Rwanda genocide: Macron forgiveness plea resets historic ties

French president Emmanuel Macron lays a wreath on a mass grave at the Kigali Genocide Memorial on 27 May 2021. EPA-EFE/Eugene Uwimana

Jonathan Beloff, King’s College London

French president Emmanuel Macron has just paid his first state visit to Rwanda. While many world leaders have visited the central African nation of 13 million, including past French presidents, such as President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010, this trip was going to be different.

Sure enough president Macron would come the closest to apologising for France’s involvement during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis.

At the Kigali Genocide Memorial, Macron asked for forgiveness for France’s involvement in the genocide. He also expressed his desire to combat genocide ideology and denial in order to foster stronger relations with Rwanda.

The long-term impact of this trip will be based on building on this commitment. France’s tangible foreign policy mechanism will be committing itself to helping Rwanda through foreign aid development funding and COVID-19 vaccines. However, for France to gain the trust of Rwandans, the country has to commit itself to combatting genocide ideology and denial. A great start would be the arrest and extradition of Rwandans who participated in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis.

The history

Prior to the genocide, France was Rwanda’s closest European ally. It was never the colonising power. Rwanda was colonised by Germany (1884-1919) and later transferred to Belgium. It was during the Belgian colonial period (1919-1962) that socio-economic divisions of Hutu, Tutsi and Twa become immovable ethnic divisions. To justify Belgium’s colonial atrocities, the colonial government elevated some Tutsi elites into positions of power to illustrate local rule.

In a 1973 coup, Juvénal Habyarimana took the presidency. He developed a close personal relationship with French president François Mitterrand (1981-1995).

France under Mitterrand provided the Habyarimana regime with considerable financial and military support. Mitterrand’s backing helped create a sense of legitimacy for his Rwandan counterpart. This in turn aided the policies of ethnic divisionism, hatred and pogroms that would eventually result in the 1994 genocide.

Since then, Rwandan-French relations have been poor at best. Many within the Rwandan government, led by the Rwanda Patriotic Front, denounced France’s closeness to Habyarimana as unacceptable. Rwanda also demanded an acknowledgement of French involvement in the 1994 genocide. Unfortunately, this did not happen under the next French president Jacques Chirac.

Subsequently, president Sarkozy attempted to foster greater relations with Rwanda. He came close to admitting France’s role during the genocide, but blamed “political errors” for the country’s actions. Relations deteriorated again under president François Hollande who minimised France’s involvement prior to and during the genocide.

Now, however, Macron has gone beyond Sarkozy’s tentative steps.

How relations went south

As Cold War declined in the early 1990s, France began to apply pressure on its African allies – such as Habyarimana – to democratise. In Rwanda, however, the transition from dictatorship to open political competition did not go well. Rather than peaceful mobilisation, the opening of political space helped Hutu ideological extremists loyal to Habyarimana to propagate the ideology of genocide against the Tutsis.

At the same time, Rwandan exiles — mostly Tutsis – formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front signalling the start of the Rwandan Civil War (1990-1994) between government and well-organised rebels.

France backed Habyarimana’s regime by fighting back the first invasion by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (1990-1991). After this campaign, the French government provided its military assistance to rebuild Rwanda’s military against the party. They also secretly supported a government-backed militia, the Interahamwe (Those who fight together).

The genocide began hours after the assassination of Habyarimana. The presidential plane he was in was shot down by unknown assailants.

France remained steadfastly behind the new genocide government. While not providing military equipment or troops, it pressured for the removal of the United Nation’s peacekeeping force in Rwanda. It also moved the Rwandan government’s inner circle of power out of Rwanda in the early days of the genocide.

Later France was to send military troops under the UN-sanctioned Opération Turquoise. The French government publicly stated their substantial contribution of nearly 2,500 soldiers would help stop the genocidal killings. However, it became a safe zone for genocide perpetrators to continue the massacres as well as to flee into neighbouring Zaire.

Goodwill gestures

The political fallout from the 1994 genocide will remain at the heart of relations between Rwanda and France for some time to come. But the signs are promising. A great first step was made in 2019 with the creation of the Duclert Commission to investigate France’s role in the genocide.

The commission report expressed reasonable doubt as to whether the French government was fully aware of how its relationship with the Habyarimana regime and training of Interahamwe forces would lead to the genocide. It nevertheless acknowledged France’s involvement in the events leading to the mass killings.

The Rwandan government accepted the report’s findings and commented on how important this was to help restore trust between the two nations.

Macron and current Rwandan president Paul Kagame recently met in France. Macron publicly showed his desire for a friendship with his Rwandan counterpart.

During Macron’s Rwanda state visit some significant agreements were made between the two countries – for example a bilateral cooperation agreement between the two nations’ foreign ministers, financial support for development and for combating Covid-19.

But the highlight for Rwandans was Macron’s visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. While this might not appear to be a tangible benefit in foreign policy, it holds significant influence in Rwandan perceptions of France amid hesitation, scepticism and open hatred for France.

For many Rwandans, France represents a period in their country’s history that was filled with ethnic hatreds, instability and Habyarimana’s dictatorship. Many still hold France responsible for aiding the destructive ideology of the genocide.

It will take time for Rwandans, especially those who suffered or witnessed the genocide, to trust France again. Macron will be aware of these challenges and how French-Rwandan relations will require time, gestures of goodwill and actions addressing the past.

Jonathan Beloff, , SOAS, University of London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Existing Narratives with their Pitfalls: Do Not Disturb

Wrong, Michela, Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad. New York: PublicAffairs, 2021.

For the last few months, I have debated whether I wanted to read Wrong’s new book, Do Not Disturb. In one aspect, the book advertises how it examines the dark underbelly of Rwanda’s political institutions and exposes the ‘evils’ of President Paul Kagame. This might seem like an interesting read for the non-Rwandan researcher at their local bookshop. After all, Michela Wrong is an African novelist and journalist who is from the Global North -a term I use instead of the more common ‘West’-. While few would openly admit, there is something of comfort for readers when they read a book written by someone from the Global North criticising or exposing a nation within the Global South.

And that is where I encountered my greatest problem with the book. Dr Phil Clark provided a balanced review providing the book’s contents and deficits. The book focuses on former Rwandan elites, mostly within the governing Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), who had fallen from grace. Why they fell from grace is never mentioned but assumed because the RPF’s and Rwanda’s leader, President Paul Kagame, has done something evil which the defectors and their families couldn’t accept any more, so they left.

The two main defectors, but not only, which Wrong interviews are Patrick Karegeya and Kayumba Nyamwasa. Both were dominant figures within the RPF and the post-genocide Rwandan government. Wrong’s affection for these two figures often was not confined within their histories or personalities as the description of their physical characteristics seemed to go beyond what I would expect from a political book -take that as you want-. These two along with their families and a few others such as Seth Sendashonga are elevated as holy characters while Rwandans, especially President Kagame, are often described through derogatory stereotypes.

Beginning the book, I knew I would hold some issues with it. Such as with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Rwanda, especially its politics, is often divisive with little middle ground. My research on Rwandan foreign policy tries to divert from this divide by focusing on what Rwandan, whether elites, bureaucrats or those within the civil society, perceive and how these perceptions and beliefs influence their engagement with the international community. So, I began reading this book knowing that there will be things I disagree with but such as when I read anything by Belgium scholar Filip Reyntjens – who I often disagree with-, with an open mind. But similar to what Clark writes, the Orientalism just threw me.

A wave of decolonising education has gripped many universities as of late. They are attempting, akin to many of the liberal ‘woke’ movements in much of the United States and other Global North countries, to try to diversify opinions and attempt to depart from the monopoly of knowledge held by Caucasian and typically male scholars. My own engagement with the movement can be seen in my desire not to condemn or praise within my writings Rwanda’s engagement with the international community, but instead, just illustrate and analyse what Rwandans think themselves.

Unlike some scholars, I don’t feel I know what is best for a society in which I have an American passport that can get me out of any trouble such as when expatriates departed Rwanda during the first few days of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis. But Wrong’s book illustrates how much more needs to be done in the Global North.

Reading the book, I not just felt tones of Orientalism but of what I am struggling to describe as other than racism against Rwandans and Tutsis -except for the blessed few she interviewed-. There are too many quotes I could show but to generalise, Rwandans are described as ‘sneaky’, ‘untrustworthy’, ‘bloodthirsty’ and so on. Tutsis, while they are given a positive physical description, are described in even more of a negative light. I, who resides with Rwandans rather than expatriates when in Rwanda, felt angry on behalf of my Rwandan family. While I am sure that Wrong and her supporters -another issue of this book I will get to later- will dismiss notions of racism and instead chalk it up to words from others, there is an underlying tone that reads as racist. At one point in the book, perhaps a quarter of the way in, I gave myself a challenge.

I changed the word ‘Tutsi’ and ‘Rwandan’ with the word ‘Jew’. As someone who is proud of their ethnoreligious identity and experienced anti-Semitism in the past, I challenged myself in re-reading the book with the change of actor. I quickly became uncomfortable. It became such a disturbing feeling that I had to stop. I can’t stress enough how I am not accusing Wrong of being racist as I don’t know her personally but the writing in this book of Rwandans was to me, racist. The lack of nuance or analysis of Ugandan informants, who often had the most derogatory description of Rwandans, or even of her own positionality reinforced my notion of how this book contains racist undertones. When one looks down upon Rwandans -except for the chosen few- then it becomes easy to dismiss any positives of today’s Rwanda. Hard to say you are showing the proper respect for your subjects when you describe one -after previously establishing them as: “the bug-eyed, bucktoothed”.[1]

Maybe I am reading this book incorrectly. Its intended audience really isn’t for researchers trying to better understand Rwanda and its political complexities. Instead, it is just to reinforce existing critical narratives without listening to Rwandans inside the country. If this was a true attempt to provide new research and analysis on Rwanda’s political systems and defectors, there would have been a bit more self-study within the context of methodology and positionality of the author. This whole thing reminded me of an experience from a fellow colleague.

A colleague[2] once criticised my research as being problematic as it relied on the perceptions and beliefs of Rwandan elites and bureaucrats within the government as well as the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) and those within the civil society. But as one can read themselves, the research focused on the perceptions and beliefs of those who crafted and enacted foreign policy. Of course, I was going to listen to these informants. However, the colleague told me, how Rwandans within the government will lie through their smiles. While I respected this colleague -so much so I am keeping his identity hidden-, what politician doesn’t lie or mislead to some extent? And more importantly, does this colleague think so little of me that they assume I won’t use different methodologies such as Discourse Analysis, Triangulation and so on to try to uncover the truth? I review my own inherent biases and positionality when interviewing Rwandans and analysing my collected data. Something I suspect this colleague won’t be saying to Wrong as it suits their existing narrative.

Perhaps one of the largest deficits of this book is how there is no, or at least it was minimal, examination of the biases and positionality of any of its informants. While this book had unique access to actors within the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), it never would believe that anyone within the RNC would have a less than stellar agenda. As I mentioned earlier, Wrong seemingly assumes that all defectors left Rwanda because of their high moral character. Embezzlement, corruption and personal -whether financial or political- reasons for leaving Rwanda does not factor within this book. No, it ignores a serious review of its informants. After all, the book is attempting to characterise post-genocide Rwandan development and President Kagame as evil -a strong word but I can’t think of anything better at the moment-. [False] claims of the assassination of former Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana are repeated with such certainty with no actually analyse of the claims and logistics.

To be a bit flippant, why do that when you can just unquestionably trust actors despite their questionable motives? They are telling you exactly what you want to hear. They are helping you to say that President Kagame is all the problems facing Rwanda when that is at the very least reductionist and problematic to claim. As I write in the next paragraph, Rwanda isn’t perfect. But these reductionist claims ignore real issues facing Rwandans that many other nations experience as well. My previous colleague should ask Wrong whether she is just being lied to through smiles by people with their own motives and desires. As Clark writes, her access to the RNC is a great strength but also a weakness.

Above all else, why is this book problematic? I can say the inherent racism, the bias sources or how it seeks to justify its own conclusions rather than have a well-structured, well-analysed and well-developed argument. But I think what is most problematic is how Rwandans will respond. Rwandans often complain to me about the demonisation they experience by Global North researchers. Many feel that Global North researchers come to Rwanda -often for relatively short periods- to justify their existing conclusions within a simple narrative -something I try not to do-.

Within Rwanda, the simple narratives are often incorrect. Rwanda is a complex nation that is only twenty-seven years removed from a horrific genocide. I write this not to use the [outdated and problematic] guilt card narrative but how books like Wrong and others just turn away Rwandans from the Global North. It isn’t only President Kagame who will snap when confronted by overly critical or repetitive criticism from the Global North of their country. Rwandans have pride and are rather pragmatic. Engage with that and you will receive a much more constructive response.

Some might call this naïve, but I honestly do believe that if Wrong went to Rwanda -she has been there several times since the genocide but not over the last number of years- with an open mind and asked Rwandans their opinions, she would receive something she wouldn’t expect. She would receive the truth of how Rwandans have their problems with their government. But life is generally better now than before, whether that is during the past regimes, the 1994 genocide or even just ten years ago. I first visited Rwanda in 2008 where I had the privilege to travel across the country. Since that first trip, I have gone back many more times -perhaps seven or eight times for periods ranging from one to six months- and lots have changed with social infrastructure being one of those things. Even Rwanda’s political dynamics have changed which I hope I have a chance to write on [within academic writings] in the near future.

Rwandans, once they trust you, will share their opinions. That engagement of trust involves us within the Global North to understand our positionality and biases. A great first step is for us to provide assistance but not lecture to Rwandans on how they should proceed in their nation’s development. If those within the Global North engage with respect rather than just condemn, they will find it easier to reach their desired outcomes for Rwanda. Maybe that is just too much of a fantasy at the moment with all the divisions in Rwandan studies. Those within the Global North who are critical of President Kagame and Rwanda as a whole will enjoy this book. It reinforces their existing narrative with little to add. However, I don’t think many in Rwanda will care to read it. These are just my thoughts from my first read-through of Wrong’s book, Do Not Disturb.

It’s not all bad, at least she spelt President Paul Kagame’s name correctly.

[1] The person Wrong is describing here is General Jack Nziza, a man who I had met with a few times during my own research, (Wrong, 2021, 56).

[2] Despite not traveling to Rwanda for over a decade, that does not stop them from writing on Rwanda’s politics and society.


Magufuli’s Impact on Rwanda

On the 17th of March 2021, news came out from Tanzania that their fifth President, John Magufuli had died at the age of 61. It was his Vice President, Samia Suluhu Hassan, who delivered the announcement on national news broadcast. For Rwandans, they lost a great friend and supporter of their nation who not only helped repair diplomatic relations but more importantly, fostered new trust.

In March 2013, while residing in Rwanda, I was approached by members of a genocide survivors organisation. They expressed concern of President Magufuli’s predecessor, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete who seemingly was a supporter of the beliefs and actors who inflicted the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. At the time, this was of serious concern. President Kikwete held several meetings with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) which are considered a terrorist group within Rwanda. While the rebel force is not a considerable threat to overthrow the Rwanda Patriotic Front’s political control of the state, they nevertheless posed a security threat back in 2013 and 2014 (and even still now).

The FDLR’s uniqueness as a security threat was not just confined in terrorist attacks against Rwandan civilians but they wished to disrupt Rwanda’s social norms and identity. At the core of the FDLR is an ideology originating from Rwanda’s pre-genocide period believing in Hutu ethnic supremacy, ethnic divisions and a return to violence akin to the genocide itself. For genocide survivors, President Kikwete’s engagement and support of this rebel force was unacceptable. The President’s open call for unconditional talks between the Rwandan government with the FDLR was perceived at the time as a dangerous proposition. Additionally, it was an insult to the 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis and non-extremist Hutus killed by the same ideology held by the FDLR.

President Kikwete’s engagement with critical voices against Rwanda did not stop with the FDLR but included the Rwanda National Congress (RNC). This political group has ties to various rebel groups and Hutu extremists contain former members of the Juvénal Habyarimana regime (1973-1994) and even some disgraced past RPF members. Once again, President Kikwete provided support to this political group which continues to call for an end to the current Rwandan government. He even invited RNC and FDLR leaders to visit his home, which was a clear indication to Rwandans of his support for not only these groups, but their ideology.

Fundamentally, Rwandans did not trust Tanzania under the leadership of President Kikwete. During my interviews with Rwandan government, civil and military officials, many expressed concerns of the level of support Tanzania would be providing these antagonistic forces. What made the situation even more troubling was Tanzania’s contribution to the United Nations Foreign Intervention Brigade (FIB) in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The FIB’s intended purpose was to fight against the former Congolese rebel group March 23 Movement (M23). However, some within the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) wondered whether Tanzanian forces, which contributed to the FIB, would use this opportunity to provide military aid to the FDLR.

However, tensions calmed with Magufuli’s Presidential election in October 2015. He began a new wave of political and economic relations between the two nations. However, at the time of his election, not many knew how to react in Rwanda. Some Rwandan officials were worried of a continuation of President Kikwete’s antagonism against Rwanda. But others were hopeful with one laughingly responding, “it can’t be worse than Kikwete!”

President Magufuli would act quickly to help restore ties with Rwanda. In April 2016, months after being sworn in, he met with President Kagame at the Rusumo Bridge, a primary border crossing between the two countries. He would later visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial, the primary genocide memorial and museum in Kigali. Typically, most visiting dignitaries pay a quick visit to the Memorial by placing flowers on one of the many mass graves containing over 250,000 genocide victims. President Magufuli’s visit was different. He expressed regret of how Tanzania truly did not understand what had happened in Rwanda during the genocide. His genuine concern and interest even shocked some of those working at the Kigali Genocide Memorial.

One guide at the Kigali Genocide Memorial describes:

“We know that Magufuli didn’t plan to visit the museum and caught everyone off guard when he asked [President] Kagame for them to visit. He even surprised Kagame. But I think Kagame was happy that John [Magufuli] wanted to visit the museum and learn about the genocide and history to better foster unity between the two nations. There was such a sense of happiness and relief by the Rwandans who were there,”

-(page 175 from, Foreign Policy in Post-Genocide Rwanda: Elite Perceptions of Global Engagement published by Routledge, 2021).

Relations between Tanzania and Rwanda continued to improve under President Magufuli’s watch. But it was this moment, while at the Kigali Genocide Memorial which I believe speaks volumes about the impact he had not only on re-establishing diplomatic ties but restoring trust. President Magufuli could have just placed the flowers on the mass graves and simply departed from the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Rather, he differed from the expected schedule as he wished to visit inside the museum to learn about the genocide. Perhaps his true intent for visiting inside the museum was for the Tanzanian news media, which were covering his visit to Rwanda, to come with him and show to his countrymen the horrors of the genocide. We maybe able to speculate how President Magufuli understood an element within Rwanda’s consciousness when it engages with the outside world.

Rwandan foreign relations are built upon many intersubjective beliefs that influence how Rwandan official within the government, military, civil society and the economic sphere perceive and engage with the international community. While some journalists and amateur researchers reduce Rwanda’s foreign policy to just the genocide guilt card, this is a reductionist argument for simplicity over reality. Within the complex web of Rwanda’s perception is the concept of abandonment. Rwanda has been abandoned by the international community all too often. Not just during the genocide, but ever since the Hutu Revolution in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Up to a million Rwandans would be forced to flee their homes with little care by the international community. With each new pogrom, massacre or forced exile of Rwandans, the international community did little to help.

For Rwandans, especially genocide survivors, Tanzania under President Kikwete wanted to abandon Rwanda to the same actors and beliefs who caused so much bloodshed and pain. President Magufuli knew the level of damage this caused and helped rebuild trust. We can see it during his visit at the Kigali Genocide Memorial of how Rwanda would not be abandoned at least by Tanzania under his Presidency. He was not going to allow the memory of all who had died during the genocide be forgotten by supporting genocide ideology. Hopefully, the new President, Samia Suluhu Hassan, will continue on the path which President Magufuli started.