Jacques Chirac, former French President, must have been laughing at what he imagined were ‘les imbéciles’. Why not?
France had been Rwanda’s master for three decades. France paid for the piper, and so it called the tunes.
The French held the people and leaders of Rwanda with the utmost contempt.
A day came November 2009 – ‘les imbéciles’ defied their supposed master.
See, the master had engineered the most despicable massacre on planet earth, genocide against the Tutsis in 1994. Millions became refugees. The country descended into abyss.
Rwandan leaders continued to be humiliated internationally. After all, in Paris, they were regarded as a bunch of rag-tagged-power-hungry rebels. For Rwandan officials, this was more than demeaning.
It was time to end the humiliation.
Leaders began discussing how to dislodge the Frenchman and set themselves free from among the Francophonie ‘children’.
Rwanda was desperate for new friends and neighbours who valued mutual respect and sovereignty. First in mind? The 53-member Commonwealth family!
Paul Kagame, then the Vice President and Minister of Defense, plus some senior officials, went to the drawing board. They scanned the world. There were fierce debates about who to engage and who not to engage.
There were questions of course; should we join? What is the process? Would we make it? How much long would it take us to get in anyway?
Mozambique had just joined the bloc, yet it had never been a British colony. Mozambicans spoke no English and had no traces to British culture.
For Rwanda, the whole checklist mirrored it, according to people familiar with the process at the time.
The country was only recovering from mindboggling destruction. There were too many problems to fix; democracy, prisons packed with hundreds of thousands of genocide suspects, survivors nursing wounds – above all, no business environment to speak of.
Stability alone was an issue, and then wars in neighbouring Zaire (DR Congo).
Rwandan diplomats began traversing the globe; from London to Lagos, Johannesburg to Sydney. At this point, lobbying was at its best. It went on from 1995 to 1997 and onwards.
The Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, a Nigerian, while in London, lost count of times Rwandan negotiators were in his ears.
In comes the British Council
The negotiators never got tired of listing the advantages Rwanda would offer to whoever they met. Notably, the 1992-1993 Arusha negotiations had been conducted in English.
Many of those on the delegations had studied from Uganda, Kenya, and Nigerian universities, all of which use a copycat from the British curriculum.
Also, Rwanda had a seat at the UN Security Council in 1995. Everything was also excellently presented in English.
Back in the region, maneuvers were easier. It was now in the early 2000s.
The country was already part of the East African Community, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, all traditional partners and members of the Commonwealth network.
Rwanda had already shifted from French to English as a medium of instruction in schools.
The British Council in Kigali was very busy offering free consultancy and financing the transition, both directly and indirectly.
It hasn’t stopped.
Millions of MacMillan textbooks and Oxford English dictionaries not only are piled in schools, but on desks of French speaking civil servants who are ctaching up with the English waves in town.
The British Council has gone as far as offering free English tutorials to every single French-speaking teacher, and has offered them I-pods installed with English courses.
Street names such as Avenue Paul VI have been replaced with Kinyarwanda names and numbers.
The parliament at some point discussed shifting from Right Hand Drive to Left Hand Drive, but agreed it was too costly and made no economic sense.
Now, more importantly to consider, all Rwanda’s exports and imports transit through East Africa. Actually, people of EAC are the same across borders. The rest was an artificial divide; the Francophonie.
In 2005, government invited the World Bank to independently monitor the country’s ambitious business reform processes. No one could bet on Rwanda’s bid. It was becoming very obvious.
As negotiations intensified, Chirac had already retired, and it was Nicolas Sarkozy, but all of them were taking note.
They finally discovered that ‘les imbéciles’ were serious. Things were happening too fast, and spontaneously.
Rwanda was just one step closer to exiting the Francophonie family and joining the Anglophone family.
France’s leaders stopped the laughter. Things were now turning ugly; Rwanda was about to make a move that would discredit France’s legitimacy in Africa.
France intensified a complicated smear campaign – questioning Rwanda’s human rights records, and that the prisons were full of innocent suspects.
Indeed Rwanda could not qualify by that alone.
Progressively, the country was able to show steadiness – education, business reforms, and judicial changes, thanks to the Gacaca courts and the support of the Netherlands.
And then the death penalty was scrapped.
Tens of thousands of genocide convicts were released. Rwanda was scoring small victories one after the other – then democratic elections, gender balance – and the economy began to boom.
“For us, it was a strategy,” a military general involved in the negotiations told me some time back in 2015 as we sipped coffee at his home on a verandah overlooking the green streets of Kigali. “We did not want to be monopolised and dictated upon by the Francophonie from Paris …” he said.
“We lobbied Canada, Australia, Nigeria, South Africa and others! Most of them were friendly to us. Other things like media, and democracy we were on the right track,” he narrated.
“It took a while but eventually the Secretary General of the Commonwealth, this time an Indian, (Kamlesh Sharma) was the one who got the process through.”
Regional allies also played a major role, he said. It “was a revolt against the French who had insinuated that we couldn’t survive without them.”
It was a beautiful Sunday morning of November 29, 2009. The Commonwealth welcomed Rwanda.
Louise Mushikiwabo – then Rwanda’s Information Minister, now Foreign Affairs Minister, spoke joyfully about the announcement at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting from Trinidad and Tobago.
“My government sees this accession as recognition of the tremendous progress this country has made in the last 15 years,” she said then.
ONLY 0.3% French investments!
Many in the European mainstream media, NGOs, and the academia were up in arms against Rwanda’s Membership into the Commonwealth. But above all, France was on the receiving end of humiliation.
The plan in Kigali however, was to keep one foot in the French maiden grouping – La Francophonie. It was a double-deal, if you like.
Ties between the two countries ruptured in 2006 when Rwanda expelled France’s ambassador, Dominique Decherf and 29 of his staff, after a controversial French judge, Jean-Louis Bruguière, issued arrest warrants for nine high ranking Rwandans alleging that they shot down former President Juvénal Habyarimana’s jet.
Rwanda was mindful of the fact that only a few months before acceptance into the Commonwealth; there were only two French investments worth $3 million.
After securing membership into the Commonwealth group, businesses from Paris dried away.
Coincidentally, in what was clearly a planned fit, Claude Guéant, the Elysee’s Secretary General, arrived in Kigali and met President Kagame, on the same day of Rwanda’s acceptance into the Commonwealth.
Then President Sarkozy flew to Kigali to mend the ties; a few months later after Rwandans stopped saying Bonjour and began saying Good Morning.
In reciprocity, President Paul Kagame flew to Paris.
Was this painstaking shift worth it? Can Rwanda smile with the Frenchman off their back?
If Rwandan leaders had not taken the risky strategy, there would be little to show for the past 24 years since the mass slaughter of 1994.
Consider this: between 2009 and 2014, Rwanda had attracted about $3 billion from 340 companies, a figure equivalent to 40% of the country’s GDP in 2015.
The FDI was distributed in agriculture, telecommunication, construction, mining and quarry, energy, manufacturing, hospitality, transport, education – and spread across the board.
From the former colonial master however, investments were a meager $9.6m or 0.3% of Rwanda’s total investment since then.
Seventy per cent (70%) of this investment portfolio was in a gambling venture ($5million) and construction.
Belgium, the original colonizer, on the other side, had invested $34 million (1% of total investments) during the same period.
To take you back a bit, before Rwandan diplomats flew back home with the Commonwealth certificate, Minister Mushikiwabo told the world that; “Rwandans are ready to seize economic, political, cultural and other opportunities offered by the Commonwealth network.”
Without a doubt, Rwanda has ripped big from the Commonwealth, but also from widening its hunting horizons.
In 2011, Turkey, a country that Rwanda had no previous ties with, set in.
By the time I was conducting research on this project, in 2014; Turkish investments had reached $370 million, 12% of Rwanda’s total investments since 2009.
Turkey has vastly invested in Rwanda’s energy sector and made substantial injections in the mining, construction and hospitality sectors.
That is not all. Turkish Airline flies to Kigali everyday to take hundreds of African passengers to Europe and elsewhere, all flown in by Rwanda’s national carrier; RwandAir that picks them from different cities of West, Central and Southern Africa.
A few months after setting up shop in Kigali, the Turkish Airline’s Rwanda Country Manager, Burcin Isler, was all praised for the country.
I flew with him to Turkey for a holiday in Antalya, on the Syrian border.
He told me that, “We trust the Rwandan economy and its stability…important to note is that 70% of world airline traffic floats over Turkey, this offers a good environment for long term investments.”
Isler told me that Turkey had seen Rwanda from a different prism. He said, Rwanda being in the heart of Africa serves as a strategic point of connection to the rest of Africa and since Istanbul is a strategic position in the world airline traffic, and being a major connection point to different points on the globe, opens Rwanda to the world.
“For us, it makes economic sense and increases our global expansion to serve the airline industry the best we can,” Isler said.
Yet, a decade ago, Rwanda had no functioning airline. Rwandans had no clue what was happening from the outside world, not even as near as Nairobi or Dar-es-Salaam.
At the moment, RwandAir flies to major cities in African regions and additional ones in Dubai, Europe and Asian and soon USA.
The airline has facilitated a conferencing industry the country has began focusing on, where Rwanda earns over $200 million from conferences annually.
But look at Rwanda from the ordinary citizens’ life.
Rwanda provides one dollar per day as stipend to the vulnerable and the poorest under a scheme called Vision 2020 Umurenge Programme (VUP). Education is free up to 12 years of schooling. Over 80% citizens have health insurance. Geographically, 95% of the country can access faster speed internet. Young and innovative youth are starting businesses that are run entirely on internet, plus creating jobs.
Government services can be accessed on a cellphone from one’s bedroom, a driver’s license, birth or marriage certificate, and many more.
Note that, prior dislodging the French, Rwanda had to consult and seek permission from the Elysee whenever the country would engage another country for bilateral ties. Poverty and illiteracy level were shooting through the roof.
A renowned researcher on Rwanda and a close friend of mine, Dr. Fredrick Golooba Mutebi was in transit travelling from South African where he had been presenting a paper on Rwanda when I asked him what people think about Rwanda.
He had just come from another conference in USA for the same. Until today, he said to me, “the world is ignorant about what Rwanda has achieved.”
This, he explained, like many other observers, was a result of chocking under the discomfort the country had been subjected to.
Today, Rwanda has expanded its wings.
President Kagame is Rwanda’s top salesman. He easily picks a phone and calls Dubai, Washington, Moscow or Beijing. He meets anybody at the touch of a button.
Howard Homan Buffett, a very close friend to Kagame, recently donated $500 million to help transform the country’s agriculture. There are no strings attached (an official told me he does not like people talking about his generosity).
On November 19, 2017, President Paul Kagame, for the first time of the Igihango National Order of Outstanding Friendship medals, conferred nine individuals in recognition of their exemplary service to the nation in various capacities.
Howard Buffett was one of them.
Kagem said then that, “Our friends who we acknowledge and recognise here tonight added their efforts to the dedication and commitment of Rwandans, we have really gone through the hardships together and overcome those seemingly insurmountable problems.”
Indeed Rwanda has been gaining more friends year by year. And many come with money, don’t forget about that.
Candy Ma, a Chinese millionaire, runs H&M Garments, a US$10 million textile factory that exports about 30,000 T-shirts per month to big Western trademarks such as Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein and expects to expand tenfold to 2,000 workers from 200.
But this is not where Rwanda wants to be yet.
The country hasn’t tapped well into the predicted $14 trillion combined GDP and $680 billion of trade between the Commonwealth member countries.
Before he was assigned to Turkey as Ambassador in 2015, another friend of mine, Rtd General Caesar Kayizari, told me that it is not yet time for Rwanda to sing ‘look at Eureka, we have found it’.”
It is because, for Kagame, to borrow his signature word, “the struggle continues.”
Rwanda is still a member of the International Organization of La Francophonie (IOF) and participates in its summits, but whenever Rwandan officials are reminded of whatever retribution for showing France an exit door, and opening the other for the Anglo-Saxons, they shrug their shoulders, sigh and possibly retort, “On s’en fiche!” (Who cares!).
See now, the next Commonwealth Meeting will be held in Kigali in 2020. The most victorious part of it is that it will be held in magnificent conference facilities built high-up overseeing a demolished French Cultural Center, which was France’s symbol of its presence. It is no more. And “On s’en fiche!”