French president Francois Hollande has a unique chance to redeem his country and write his name among courageous and upright leaders. Will he take the chance?
That’s the question – whether it is nobler to do right and correct an injustice or to stick to a policy of deceit and arrogance. Perchance he might even revive his flagging presidency.
The chance is the announcement to declassify documents relating to France’s dealings with Rwanda between 1990 and 1994.
French presidents before Hollande, and their senior officials, have had the opportunity to do the reasonable thing: admit their role in the genocide against the Tutsi.
And if they had no role, as they maintain, there is one way of proving it: reveal all the official dealings of the presidency, the ministry of defence and the military regarding Rwanda at the time.
They did not. Even now, it is doubtful that there will be full disclosure.
The reason for denial and silence is simple. French presidents and their senior civilian and military officials have not, unlike Hamlet, been burdened with indecision because of a crisis of conscience. Their actions have been calculated and are part of French policy in Africa in which there is no accountability.
Still, the news that President Hollande intends to declassify documents relating to Rwanda during the genocide and make them public has raised expectations that some bits of truth might come out.
For instance, full disclosure would reveal the full extent of French involvement in Rwanda and their role in the genocide.
It would finally put an end to the many versions of the events of 1994 that have been bandied about in the last two decades. This has always provided genocide deniers and revisionists with excuses for distortion of the recent history of Rwanda. Full revelation would, hopefully, remove any ambiguity.
Also, for the optimists, revelation of the extent of French role that would, presumably be followed by admission of guilt and an apology, could remove obstacles to improved relations between Rwanda and France.
However, no one is being carried away by these expectations. They are tempered by some scepticism and a sense of realism informed by French conduct in Rwanda and indeed the rest of Africa over the years.
There is the likelihood that not all documents will be declassified and therefore not all will be revealed. The reason given for this is that they are kept in different departments, each with some level of autonomy, or more likely, its own secrets to keep. At best, therefore, we might get partial revelation.
Very likely, only those documents that paint France in favourable light will be put in the open. We must remember that French authorities have always presented their actions in Rwanda in 1994 as being inspired by the highest humanitarian considerations. It would be too much to expect that they will show to the world anything that can incriminate them. The more damning, yet important information, will remain locked up.
Another reason for questioning the intentions of President Hollande and the extent of what he intends to reveal is the timing. Why now? Why time the announcement to coincide with the commemoration of the genocide?
The timing has been seen as a diversionary tactic – to shift focus from French involvement in the genocide by showing some good intention. It is meant to pre-empt any discussion of their responsibility by creating a climate of expectations. The purpose seems to be to get people to think like this: If they are willing to put everything in the open, then there is nothing to hide. So everything is as it has always been.
In any event, if the French want to come clean and distance themselves from the genocide, there are easier ways to go about it. They can start by bringing to justice known genocidaires living and working in France. They can help track others who continue to evade justice by various means, including changing identity.
This is the easier option in trying to demonstrate their goodwill. But it has not been taken and this adds to the scepticism of present intentions to declassify documents relating to Rwanda. That will continue to be seen as a mere publicity stunt to steer attention away from accusations of complicity in the genocide.
There is no doubt that President Hollande’s decision to declassify the documents has raised expectations about the truth being revealed, especially among non-Rwandans. Some want to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Rwandans, however, see things differently. There is more caution and even unbelief. With good reason. One feels the French have not yet been touched by the cry: “why are you persecuting us” deeply enough to want to make an about-turn. Nor are they weighed down by a moral dilemma sufficiently heavy to make them resolve to act decisively.
We cannot expect to see all the skeletons come tumbling out of the cupboard at Hollande’s word. Some are too scary to let out of the closet and will be kept there.