French President Nicolas Sarkozy has not planned to spend much time in Rwanda on his visit to Africa, which kicks off on Wednesday with a stop in Gabon.
Indeed, Sarkozy is not expected to spend more than three hours in Rwanda's capital, Kigali, but the lightning-quick visit carries heavy symbolic weight given the delicate relations between the two countries.
Sixteen years after the Rwandan genocide, France and Rwanda are still seeking a smoother relationship. Diplomatic ties between the two countries were cut in 2006 by Rwandan President Paul Kagame, whom a French judge accused of involvement in the assassination of former President Juvenal Habyarimana, which sparked the genocide.
In 2008, Kigali in turn called France into question for its alleged role in the genocide. A Rwandan report accused numerous French political and military officials of participating in the executions.
Sarkozy’s visit therefore aims to mark the start of a new era of diplomacy between the two countries – a key step in the process of normalisation started at the end of 2008 with a visit by Sarkozy’s chief of staff, Claude Guéant, followed by a visit in January of this year by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.
The French president’s every move will be closely followed both in Paris and Kigali, though he is not scheduled to give a speech. In addition to a private meeting with Paul Kagame, the climax of the trip will likely be the placement of a wreath in front of the memorial dedicated to the 800,000 genocide victims.
Rwanda, 54th member of the Commonwealth
Pursued by France, the thawing of relations between the two countries comes a few months after the announcement in October 2008 of Rwanda’s admission to the Commonwealth. The move was considered something of a U-turn for a traditionally Francophone country, now part of a massive British intergovernmental
organisation. The rapprochement with the United Kingdom had been pursued by President Kagame, who set the tone by speaking in English at his official speaking engagements.
A FRANCE 24 team that reported from Rwanda in January was able to observe the first changes in the country. Courses were suddenly offered in English in Rwandan schools. Cricket, an unfamiliar game in most Francophone countries, is becoming one of the most popular Rwandan sports. There is even talk of having drivers take to the left side of the road in order to be in line with the British system.
The allegiance to Britain is defended by prominent Rwandan officials. Interviewed by FRANCE 24, the country’s foreign minister, Rosemary Museminal, is convinced that Rwanda has “everything to gain” from this approach.
“We will share our experiences, benefit from commercial exchanges, and in doing so improve conditions for our people in all areas,” she said.
Officials appear to be equally pleased with the arrangement on the British side. “A lot of this country’s problems came from its isolation on the international stage, so any opening up to the rest of the world is positive for Rwanda,” summed up Nicholas Cannon, the British ambassador to Rwanda.Regardless of its affiliation with France or Britain, Rwanda will have to confront the many challenges it has on its plate. The UN estimates that nearly 60% of the country’s population is living below the poverty line.