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KIGALI, Rwanda — A few years ago Rwanda’s capital city had a distinctly French feel to it, from the restaurants invariably named "Chez Something-Or-Other" to people driving on the right-hand-side of the road.
Everyone spoke French — as well as Kinyarwanda and Swahili. While many in the city could speak English, in everyday life they did not.
Now it is another country. “Welcome to Rwanda!” says the immigration official. “Where are you going?” the well-dressed taxi man asks. “Would you like a large or a small beer?” the barman queries.
Rwanda has, in the last year or so, dumped the French language. They say the reason is simple: Rwanda is joining the East African Community trade bloc and so will be at a competitive disadvantage if its people don’t speak the language of the majority with whom it will trade.
True, but not the whole truth.
The French cultural institute in Kigali is boarded up, Rwanda has joined the Commonwealth (a club of former British colonies) and even taken up cricket. It receives more aid money from Britain than any other country and, as of this academic year, children are no longer taught French at school.
“In a few years no Rwandan will speak French,” said one woman proudly.
President Paul Kagame and his closest allies were in exile for decades in Anglophone Uganda. They learned to despise the French spoken by their political and ethnic opponents in Rwanda. With Kagame in charge what is under way is an erasing of the memory of France.
The depth of animosity between Rwanda and France is the result of an ongoing row over responsibility for the 1994 genocide in which nearly a million Rwandans were killed. Kagame, the former rebel general who chased the genocidal leaders from the country, has been at loggerheads with France ever since.
Kagame accuses France of supporting the so-called "genocidaires" and supplying the then majority Hutu leadership with the machetes to do the job. France says it was on Kagame’s orders that an airplane carrying president Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down on 6th April 1994 sparking the genocide and, so they say, giving Kagame the moral authority he needed to takeover the country and rule it with an iron fist.
Kagame’s decision to change Rwanda’s language may be pragmatic but it is also a well-directed snub at his bitter enemy. It is not only an assault on one of a dwindling number of bastions of the French language it also deals France’s waning significance on the continent a further blow.