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Rwanda’s genocide report points finger at former French president François Mitterrand

By Mehdi Ba
Posted on Wednesday, 21 April 2021 11:10

Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana is received at the Elysée Palace by President Francois Mitterrand on 17 July 1992 in Paris. William STEVENS/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

A report commissioned by the Rwandan government on France’s role in the 1994 Tutsi genocide was formally presented to the country’s cabinet on 19 April. Prepared by an American law firm, the report examines France’s involvement in the genocide while trying to avoid adding fuel to the fire as relations between the two countries continue to thaw.

Those expecting a barrage of explosive statements are in for a disappointment. Made public on Monday 19 April, the investigation into France’s role in Rwanda from 1990 to 1994 – before and during the genocide – refrains from drawing any headline-grabbing conclusions that could reopen old wounds about a tragic dispute that has kept Kigali and Paris from restoring their diplomatic relations in any lasting way for a quarter century.

The report’s authors made the following terse but unprovocative observation, like a would-be slogan, worthy of the kind of understatement to which Rwandans have grown accustomed: “[T]he Government of France … enabled a foreseeable genocide.” It serves as a cryptic verdict in which the long-awaited operative words – notably French “responsibility” and “complicity” – have been mostly left out.

“We didn’t tackle the issue of complicity, which, for that matter, is something we don’t really understand. We zeroed in on the facts,” said a Rwandan official without elaborating further.

A diplomatic slight

A great deal of time has passed since the Mucyo Commission published its August 2008 report, the title of which alone smacked of a diplomatic slight aimed at France: “National Independent Commission Charged With Gathering Evidence to Show the Implication of the French Government in the Genocide Perpetrated in Rwanda in 1994”.

In addition to its searing conclusion directly implicating the French authorities of the day in the preparation for and execution of the genocide, the seven-member commission, chaired by the late Jean de Dieu Mucyo, a former prosecutor general and justice minister, produced a list of 33 French political and military leaders who were personally involved in the events that unfolded, thereby setting the stage for possible legal action. In France, Rwanda’s first attempt at documenting the history of a neocolonial adventure that has been controversial for so many years sparked an outcry among the key people implicated in the matter.

“The latest report is a historical, not a legal, indictment. It doesn’t clear anyone’s name but it does avoid the accusatory approach taken by the Mucyo report,” said a Rwandan government source, more or less implying that Kigali took care to not unwisely add fuel to the fire given the thaw in diplomatic relations that began when Emmanuel Macron was elected president of France in 2017. This more impartial line is reflected in the report’s neutral title: “A Foreseeable Genocide: The Role of the French Government in Connection with the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda”.

Another novel, and no less important, aspect of the report is that the lengthy investigation, which began in early 2017, was entrusted to the Washington, DC-based law firm Levy Firestone Muse. Such a choice may seem paradoxical, as the Rwandan government was not looking to take legal action against French citizens implicated in the matter.

Levy Firestone Muse has extensive experience conducting complex investigations involving governments. Robert Muse was notably responsible for the US Senate’s 2005 inquiry into the preparedness for and response to Hurricane Katrina. The firm lists on its website the wide array of clients it has represented over the years, including clients in sensitive US congressional investigations such as Watergate, Operation Fast and Furious [in which the US Justice Department allowed illegal gun sales to Mexican drug cartels in an effort to dismantle their networks] and the Iran-Contra affair. Its lawyers also served as counsel during the Bloody Sunday inquiry in Northern Ireland.

Millions of pages of source materials

“This investigation has included outreach to hundreds of witnesses and document custodians on three continents; interviews with over 250 witnesses in English, French, and Kinyarwanda; collection and analysis of millions of pages of documents, transcripts, and contemporaneous news articles, primarily in the same three languages,” the report’s authors write. Some of the off-the-record testimony was contributed by French military personnel who disagreed with the official line Paris was defending at the time. The law firm’s investigation staff even interviewed Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame.

Despite the more than three-year-long thaw in diplomatic relations, the investigators’ attempts to reach out to Paris were ignored. “The French government, though aware of this investigation, has not been cooperative … The Government of Rwanda has sent the Government of France multiple requests for documents to establish the facts. The French government acknowledged receipt of the Government of Rwanda’s requests for documents on 20 December 2019, 10 July 2020, and 27 January 2021, and has produced zero documents in response,” the report reads.

Political responsibility

The publication of this massive 592-page report provides a useful supplement to another report – this one just under 1,000 pages long – released to the public on 26 March by the Duclert Commission, a group of French historians chaired by Vincent Duclert. “Although there was no coordination between the two investigations, the content of their respective reports is mostly in the same vein,” said a Rwandan government source.

However, the preface to the Kigali-commissioned report contradicts this assessment somewhat: “The [Duclert] Commission’s conclusion suggests that the French government was ‘blind’ to the coming genocide. Not so … The French government was neither blind nor unconscious about the foreseeable genocide.”

As Rwanda’s authorities sought to focus their attention on France’s political responsibility both before and after the genocide, they fully own up to their decision to not commission a meticulous investigation of certain highly sensitive events such as Operation Turquoise (June to August 1994).

Hutu militiamen and French soldiers from Operation Turquoise in Gisenyi, Rwanda, on 27 June 1994.
Hutu militiamen and French soldiers from Operation Turquoise in Gisenyi, Rwanda, on 27 June 1994. Pascal GUYOT / AFP

This French-led military operation, inaccurately presented as a humanitarian action, indirectly forestalled the defeat of the genocidal interim government and provided a safe haven for génocidaires to flee with impunity to what was then known as Zaire. Rwanda’s decision is certain to be seen as problematic by observers critical of France’s role in the genocide, especially as our Rwandan government source added: “Turquoise wasn’t monolithic: a secret military operation was taking place under the cover of a so-called humanitarian endeavour.”

The country’s latest report does break new ground by investigating events that occurred after the genocide ended in July 1994. “In the years that followed, Paris took a number of steps to try to covertly undermine the new Rwandan regime’s investigation efforts,” our Rwandan government source said. “These attempts to hide the truth have involved French presidents like Jacques Chirac and François Hollande.”

Mitterrand’s neocolonial engagement

But it is only logical that the report identifies Chirac and Hollande’s predecessor, François Mitterrand, as the primary architect of France’s toxic and anachronistic policy implemented in Rwanda from 1990 to 1994: “The arrogance of Mitterrand’s neocolonial engagement in Rwanda was to pursue French geopolitical interests with indifference to the consequences for Tutsi in Rwanda.”

The authors add: “For French policy in Rwanda, the overriding issue was not a coming genocide; it was preventing the RPF [Rwandan Patriotic Front] from establishing what Mitterrand referred to in June 1994 as a ‘Tutsiland’.”

On the road to normalising relations

This coming 18 and 19 May, President Kagame is due in Paris to take part in a financing summit for sub-Saharan African economies, and a meeting on the topic of Sudan. President Macron, for his part, is expected to make an official visit to Kigali in May, although an exact date has yet to be set.

Perhaps the visit will provide a ripe opportunity for the two leaders to make further strides in the normalisation of French-Rwandan relations, a process that began in 2017. Already, some are beginning to hope that Macron will use the occasion to end the cycle of denial that has kept French officials from showing any signs of repentance over the past 27 years. “We’re not demanding an apology,” an official source in Kigali said. So far, only Belgium, the United States, the Vatican and the UN have offered one.

“Macron would like to make a ceremonial gesture during his visit,” the same source added.

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