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Rwanda: ‘I come from the political school of Kagame’ says Mushikiwabo

By Patrick Smith
Posted on Tuesday, 30 March 2021 13:24

Francophonie General Secretary Louise Mushikiwabo takes part in a working session during the G5 Sahel summit Tuesday 30 June 2020 in Nouakchott. (Ludovic Marin, Pool via AP)

It was an away match for Louise Mushikiwabo, a foray to the heart of the British establishment. Chatham House, on London’s St James’s Square, was home to three British prime ministers before the building was handed over, in the aftermath of the First World War, to academics and diplomats charged with analysing crises and preventing war.

Some 16 years later, the Second World War broke out, one of whose consequences was the coinage of the term ‘genocide’.

The terrible reality behind the word has shaped Mushikiwabo’s life, as it has that of her country since 1994. Her brother Landoald Ndasingwa, a businessman and politician, was killed on the first day of the Rwandan genocide.

Mushikiwabo’s invitation to speak at Chatham House was centred on the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), to which she was elected secretary-general in 2018, but the failures of the international system in Rwanda and neighbouring countries quickly surfaced in the discussion.

Given Rwanda’s decision in 1996 to adopt English as an official language – seen as a not-so-veiled protest against France and its government’s role in the genocide – it is remarkable that Mushikiwabo emerged as head of an organisation in Paris to promote the French language.

France, Rwanda, and the genocide

“It’s not a secret that France and Rwanda have had a very, very difficult relationship from the genocide, 25 years ago,” Mushikiwabo begins, once we have been ushered into an elegant Chatham House drawing-room.

She pauses then stresses the double ‘very’ before allowing an accolade to the current patron in Paris: “I’m very happy that with President Emmanuel Macron there is genuine willingness to bring the countries back together. And I think the keyword here is genuine, because there have been attempts before….”

Then comes a qualification: “The problem that divided France and Rwanda has not been solved, but there is a willingness to advance, to move to much better relations.”

It was shrewd diplomacy on both sides that boosted Mushikiwabo’s candidacy to head the OIF. Her personal story helped too: “I fit in every part of the Francophonie, I grew up francophone and I switched or learned English, I am sort of a francophone at heart but a citizen of the world, and that’s what our organisation is today.”

As it has elsewhere, Rwanda ran a formidable lobbying operation. With the backing of the AU, which President Paul Kagame was chairing at the time, the mathematics should have clinched it: 29 of the OIF’s 54 members are African.

Then, with a smiling understatement, Mushikiwabo adds: “And the support of France and President Macron in particular was a very good thing.”

That said, Mushikiwabo is in no doubt that the international system is in crisis: “We need to translate in clear language for our citizens what good multilateralism can do for them […] in terms of fighting terrorism, dealing with climate [change].”

The scepticism is understandable: “If they only see our glamorous summits, meetings of ministers, very shiny silk ties, and women in high-heels […] it’s not going to speak to them.”

The point about relevance is far bigger than public relations: “If we fail, then we will see more and more inward-looking citizens, more and more of these nationalistic tendencies.”

Should Africa engage with multilateral organisations?

A bigger issue for Africa is whether its governments should engage with organisations such as the OIF and the Commonwealth, both with their headquarters in the capital of the respective former colonial power and heavily influenced by it.

Time for some history: “We came out of colonialism. The French language is not the language of the founders of La Francophonie. La Francophonie was not created by France. It was created by three Africans and a Cambodian, and founded in Niamey.”

That is the more important point, says Mushikiwabo: “They took something positive out of such a horrible experience as colonialism. They owned the language, used it to educate, to communicate globally, to assert the diplomatic presence of our countries.”

The same point can be argued in favour of the Commonwealth, whose secretary-general, Patricia Scotland, Mushikiwabo gets on well with. Rwanda is a member of both organisations. Its joining the Commonwealth in 2009, like its adoption of English, was seen as a snub to Paris.

Mushikiwabo told the Chatham House meeting that she and Scotland would be visiting Cameroon together to see how their two organisations could encourage a peaceful resolution of the political crisis there. Pressed on how this bilingual diplomatic initiative might bridge the linguistical and political divides in Cameroon, she was cautious. She did not press the point about the abdication of responsibility by the UN and the AU while Cameroon’s crisis has destroyed many lives and could yet spin out of all control.

Asked about parallels with her own country’s history, Mushikiwabo draws a thick black line: “Cameroon is very different from Rwanda, where there was a state-backed programme of genocide.”

Mushikiwabo’s career path

Mushikiwabo’s diplomatic career was far from being mapped out. The consistent thread is her love of languages: “I started thinking I could become an interpreter at the UN. I thought that was quite cool, but I ended up in the political world in Washington instead.”

After a stint in the communications department at the IMF, she was spotted by Donald Kaberuka, who had just been elected president of the AfDB.

After running communications at the Bank’s headquarters in Tunisia, Mushikiwabo was made an offer she could hardly refuse: to do the same job for President Kagame’s government in Kigali. Within a year, she was appointed foreign minister, where she stayed for a decade. So, has she finished with national politics?

“I’m not away from national politics, but I’m now acting in a much broader environment. My professional obligations are for many, many more countries than my own.”

In other words, no. Mushikiwabo hardly skips a beat before the follow-up: “I come from the political school of Paul Kagame. I remain close to him as a leader who I think is extraordinary.”

As a stream of well-wishers eddy into the room, hands and business cards outstretched, Mushikiwabo prepares for her next meeting. Her earlier bravu­ra performance prompts a thought about the much-raised question of the succession in Rwanda. What job offer might persuade Mushikiwabo to return home? Answers on a postcard please, to the Office of the President, Kigali.

This interview took place at the end of 2019, and is available as part of the print edition of The Africa Report magazine: ‘Africa in 2020’

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