enquiry. Kagame has responded to Bruguière's allegations by severing diplomatic ties and reasserting France's implication in the genocide.

This latest eruption of enmity has its bitter roots in sixteen years of conflict. The battle between Kagame and the French government is symptomatic of Paris's deep-seated desire to hold on to "La Francafrique", and of an African president's determination to break free from the strictures of francophone ties.

Paul Kagame took over the effective leadership of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in 1990. The aim of his Tutsi dominated army was a return to their Rwandan homeland. Then president Juvénal Habyarimana had, for seventeen years since seizing power in 1973, refused to countenance any return for Tutsi refugees who had fled to neighbouring countries after the pogroms of the 1960s.

Habyarimana was a key personal and political ally of the French president François Mitterrand, in a relationship built on mutual ambition and interest. Despite having been a Belgian colony, by 1990 Rwanda was a fully-fledged member of "La Francafrique".

The RPF invasion in October of that year threatened this comfortable existence, but more critically, was viewed by Paris as a possible thin end of the wedge. Kagame stood for everything the military and political hardliners in Paris most disliked. He was an English speaker, trained in America, and an ally of the Anglophone Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni.

As a result, the RPF were vilified by high-ranking French military figures as a "terrorist" bunch of foreigners from Uganda, and likened to the "Khmer noir". The spectre of the Fashoda incident, when the French government "sold out" to the British in Sudan in 1898 and conceded strategic influence over the colonized African continent, still haunted the conservative Africanists in Paris.

Rwanda was viewed as a vital part of La Francafrique. Mitterrand's adviser Hubert Vedrine told the 1998 National Assembly inquiry that "Mitterrand estimated that France had to assume a global engagement of security ... It was considered that it would only take one of these regimes to be overthrown, especially if it was a minority and supported by the army of a neighbouring country, to be enough to create a chain reaction that would compromise the security of all the countries bound to France and to discredit the French guarantee."

Andrew Wallis is a freelance journalist, and researcher with the Department of Peace Studies at Bradford University. He has traveled widely in central and East Africa, and is the author of Silent Accomplice: The Untold Story of the Role of France in the Rwandan genocide (I.B.Tauris, November 2006)

Also on Rwanda in openDemocracy:

Caroline Moorehead, "The story of Aman B." (23 January 2002)

Caroline Moorehead, "B.E.: the price of loyalty"
(25 March 2003)

Caspar Henderson, "Rwanda, Sudan and beyond: lessons from Africa" (7 April 2004)

Alfredo Jaar, "The Rwanda Project: 1994–2000"
(3 April 2006)

Duncan Woodside, "Shooting Dogs:Rwanda's genocide through European eyes" (7 April 2006)

It became clear within hours of the RPF invasion in October 1990 that Habyarimana would be backed to the hilt in his battle for power. Elite French paratroops were sent into Rwanda to keep the RPF at bay, in one of sixteen non-UN mandated military interventions by Paris in Africa between 1960 and 1994.

Officially France sent more than $25 million worth of arms to Rwanda between 1990 and 1993, as well as providing army trainers to motivate and advise Habyarimana's army. Witnesses have recently testified that the French were also involved assisting with the newly formed youth militia, which were later to carry out the bulk of the genocide.

Kagame hit back at Paris, voicing concern that the French were keeping a government in power that was responsible for numerous massacres, oppression, and corruption. An RPF press release in February 1993 accused Mitterrand of continuing to sustain President Habyarimana's resistance to a peaceful negotiated settlement: "Once again we remind the international community that these French troops not only participate in the president's efforts to make war but also train the security agents who are responsible for the genocide that has been taking place in Rwanda."

When, in April 1994, Habyarimana was assassinated, and the carefully planned genocide was immediately set in motion, relations between Paris and Kagame sank to a new low. Despite evacuating its nationals from Rwanda, Paris made clear its support for the new interim regime - despite Mitterrand himself terming them a "bunch of killers". There is evidence that diplomatic, military and financial aid continued to flow, albeit in a more secretive manner, despite the knowledge of the appalling genocide taking place.

Then foreign minister Alain Juppé was in fact the first politician to use the term "genocide" in reference to events in Rwanda in May 1994, though he went on to confuse who was killing whom, and to blame both sides for the slaughter. This double genocide myth was repeated as recently as two years ago on French radio by now prime minister Dominique de Villepin.

In late June 1994 Mitterrand launched Operation Turquoise as a "humanitarian" intervention to protect Tutsis. While it undoubtedly saved around 10,000 lives, it also allowed fully armed genocidaire to escape over the border into Zaire, from where they were to relaunch attacks on the newly installed Kagame government.

Such attacks, which independent NGO's said were partly financed and aided by French operatives, were a constant continued source of tension between Paris and Kagame's new government of reconciliation. Mitterrand went further, to block desperately needed EU aid to the devastated country, and banned Rwanda from the Franco-African meeting of 35 leaders at Biarritz in November 1994. In an earlier show of hostility, the French ambassador had publicly walked out of an international conference of 150 delegates at the Hague in September when the new Hutu moderate president Pasteur Bizimungu got up to speak. It had been called to discuss reconciliation and rehabilitation in Rwanda.

Between 1995 and 2003 the countries' relations began to "normalize" as the conservative "old guard" at the Elysée changed to some extent. Media pressure in France led to a National Assembly inquiry into the French role in Rwanda, which produced important evidence and witnesses. Former ministers such as Édouard Balladur and Alain Juppé vehemently denied anything but honorable motives in their policy. However, Kagame condemned its conclusions as an unsurprising whitewash given that the French government was investigating itself.

The genocide's tenth anniversary in 2004 was again greeted with a very public rift between Paris and Kigali. A police report for Jean-Louis Bruguière, accusing Kagame of assassinating his predecessor, was leaked to the press. Kagame responded by condemning France for attempting to cover up its own complicity in helping the genocidaire.

One year later there seemed to be a brief move by Paris towards trying to normalise its relations with Kagame. Ambassador Dominique Decherf commented on work being done to clarify France's exact responsibility. "There is no denial of the responsibility in principle, we have to see through the historical truth and what exactly is the extent of the responsibility ... this is a political move."

The thaw in relations has lasted barely a year. The official release of Bruguière's report has been timed to head off imminent bad news by Paris, according to French commentators such as human rights group Survie. It seems the government's worries stem from the trial of alleged genocide mastermind Théoneste Bagosora at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, and the calling of four French military and political figures in his defence. Added to this, a specially set up commission by Kagame's government to hear accounts of French complicity in the genocide is also due to issue what could be an explosive report early in 2007.

Bruguière has chosen this moment to release his eight-year report, with depositions from RPF defectors and French military witnesses, alleging that Kagame was the man behind the assassination of Habyarimana. The French government has insisted that the report is thoroughly independent and unbiased, but there is concern that it is being used for political reasons and lacks hard evidence to back up the allegations. As in 2004, Kagame has responded that France is just trying to cover up their complicity in genocide.

It is unlikely, until the dust has settled from the Bagosora trial and Rwandan commission findings, that France will be welcomed back into a country that was so firmly a part of La Francafrique twelve years ago. Given the personal animosity and history between Paul Kagame and the Elysée it remains to be seen if even a change of president in Paris will be enough to turn this relationship around. With Kagame's visit to London last week to cement ever closer ties with the UK, now Rwanda's chief investor, the chances of the tiny African country returning to the francophonie fold seem remote.

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