The MT Diary

A rehabilitated Rwanda has banned ethnic references, the French - and plastic bags.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

September is quite a good time to visit Rwanda, before the rainy season sets in. It wouldn't be right to say that, before I went to Kigali, everything I knew about the country could be written on a postage stamp. But almost all of it came from stamps. Fifty years ago, I had one of those stamp albums with a page of patronising history on each country. And my collection featured a few stamps from Rwanda-Urundi, then a Belgian colony. So I knew that the former capital had once been called Astrida, after the Queen of the Belgians, but not a lot more.

I had a bit of catching up to do before I met the president, who had invited the LSE to Kigali to talk about climate change and economic development. Kagame has spent most of his life in exile in Uganda, preparing an army to defeat the previous regime. He is a Tutsi, but don't even think of saying so. Since the genocide, the government has banned any references to Hutus and Tutsis. It has also banned plastic bags. Both prohibitions seem to be well enforced.

Today, the Rwandans are focused on the future. They are clearly ambitious and want to be a normal place where people worry about GDP and inflation rather than communal violence. But Kigali is a city of ghosts. The Hotel des Mille Collines has been made over but is recognisably the Hotel Rwanda, where hundreds of people targeted by the death squads were sheltered. The parliament building still displays gunshot damage. People's tribunals (gacaca) sit daily, dispensing summary justice to former genocidaires (the French have a word for it) who may have been in prison for a decade or more.

Some human rights gurus deplore these lawyer-free courts. But the Dutch government finances them, reckoning that they are the only realistic means of handling the consequences of a million murders. It's hard to know who's right.

The Belgians, who ran the country remarkably badly for half a century, are still around; as are the Germans, who were the colonial power before World War I. The Americans, too, are involved in a low-key way. But, curiously, the UK is now the largest donor to Rwanda, in spite of our lack of historical connection. That seems set to remain so, as the Conservatives have taken to visiting in numbers, led by their development spokesman Andrew Mitchell.

And the French, I hear you ask? Surely they want to sustain this hilly little corner of Francophonia? Well, they may want to, but there is no French ambassador. The Rwandans recently kicked the French out and closed the lycee and the cultural centre, which sits, barred and bolted, on the largest roundabout in town.

This inelegant diplomatic spat dates back to 1994, when French troops continued to shore up the old regime well beyond its sell-by date. France was keen to prevent the Tutsis in exile in Uganda, by then Anglophone, from toppling one of its client states. When the trouble began, French troops - according to a well-researched Rwandan report published in August - stood by and watched the killings. They were there to protect French citizens, but went well beyond that.

Not true, say the French, it was a humanitarian mission. A French judge has slapped an arrest warrant on President Kagame, accusing him of helping to shoot down the former president's private jet, which happened to be piloted by three French secret-service agents. It's hard to know how this will end, but Rwanda has applied to join the Commonwealth and is engineering a switch from French to English as fast as it can. A bit too fast for the motorbike taxi drivers. French is handy if you want to get anywhere in particular.

With all the talk of jungle wars and secret agents, you sometimes feel that you have strayed into a John Buchan novel. And you have to ask whether climate change is a priority.

Rwandans think so. As the Stern report shows, though Africa has contributed little to the build-up of greenhouse gases, it may well suffer more than anywhere else - from droughts, floods, movement of people and conflicts over land and grazing. So while we talk mitigation - cutting emissions - they are focused on adaptation: new crops, irrigation, stopping deforestation. Some complain that it's another post-colonial attack on the continent. Others, including the Rwandans, are beginning to see what they can do.

It's quite inspiring. There's not a lot going for Rwanda. Some decent tea and coffee, a bit of methane gas under a lake, and a few hundred gorillas - that's about the size of it in terms of natural resources. But they have a busy, can-do approach to life that increasingly appeals to aid donors, who like to see a return on their money.

So if you fancy a rather green place with, they say, a thousand hills (a wild under- estimate), a macabre recent history, decent beer and top-notch gorillas, but almost no plastic bags or Frenchmen, Rwanda could be your next holiday destination. It has a powerful story to sell, one has to say.

You will not, however, escape the Premier League. The Rwandans have picked up a nasty dose of premieritis. The president is well hedged. Two of his children support Arsenal, one Chelsea and one Man United. But in Rwanda's New Times on the day I left there were six football stories on the sports pages, and five were about Manchester City. C'est un drole de monde, as the Rwandans no longer say.

Howard Davies is the director of the London School of Economics.

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