THE 20th commemoration of the Genocide against the Tutsi reignited the diplomatic row between France and Rwanda when President Paul Kagame mentioned the French government’s role in it and the latter retaliated by withdrawing its participation from activities to mark the occasion.
It does not appear like the rift will end soon because the quarrel goes beyond the two countries. The immediate cause is, of course, France’s role in the Genocide. France continues to deny it played any part. But a more far-reaching reason has to do with the nature of French relations with African countries.
From a purely bilateral standpoint, and adopting an optimistic scenario, strained relations caused by the Genocide can be repaired if two things happen.
One, relations can improve if France accepts the responsibility of its government and military of the time, apologises and takes action against known genocidaires living and working freely on its territory. Already some noises have been made about political mistakes made at the time. This could be followed by a less ambiguous admission of some level of responsibility. The government could follow the example of its citizens who are seeking a way of coming to terms with their government’s role.
This will probably not happen. First of all, France is aware of the implications of admission of culpability in international law and so will continue to deny any responsibility. This is the same reason the United States refuses to subject its servicemen to trial under international conventions when they are involved in wars abroad.
Secondly, Franco-African relations are rarely between states. Historically, they have been between French leaders and African elites of politicians, military officers, academics and business leaders. Ordinary people and their interests hardly appear in French foreign policy in Africa. This is what the so-called Francafrique is all about.
Rwanda goes against the very idea of Francafrique because it insists on state to state relations.
Two, relations can get better if Rwanda forgets what happened and who was responsible and moves on.
This will not happen either. There are issues of principle involved – of justice and dignity, of impunity of powerful nations. It would be morally, politically and diplomatically wrong to entrench the view that the strong can get away with anything.
There is a third way for relations between Rwanda and France to improve. This requires France to reassess the way it deals with African countries. France must realise that today’s diplomacy cannot be built on the relationship between individuals or a select elite group, but between states. Ordinary people have interests not only in the way their countries are governed but also the foreign countries they relate with and on what terms. The restlessness in former French colonies is an indication of bad governance resulting from this sort of external relations.
In this sense, French leaders must be prepared to give up their grand frère attitude. Equally, African leaders must refuse to be the petit frère of whoever occupies the Elysee Palace.
Again, historically France has sought to use force to support its policies in Africa. That is why there are sizeable French military bases and troops in at least seven of its former colonies in Africa. This force is supposed to enforce the will of the rulers of both sides.
This too is being challenged and it is only a matter of time before the limitations of military power as a political and diplomatic tool is exposed. This has begun to happen. The mere mention of French troops used to restore order almost immediately. Today, although they still wield a big stick and are ready to use it, French troops are increasingly being challenged on the ground. A few years ago that was unimaginable.
If France wants to retain its role and remain relevant, its leaders might do well to heed voices from Rwanda. They must be prepared to change course and relate to ordinary African people and states. These can no longer afford to be sidelined.
This means recognising that ordinary Africans have legitimate interests which must be respected. It means that they must abandon the arrogant and patronising attitude, and where mistakes have been made, own up and apologise. It is simply no longer acceptable for African leaders to troop to Paris to receive instructions on whom to hate or like, which friends to have and which enemies to avoid, and how to vote on important questions.
What Rwandans and President Kagame have repeatedly said about France’s role in the Genocide cannot be without evidence. The French people know this. The politicians know it too, only they will not admit it. Instead of responding with anger and haughtiness (and this is evidence that what is said touches them on a sore point) they should engage with Rwandans and do what is necessary to move on. That is all the Rwandans ask.
For the last twenty years Rwanda has given France a chance to change course and improve its relations with Africa. The latter has persistently spurned the offer. They might do well to accept it because the times are changing and they might be left behind.