French-Speaking Rwanda Turns to English

By Baldauf, Scott | The Christian Science Monitor, September 25, 2007 | Go to article overview

French-Speaking Rwanda Turns to English


Baldauf, Scott, The Christian Science Monitor


For decades, Rwanda has been one of nearly 30 Francophone countries in Africa where the language of business, power, and civilization has been French.

Up until recently, the French-speaking elite here saw their ties to Paris as a link to the civilized outside world. Top bureaucrats and scientists would get their university degrees from France's top ecoles. Those who returned to Africa would often take up positions in government after having served briefly as functionaries in the French government.

But today, on the sprawling campus of the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), a dramatic social change can be seen. Designed in 1997 to be an African version of MIT, KIST is shaping a new generation of scientists, engineers, and technical minds to help Rwanda become the Singapore of Africa. English is their language of instruction.

English? Mon Dieu!

The change came about in 1994. After a brutal 100-day genocide, when Rwanda's then ruling Hutu majority massacred some 800,000 minority Tutsis, an English-speaking Tutsi rebel movement based in Uganda swept into Rwanda, forcing the French-speaking Hutu genocidaires into exile.

Et voila, Rwanda became Anglophone.

Combined with Rwanda's November 2006 decision to cut relations with France, the transformation of Rwanda into an English-speaking country is already creating political and economic ripples throughout the region.

"France's relations with Rwanda, under former President Jacques Chirac, completely broke down," says Greg Mills, director of the Brenthurst Foundation, a think tank in Johannesburg. Mr. Mills believes that the election of a younger French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, may provide a needed break. "There is a potential under Sarkozy for a change. But it's no good saying there is going to be a change, unless you admit there are things that needed to be changed."

France's current troubles here in Rwanda are an outgrowth of its post-colonial policy of supporting African regimes in return for preferential trade and military relations with France. Under Mr. Chirac, this made regimes less susceptible to coups, but also less responsive to their populations.

"Jacques Chirac was a supporter of Africa, but he relied on an intimacy with leaders and the political class that is not going to be the case with President Sarkozy," says one Western diplomat in the region, speaking privately. Under Sarkozy, France is more likely to use its influence in Africa through multilateral organizations, the diplomat adds.

But there are some aspects of French policy that still roil. The French-created Common African Franc, or CFA, allows 16 African countries to trade with each other and with France on a preferential basis, but economists say it also restricts CFA countries from trading with anyone else.

Since the early 1990s, and particularly after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, many French-speaking Africans have begun to see their relationship with Paris as more burden than boon.

"Not that much has changed since liberation; Africa is still a profitable region in terms of France's commercial trade balance," says Achille Mbembe, history professor from Cameroon, who teaches at Witswatersrand University in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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