When Nicolas Paul Stéphane Sarközy came visiting last February 25th, he did not find himself on strange land. The French president found himself on familiar terrain as his predecessors had long warmed their way into the Rwandan heart.
From the early 1960s, France established military and diplomatic ties with Rwanda that became stronger by the month, literally. By the 1970s, France had ousted Belgium as the strongest ‘partner’, a position it had earned courtesy of being ex-colonial master. By the 1980s, the French president was ‘papa’ to the Rwandan ‘fils’ (son) president.
That is why when her long-forgotten refugee sons and daughters attacked from the north, Rwanda immediately ran to France for assistance. In turn, French president Francois Mitterrand asked ‘fils ainé’ (eldest son) Mobutu Sese Seku of then Zaīre (D. R. Congo) to dispatch assistance to Rwanda, where French arms and technical expertise were waiting.
When the Zaïrese army and, reportedly, some Chadian and even Kenyan soldiers proved to be no match for the small but determined rebel RPA (Rwandese Patriotic army), France lent itself to the task of ejecting the “refugee pests”. As is now known, nothing came of that French effort. In the end, those “refugee pests” triumphed.
Before that, however, France had prepared Rwanda for another option. When the top “akazu” (inner core) of the genocide planners bombed Habyarimana and his French-donated jet out of the skies to launch the “final apocalypse”, they knew there was a strong cadre of “summary executioners” in waiting, thanks to French preparation.
Still, by June 1994 it was evident that even that well planned genocide was going to be foiled by these “refugee pests” before its total consummation. France hastily secured a UN green-light to send what it purported to be a military operation with humanitarian ends.
In reality, it was an elite military force to buttress the scattering Rwandan army so that they could retain the western part of Rwanda. It also aimed to shield, and even assist, the génocidaires who were engaged in mopping up Batutsi of the area.
As is known again, this whole enterprise came to naught and France ended up evacuating the whole genocide-machinery and offloading it into Zaīre. The top-cream of this machinery, among whom was Agatha Habyarimana, was flown to France. France had now no other choice but to give succour to its protégés and lend them its diplomatic weight.
At the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of genocide in 2004, when President Paul Kagame expressed virulent attacks against France over this bitter reality, it was a diplomatic incident and the visiting French secretary of state for foreign affairs walked out.
It was shocking for a French minister used to their African client regimes to see one of the leaders of “our traditional allies” daring to say a negative truth to the face of France. However, what was even more shocking was that no one cared when “Son Excellence Monsieur le Ministre” walked out!
In November 2006, when French judge Bruguière issued indictments against 9 top officials of Rwanda government, the same people involved in putting a stop to the 1994 genocide, Rwanda reiterated by kicking out the French ambassador and severing all ties with France.
“Tiny central African country” Rwanda throwing out “Super Power God-father of Francophone Africa”? It beggars belief!
So, when President Sarkozy walks down the red carpet with President Kagame and into the latter’s office in Village Urugwiro, the former has come down from lofty heights indeed. And when the French President admits to “grave errors” by France, it’s a soothing of no mean magnitude to the genocide victims.
What does it mean for a French national to go through Gisozi Memorial Site? Imagine such a man seeing a photograph caption proclaiming in bold letters: ‘“France played a role in arming, training” and physically helping the Rwandan machinery that is responsible for this’?
What does it mean when a guide points at a photo of Kofi Annan, then UN Secretary General, to such a man and scoffs: “Him, he asked for forgiveness.” I don’t know about French souls, but I am willing to bet that President Sarkozy will never be the same again.
With the arrest of Agatha Habyarimna early this week, France seems to be readying itself to confront what they know are “les Chevaliers de l’Apocalypse” (death squad members of the 1994 genocide).
You never know, France may even soon see what one of its citizens, Frédéric Berg, has for long taunted his compatriots to face: “Rwanda is a miniature world where the worst in humanity meets the best. It is a mirror tendered to each one of us. We should have the courage to open our eyes.”
One time when President Kagame was asked why he let Ms Kabuye (also on the Bruguière indictment list) travel to Europe, the President quipped that he knew that she was innocent. So, said he, he let her go and let “ikibyimbye kimeneke.” (Literally: “let what is swollen burst!” Otherwise: daring the truth.)
Knowing the forces levelled against President Sarkozy, those in France ready to do the worst if they can conceal their part in the 1994 genocide, a powerful constituency that includes the Mitterrand era government and military bigwigs, I think the French President had to overcome a Herculean barrier to even think of stepping on Rwandan soil.
But then again, which French president wouldn’t, considering the “muddy paddle” that is the wishy-washy states of francophone Africa? Those states where “soldiers freely play at the game of throwing one another out”.
The boil may have burst with a whimper rather than a bang but, yes, it has been lanced. Who knows? Next it may be the bang: “Nous présentons nos excuses!”