Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame doesn’t often speak French. But at the 20th anniversary commemoration of the 1994 genocide on 7 April, he paused a moment during his speech – in English and Kinyarwanda – looked around the packed Amahoro stadium in Kigali and said: ‘Les faits sont tetus’ (facts are stubborn), with a pause for emphasis.
In a clear reference to France, he warned: ‘People cannot be bribed into changing their history. And no country is powerful enough, even when they think that they are, to change the facts.’ Kagame went on to say: ‘The people who planned and carried out the genocide were Rwandans, but the history and root causes go beyond this country. This is why Rwandans continue to seek the most complete explanation possible for what happened.’
In the midst of what is yet another bitter row with France over its role in the genocide, one wonders whether Rwandans will ever know the truth.
On the eve of this week’s commemorations, Kagame again accused France of complicity in the genocide, leading to France’s absence from the solemn ceremony in Kigali. The French ambassador was also barred from laying a wreath for the victims.
Kagame’s accusations came as a surprise to some, since relations between Rwanda and France had somewhat improved since Kagame’s visit to France in 2011. Reconciliation efforts by former president Nicolas Sarkozy now seem in tatters.
Two decades on, the question can be asked why Kagame chose to once again revive the old acrimonious relationship with France. And to what extent do these unresolved issues shape relations between France and Africa?
The slaughter of an estimated 800 000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 100 days, starting on 6 April 1994, was one of the worst tragedies of the 20th century – and certainly Africa’s darkest hour. The outpouring of grief at the ceremony and the numerous testimonies and recollections of the tragedy emphasise this.
Since the genocide, much soul-searching has been done by the international actors concerned. However, many questions remain unanswered about what exactly happened, and the role of international actors like the United Nations (UN), Belgium and France. The spectre of the mistakes made before, during and after the genocide has marked a generation and has shaped foreign policy in many instances. In the past few days, French soldiers, for example, have come forth saying how criticism around the French intervention in Rwanda has shaped their involvement in the Central African Republic (CAR).
Kagame is already at loggerheads with several members of the international community – mainly because of his support for rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), but also because of attacks on dissidents in places like South Africa. Yet, he chose the weekend before the commemorations to attack France and told the Francophone magazine, Jeune Afrique, that France played a ‘direct role in the political preparation of genocide and participation in its execution.’
France has over the years repeatedly denied these accusations. A parliamentary investigation in 1998, led by former minister of defence, Paul Quilès, found that even though France did support and arm the Hutu military of former president Juvénal Habyarimana, it wasn’t directly complicit in the mass slaughter.
This week, high-ranking French officials lashed out against Kagame, with former minister Hubert Vedrine calling the accusations ‘defamatory.’ Alain Juppe, who was the French foreign minister at the time of the genocide, refused to meet Kagame during his visit to France in 2011 and this week again, saying the Rwandan government has a habit of ‘falsifying history.’
Yet over the years numerous books have been written about France’s alleged complicity in the genocide – the most notable being L’inavouable: la France au Rwanda (The unmentionable: France in Rwanda) by award-winning journalist Patrick de Saint-Exupery, published in 2004. This week author Francois Graner told the international cable channel TV5Monde that many documents from French soldiers show that France ‘knew perfectly well what was being prepared in Rwanda’ prior to the genocide. He says in his book, The sabre and the machete: French officers and the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda, that France continued to support the Hutu government in the period shortly after the start of the genocide and the death of Habyarimana in a plane crash on 6 April.
Earlier this week, Guillaume Ancel, a French officer who was part of the controversial Opération Turquoise in Rwanda between June and August 1994, discussed France’s role in the genocide in a radio interview. He claimed that those responsible for the genocide were not only helped out of the country by France to hide in refugee camps in the DRC, but that they had also been paid and had their weapons returned to them. The revelations by Ancel – who was part of the French foreign legion – were dismissed by officials like Vedrine, who insist that Operation Turquoise was a humanitarian operation intended to save lives.
Why is it so important to get to the bottom of the facts concerning France’s role?
David Zounmenou, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), says it is important for France to preserve its image as a country of human rights and to defend its moral high ground. ‘It will take courageous leadership to accept the mistakes of the past and ask for forgiveness for them,’ he says. According to Zounmenou, the roots of the genocide can be found in the excessive emphasis placed on ethnic divisions between Hutus and Tutsis, which was cultivated by former colonial power, Belgium. ‘History hasn’t been kind to Rwanda,’ he says.
For Rwanda and for Kagame it has become important to sustain a certain narrative about what caused the genocide. Consistently blaming outside actors diverts the attention from the internal situation in Rwanda, where Kagame is accused of being increasingly authoritarian.
According to Zounemnou, however, it is crucial that the commemorations – destined to be an outpouring of sympathy and compassion – not be overshadowed by this new row between France and Rwanda.
Unfortunately, in France as in Africa, many of the politicians who were in power at the time are still in place, albeit with different portfolios. ‘The old guard are still there. They don’t want to admit their wrongs,’ says Zounmenou, who believes that both parties should commit to clearing up the facts once and for all. Yet, it is possible that the mudslinging between France and Rwanda, as was seen this week, is likely to continue until new leadership is in place… in both countries.
Written by Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant.