Rwanda scores coup with Commonwealth entry, renewed France ties

Former Belgian colony Rwanda was accepted this weekend to the Commonwealth of former British colonies and re-established diplomatic relations with its long-time arch-nemesis, France.

For Rwanda, Saturday may come to be seen as the day the tiny central African nation came out of the diplomatic wilderness.

On the very same day that Rwanda was accepted as a member in the club of former British colonies, the Commonwealth of Nations, Rwanda also managed to re-establish diplomatic relations with its long-time arch-nemesis, France, the nation that many Rwandan politicians blame for involvement in the 1994 genocide.

It's a turning point of sorts for the tiny landlocked nation of just 9 million citizens, reflecting both Rwanda's aspirations of becoming a regional economic powerhouse like Singapore and its Israel-like penchant for pushing around larger, weaker nations in the region.

"This is a paradigm shift for both countries [France and Rwanda]," says François Grignon, Africa program director for the International Crisis Group in Nairobi. "I think this reflects Rwanda's shifting from the instrumentalization of guilt over the genocide toward its aspirations of becoming a Singapore of Africa."

As for France, under the leadership of President Nicholas Sarkozy, it will make decisions based on its business interests, rather than mere preference for French-speaking nations.

A coup for President Kagame

This pair of diplomatic victories is a major coup for Rwanda's pro-business, authoritarian President Paul Kagame, who broke off relations with France three years ago after a French judicial inquiry pointed blame at him for the 1994 downing of a plane that killed Rwanda's former President Juvenal Habyarimana. The shooting down of that plane – which Kagame denies having anything to do with – sparked the genocide by provoking Hutu extremists to murder some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

The news comes at a time when Rwanda's ambitious economic policy of connecting the entire country with fiber-optic cable is showing signs of paying off, with foreign investment starting to increase. Earlier this year, an undersea broadband internet cable finally reached the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa, and Rwanda's fiber-optic network has the potential for making the densely populated country into a business and information center for East Africa.

Moving beyond the genocide

Diplomatic recognition by France and inclusion in the Commonwealth both give Mr. Kagame and Rwanda a measure of legitimacy and political protection. While Rwanda and France may continue to play "the blame game" over who bears the most responsibility for the Rwandan genocide, diplomatic recognition means that the two nations will tone down their disagreement, and will almost certainly expand their business ties.

"This is a very significant breakthrough for Rwanda," says Greg Mills, director of the Brenthurst Foundation, a South African think tank, and former advisor to President Kagame. "This puts to bed, finally, the ghosts of genocide. I think this helps to normalize relations with France and allows them to deal with the issues of genocide pragmatically."

French to English: It's all about business

Rwanda's inclusion in the Commonwealth – only the second non-British former colony to be selected, after Mozambique – reflects Rwanda's growing ties with its mainly English-speaking neighbors in the Great Lakes region of East Africa, such as Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya. Rwanda portrays its official shift from French to English as matter of economic necessity, a needed tool in the business world, rather than a rejection of the language of its former French-speaking colonial master, Belgium.

As for Rwanda's relations with France, few expect that diplomacy will actually equal friendship. As Grignon says, "Normalization does not mean love."

Even so, the restoration of diplomatic ties between two countries who just months ago were accusing each other of mass murder is a significant turn of events.

"I think this is a very important step in overcoming an awkward situation for France," says Princeton Lymon, an Africa expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "France for some time has been moving from its trade focus on Francophone Africa to a more broad policy. I think you're going to see a more pragmatic approach on France's part. There will always be an economic competition [with other rich nations], but it will also mean more cooperation with the US and more closeness with the European Union in matters of trade with Africa."

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