Last week, Rwanda added Kiswahili to its list of official languages, further diluting the influence of French in the East African region. There are strong practical reasons for these actions, but it also has a lot to do with reducing the influence of France in the Rwandan state. For decades, France has sought to maintain its sphere of influence on Rwanda and other African nations in a self-serving policy termed ‘Françafrique’. France has remained belligerent about the consequences of its foreign policy in the past and as recently as 6 months ago, provoked the Rwandan government by re-opening an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Rwandan president Habyarimana. As Rwanda symbolically distances itself from the francophone club, Rupert Wilkinson re-examines the European country’s role in the 1994 genocide.
In October 2016, French investigators re-opened a probe into the 1994 assassination of the Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana. Habyarimana's death is recognised as the catalyst for the country’s genocide; making the circumstances of his assassination a significant, and contentious, point. The Rwandan government was quick to react with anger at the news, with President Paul Kagame claiming that: "it should be France in the dock being tried, not anybody in Rwanda and not Rwandans". Kagame's reaction may seem purely self-serving, given that the has previously been accused of involvement in Habyarimana's assassination, but to dismiss his comments on this basis would be to overlook the fact that France is certainly no innocent party.
France has before held an internal investigation into its own involvement in the genocide. This report broadly exonerated France of all wrongdoing, included no apology and conceded that only "errors of judgement" were made. Post-genocide, it took over 10 years for the country's head-of-state to visit Rwanda. Still, the two nations maintain frosty relations, and questions about France’s involvement and knowledge of the genocide remain.
France’s involvement in Rwanda is rooted in the country’s strategy for maintaining international power and prestige; a policy known as ‘françafrique’. France works hard to maintain good relations with many French-speaking countries in Africa, and offers substantial aid packages to African regimes. In turn, it can rely on support from them in the UN and other international fora. Although Rwanda was originally colonised by Belgium, the country came to be seen by France as part of its francophone sphere of influence.
Following independence in 1962, France continued to invest heavily in Rwanda, giving political and financial backing to a series of governments, including the Habyarimana regime. Backing continued even despite a rule that increasingly implemented Hutu chauvinism and policies that severely discriminated against Tutsis.
As the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) insurrection grew, France stepped up its involvement to combat the threat to Habyarimana’s regime. Between 1990 and 1994, Paris supplied millions of dollars’ worth of weapons and training to Rwandan government-backed troops. It used its own intelligence and security services to assist the regime, and granted it political support in international fora.
Recently released material lays out a clear explanation for this behaviour. The RPF was supported by the United States and operated out of Ugandan territory. According to these documents, the French government considered the RPF invasion of Rwanda as aggression by an Anglophone neighbour on a Francophone state. The RPF was seen as part of an Anglophone plot involving Uganda, to split Rwanda and create an English-speaking 'Tutsi-land'. The bottom line of this was that regionally, it would increase US/UK influence at France’s expense.
In 1994, as the situation worsened and the reality of genocide became more apparent, the French military launched 'Operation Amaryllis'. This action involved 190 French paratroopers who, together with Belgian forces, aimed to evacuate expatriates and high-ranking officials from Rwanda. The operation was later described as a disgrace; the evacuation was not concerned with Tutsi civilians and there are accusations that those who boarded trucks for evacuation were forced off at government checkpoints and killed by Hutu militia. These go on to claim French forces separated expatriates and children from their Tutsi spouses; rescuing foreigners but leaving Tutsis to their fate.
The few Rwandans who were rescued by Amaryllis were, overwhelmingly, Hutu. Their numbers included several high-profile members of Habyarimana's government, as well as the ex-President’s wife. As France abandoned its embassy in Kigali, they shredded hundreds of documents containing the full details of their relationship and cooperation with the Rwandan government.
While the genocide continued in Rwanda, a stalemate had emerged in the UN on what action should be taken. While Britain and the US both resisted the deployment of peacekeeping forces, France pushed hard. Eventually a settlement was reached, with French troops leading a UN Peacekeeping mission to create a safe zone for refugees; it became known as Operation Turquoise. Official reports by the UN have suggested that this action saved the lives of some 15,000 Rwandans, but the circumstances around this deployment are very significant.
France's intervention came at a very late point in the genocide, and this led many Rwandans to see French forces as only there to protect the Hutu population from Tutsi recriminations. French troops remained hostile to the RPF, and their deployment into the country halted the rebel group’s advance. The presence of the French military effectively helped many of the groups who had taken part in the genocide. Perpetrators were given time to escape the RPF and flee the country into neighbouring DRC (then Zaire).
As the genocide and civil war concluded, the RPF gained full control of the state and Paul Kagame became the country's de facto leader. While France's involvement was designed to maintain its own power and influence in the region, it has ultimately had the opposite effect. Rwanda has repeatedly broken diplomatic relations with France, shutting down all French institutions in the country, including schools and cultural organisations.
As a final insult to Paris, the Rwandan government has strived to dilute the influence of the French language within the country. Bringing itself in line with its’ eastern neighbours, Rwanda switched the language of instruction in primary schools from French to English, and then in February this year, it recognised Swahili as an official national language. The country has also made moves to align itself with France’s old rival, Britain, and has recently joined the British-led Commonwealth of Nations.
Rupert Wilkinson is a former student of SOAS University and aspiring misanthrope. Follow him on Twitter @nutstothis or contact him for more information.