President Kagame’s visit to France last September 11th-13th 2011 tells the story of a history that will permanently be etched in the Western World-Africa relations.
In 1990, France was at the peak of her glory as the master of Françafrique, the term used to refer to the relationship between France and Africa in which she enjoys a lot of sway. In Francophone Africa, France could lead any country in any direction she chose.
She had shed off the 1954-1962 bloody nose she had suffered at the hands of Algeria. Francois Mitterrand, as president, was basking in this splendour and even seeing chances of expanded influence. When the year ended, however, it was on a slightly sour note.
In October 1990, a small band of rebels struck Rwanda, probably the dearest to the Mitterrand rule of all the countries in Françafrique. It was no big deal, but it required that the then French government mobilise an African force to rout the rebels and lend support to this force.
What was even sourer was that the rebels pushed in from an Anglophone country, Uganda. Oh, the dread of their being Anglophone!
Worse still, in the years that followed, that rebel nuisance continued. When African troops saw this, they withdrew, leaving the French and Rwandans to battle it out.
The nuisance intensified and even grew into full-blown guerrilla warfare to a point where the African department of the French foreign affairs ministry found it necessary to meet the leader of this rebel outfit.
In 1992 when a departmental director met Paul Kagame, the leader of those rebels, the warning: “Stop this irritation or you rebels will find all your people inside the country dead!” When Kagame dared ask: “All Rwandans are our people. If you kill them, whom will you defend?” he was detained in Paris for a day and a night.
Back in Rwanda, the Rwandan Patriotic Front/Army, RPF/RPA (the erstwhile band of rebels), continued to expand in size and strength and began to steadily tilt the balance in its favour.
Encounters, particularly with French troops, are recounted but they were not many as the French mainly provided artillery backup to the Rwandans. Still, even in those few encounters, there were wounds – and RPA was hardly ever the bruised party.
By June 1994, it was clear that the génocidaire force was losing the war. This sent the Mitterrand regime into a panic and, in a last-ditch effort, it sought and secured a UN mandate to intervene, disguising its effort as a humanitarian operation (called Opération Turquoise). The aim was to defend the western and south-western parts of Rwanda that had not yet been overrun by RPA.
With the mandate, the Mitterrand regime quickly put together the first contingents of 2,500 crack French troops and 500 troops from diverse African countries.
On 23rd June 1994, they entered Rwanda with equipment that included 100 APCs, 10 helicopters, a battery of 120 mm mortars, four jaguar fighter bombers, eight mirage fighters and reconnaissance aircraft. In short, set for the 3rd World War!
Accounts are told of a few ‘jeep-fulls’ of French soldiers going to Butare in an effort to ‘feel out’ the limit of the RPA frontline. But, a few kilometres towards the town, a young unarmed RPA soldier astride in the middle of the road waved the jeep down.
In impeccable French, he confounded them by ordering them not to venture beyond that point. When they made to push him aside, suddenly they saw the hillsides come alive with gun muzzles!
They were captured and the rest is history. History, as in the end, the whole Operation Turquoise found it could not face the avalanche of the RPA advance towards Zone Turquoise. French troops, their charges (the génocidaire force) and equipment moved camp to the border town of Goma, D.R. Congo.
Feeble incursions that followed into Rwanda did not wash, either.
After the Mitterrand regime, the Chirac rule on its part, chose diplomatic and legal battles, hence the indictments of top RPF officials by Judge Jean-Louis Bruguière. Even then, though, when Rwanda dared it with the appearance on French soil of Rose Kabuye, France developed cold feet.
So did French troops one time in Cameroon, when General James Kabarebe dared them to detain him in a ship docked off the coast.
In effect, then, the relationship between France and Rwanda may still be in the process of self-redefinition. What is clear, however, is that, whatever the final outcome, it will never again be a master-client relationship.
When President Nicolas Sarkozy recently received President Paul Kagame at the Elysée Palace, it spoke of a man (Sarkozy) who had read the writing on the wall and is fighting the forces of blind domination of a bygone era, forces that have failed to move with the times.
In resisting French domination as they did, President Kagame and the RPF that he leads, were sounding the wake-up gong to fellow Africans and to the West; that Africa has come of age. The message: from now on, Africa will settle for no less status than that of equal partner in global participation.
And so, like the genocidaire force before him, the epitome of the bygone-era gang, Alain Juppé ran for the jungle. And, unlike that force that ran for the nearby jungle of D.R. Congo, Juppé made for the far-off jungle of the Far East!
John Nagenda of Uganda would be happy to know that, in Rwanda, we have “belled the cat”!