Genesis: How France deepened ties with Rwanda after Independence

On 19 April 2021 at 12:55

When Rwanda obtained Independence from Belgian colonizers, the monarchy was abolished paving the way for the first Republic in 1961 led by President Dominique Mbonyumutwa. He was replaced by Grégoire Kayibanda ten months later.

Experts in history and political science show that France had a strong desire to deepen ties with Rwanda as a country where it could easily have political influence to inculcate French language by all means.

The country feared that French language would become obsolete in case English language is facilitated to spread and dominate in Rwanda would, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Congo Brazzaville, Central African Republic, and Cameroun among other African countries.

An author and researcher on Rwanda’s history, Innocent Nizeyimana has revealed that President Grégoire Kayibanda held the first visit in France in October 1962 under the leadership of Charles de Gaulle.

In a speech held in Paris, France; Kayibanda thanked De Gaulle for granting Independence to African countries and continuous support towards ‘full independence’ through the ongoing support to attain promote and exploit their natural resources.

At the time, Kayibanda said: “I am hopeful that such support will be extended to us even though were not a colony of France.”

Following the visit, both countries signed the first cooperation agreements on 20th October 1962.

Few days later, French envoys came to Rwanda to make preparations for three cooperation agreements in the areas of economy, culture and cooperation in technical matters.

These agreements were signed on 4th November 1962 but France had no ambassador in Rwanda prior to that time.

Jacques Mullender, the then France’s head of mission for Rwanda and Burundi between 1962-1966 said that his country had to move slowly before deepening ties with Rwanda during post-independence period.

“We refrained from releasing huge funds and expressing strong desire to cultivate ties with Rwanda to avoid jealousy between France and Belgium,” he said.

He went on to explain that Belgium committed to cater for national budgets and invested in mega projects (building airports and telecommunications infrastructure) when Rwanda and Burundi obtained independence.

“Moreover, they would send 200 employees to provide assistance in technical matters in each country. So, we could not allocate huge budget to Rwanda without enough personnel to supervise how the money were utilized,” he said.

Innocent Nizeyimana has explained that Kayibanda did not openly develop strong relations with France lest he clashes with Belgium.

“It is said that France might have been part of plans to overthrow Kayibanda which set ground for new reforms,” he said.

History shows that the first batch of Rwanda’s soldiers went for military training in France in 1972.

How Habyarimana fostered relations

In the years between 1969 and 1970, Kayibanda expelled people he called ‘undesired’.

These include Belgians, business people from Oman, and Indians.

“This fueled white people’s anger against Kayibanda and gradually broke up with him. However, it is important to note that France had started seeking ways to penetrate into the country during Kayibanda’s leadership,” explained Nizeyimana.

After Juvénal Habyarimana overthrew Kayibanda, France started developing close ties with the new president whose mindsets were different from his predecessor. Two years after taking office, Rwanda signed cooperation agreements with France.
At the time, both countries signed military cooperation agreements. It was the first of its kind signed between both countries.

The agreements incorporated clauses stating that France would provide military trainings and help the country to get weapons. It is said that France provided 4 million of its then currency to Rwanda annually.

Following the signing of these agreements, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing who was the then France President, visited Rwanda, in May 1979 where he spent three days.

He was along with his wife, Anne-Aymone Giscard d’Estaing during their visit to Rwanda in 1979 where they attended the Sixth Conference Franco-Africaine (Franco-African Conference) held in Kigali.

Giscard arrived in ahead of the conference visited various projects in Rwanda and went to Akagera National Park for hunting exercise.

On 18th May 1979, Giscard and Habyarimana with their wives went to former Ruhengeri Prefecture where they visited Ruhengeri Hospital and school of Gendarmerie (a military force with law enforcement duties). They returned to Kigali in the afternoon and signed cooperation agreements.

Part of these agreements include France’s commitment to fund rural development, expansion of Kigali International Airport, building tanks for petroleum products, promoting telecommunication, building a hospital in Gisenyi among others.

Speaking to journalists, both head of states revealed that France would establish a school of nurses additional to Ruhengeri Hospital and providing 50% of funds for expansion of Kigali International Airport.

The Sixth Franco-African Conference ran from Monday 21st May until 22nd May 1979. The conference discussed issues pertaining to advancing Africa’s development and how France can cement its participation.

French report dubbed ’Quilès’ explains that military training clauses paved the way for strengthening the capacity of Rwanda’s gendarmes to become competent as French counterparts.

These agreements were revised in 1983 to incorporate military cooperation but French soldiers were prohibited to take part in any preparations of war.

These agreements restricting French soldiers’ involvement in wars were still valid at the start of liberation struggle.

In August 1992, existing agreements were revised again whereby Gendarmerie Rwandaise was replaced by Forces Armées Rwandaises (Rwanda Armed Forces) and allowed France’s military to participate in all activities of Rwanda’s military.

The Quilès report explained that the amendments were made two years after RPF Inkotanyi soldiers raided Rwanda for the first time.

“It is unbelievable that French leaders, civilians and soldiers didn’t realize they had spent more than a year participating in military operations on Rwanda’s land without permission. Existing agreements only permitted them to reinforce Gendarmerie not the military,” reads part of the report.

France during Genocide against Tutsi

Analysts link the agreements to France’s role during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi observing that they paved way for support to reinforce Habyarimana’s military to fight RPF Inkotanyi as well as training Interahamwe.

In 1998, France parliament delegated a committee to investigate the country’s role during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

The committee summoned people including Giscard d’Estaing to shed light on military cooperation agreements signed with Rwanda in 1975 as they were considered to have fueled France’s role in Rwanda.

Giscard d’Estaing replied that he didn’t understand the laws granting the committee to summon the former president for interrogation to explain reasons for activities or politics implemented by the Government he led.

He explained that what happened between his country and Rwanda has no connection to France’s role during genocide.

In 2009; an author called Odile Tobner run a publication explaining that the major purpose of France, Rwanda military cooperation was to inspect the extraction of minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that the role played during genocide was auxiliary.

France has been denying complicity in the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi for the past 27 years despite the pressure by non-governmental organizations, journalists and researchers among others urging the country to reveal the truth on its role.

On 26th March 2021, a committee of 13 expert researchers and historians delegated by Emmanuel Macron presented its findings on the role of France during Genocide against Tutsi.

The report indicated that France bears "heavy and overwhelming responsibilities" over tragic history that led to the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi which took lives of over 1 million victims.

It was presented two years, after the delegation of 13 historians started reviewing archives on France, Rwanda relations between 1990 and 1994.

The report blames the then French President, François Mitterrand, for a "failure" of policy towards Rwanda in 1994. The findings were made public after years of French official secrecy over links to the Government led by Juvenal Habyarimana.

President Macron appointed the 15-member commission two years ago, giving them access to presidential, diplomatic, military and intelligence archives.

Among the archives are those of Mitterrand, who had close ties to former Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana.

An expert in political science and history, Dr. Jean Paul Kimonyo recently told IGIHE that that the relevance of the report relies on its resolutions.

“In fact, the gist of the report lies in its resolutions. It has two resolutions. The first states that French people had heavy and overwhelming responsibility to what happened in Rwanda between 1990 and 1994. Secondly, it is the first time an entity from France makes such a statement. That’s a great milestone,” he said.

“Taking stock of the situation in the past five years, an individual trying to ask former France officials if the country was accomplice to Habyarimana or Genocidal Government was mocked. The report clears France of complicity but asking the question also has a strong relevance,” added Dr. Kimonyo.

He explained that implications of the report proves the country’s role during Genocide particularly allies to the then President Mitterand even though it is not mentioned directly.

Dr. Kimonyo finds that Duclert report is a great step to restoring Rwanda, France relations considering the strong willingness of President Macron since he took office in 2017.

Giscard d’Estaing (left) with Juvenal Habyarimana.