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Francophonie chief rekindles France-Rwanda ties

Rwanda's Louise Mushikiwabo, September 2018, New York.
Rwanda's Louise Mushikiwabo, September 2018, New York. Ludovic MARIN / AFP

A week to this day, Rwanda’s ex-foreign minister Louise Mushikiwabo was chosen to lead the International Organisation of La Francophonie (OIF). A favourite for the job after receiving the strong backing of France, her appointment has rekindled relations between Kigali and Paris after two decades of conflict.


It took months of lobbying by France, and numerous trips to francophone African countries by Louise Mushikiwabo for Rwanda to secure the leadership of the La Francophonie organization (OIF) on 12 October. Still, Kigali remains a controversial choice.

"The French language doesn’t exist here,” says Laurent Munyandilikirwa, head of Rwanda’s Observatory of human rights.

“Only adults and those who came from Congo and Burundi speak French. Young people don't know the language. Everywhere the language of business, and schools is English," he told RFI.

A decade ago, Kigali scrapped French as the official language and replaced it with English, alongside the country’s first language, Kinyarwanda.

A year later in 2009 it joined the Commonwealth.

“People should understand that multilingualism is not an enemy of the Francophonie,” comments Olivier Nduhungirehe, Rwanda’s secretary of state for foreign affairs.

“Rwanda is a francophone country since the creation of this organisation in 1970. We never left the Francophonie, French as a language is taught in schools. So it is wrong to say that French is in bad shape in Rwanda,” he told RFI.

Yet in 2014 it was. The distinctive image of Rwandan authorities tearing down the French cultural center in Kigali with a bulldozer, is testament to that.

“They destroyed the French cultural center, now they want to destroy La Francophonie,” laments Munyandilikirwa.

New chapter

However, new Francophonie chief Mushikiwabo told AFP during an interview in July that the idea Rwanda was rejecting French was a "misinterpretation," arising from tense diplomatic relations.

Kigali has long accused France of complicity in the 1994 genocide that killed at least 880,000 people, mostly Tutsis.

Mushikiwabo, a Tutsi herself, was living in the United States at the time and avoided the massacre, but lost several of her relatives, including her brother. An experience which would mark her profoundly.

"There's been such bad blood between them stemming from France’s constant refusal to acknowledge and account for its own complicity in the Rwandan genocide,” explains Phil Clark, a reader in Comparative and International Politics at SOAS University in London.

“So, this has been a particularly tumultuous period for relations between these two countries,” he told RFI.

Things began to improve in May this year after a summit between presidents Paul Kagame and Emmanuel Macron, at the end of which Kagame announced in English that Mushikiwabo would be running for the top job.

"The language coming out of that summit was much more pragmatic, it was much friendlier,” comments Clark, saying “this new kind of pragmatic diplomacy was an important dimension to Mushikiwabo going for this position.”

Her victory is seen as a welcome balm for soothing years of fraught relations.

As Rwanda’s former foreign affairs minister, the 57-year old has significant experience when it comes to diplomacy, reckons Clark.

“She’s extremely popular. In Rwanda, she’s often been talked about as a possible successor to Kagame for the presidency,” he said, adding that internationally, Mushikiwabo is also an “extremely effective operator.”

Shelving the past

A point of view shared by Rwanda’s secretary of state, Olivier Nduhungirehe.

“Since Mushikiwabo is well appreciated in Africa, who easily got the endorsement of the African Union, I don't think it’s really surprising despite our past relationship with France that President Macron supported the candidacy of Louise Mushikiwabo.”

He refers to comments made by Macron earlier this year, in which the president expressed his desire to see “the heart of the Francophonie somewhere near the river Congo or in Central Africa."

Yet this “strong African diplomat” will be bedeviled by Rwanda’s human rights record, where political space and dissent are limited, warns Clark.

“She will constantly be asked about the human rights record and the state of democracy back in Rwanda and why perhaps she hasn’t been able to help tilt the country in a different direction since she became Foreign Minister.”

Rwanda’s secretary of state, Nduhungirehe, whose surname in Kinyarwanda means 'to escape death,' brushes such criticisms aside.

“She’s a very determined lady who has a programme for the Francophonie, especially to promote the French language, to promote experience sharing between Francophone countries”, he says.

Investigation dropped

French prosecutors on Saturday requested that a probe into the deadly 1994 attack on former Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana, which sparked the country's genocide, be dropped.

The long-running probe has been a major source of tension between the two countries, following accusations that a Tutsi militia headed by current Rwandan President Paul Kagame shot down the plane of his rival Juvenal Habyarimana.

“We will of course deal with the two issues separately,” comments Nduhungirehe, insisting that La Francophonie and Kigali’s relations with Paris are two distinct things.

“We have our bilateral relationship to continue improving, and this has started," particularly on the role of French officials and officers in the genocide. "This is a matter that we will continue discussing bilaterally between France and Rwanda,” he said, before concluding, “of course I don't disagree on the fact that France supporting the candidacy of Louise Mushikiwabo for the Francophonie (…) is a good sign that our relationship will improve even more.”

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