Chris McGreal, Africa correspondent
The Guardian, Tuesday October 14 2008
The Rwandan government is to switch the country's entire education system from French to English in one of the most dramatic steps to date in its move away from Francophone influence.
Officially the change is to reposition Rwanda as a member of the East African Community, an organisation made up mostly of English-speaking countries such as neighbours Uganda and Tanzania.
However, the shift to education solely in English is part of a wholesale realignment away from French influence that includes applying to join the Commonwealth - if accepted Rwanda would be only the second member, after Mozambique, that has not been a British colony - and establishing a cricket board.
Underpinning the move is a long and bitter dispute with France born of its support for the Hutu regime that oversaw the 1994 genocide of 800,000 Tutsis, which has seen the French ambassador expelled and the closure of the French cultural centre, international school and radio station.
However, what amounts to an attempt to expel the French language too, consigning it to a few hours a week in schools and increasingly forcing it out of the workings of government, will be badly received in Paris where protection of the language is at the heart of what critics describe as the French obsession with maintaining influence in Africa and which led it to back the Hutu extremist government.
No timetable has been set to implement the policy, which will face a number of challenges, including finding sufficient teachers who speak English. The cabinet also decided that all public service workers will receive English instruction.
English was made an official language in Rwanda, alongside French and the indigenous Kinyarwanda, after the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) overthrew the Hutu regime and took power in 1994.
The RPF leadership, dominated by Tutsis raised in exile in Anglophone countries, generally speaks English and not French. Rwanda's minister of education, Daphrosa Gahakwa, grew up in Uganda where she took her O levels. She studied her PhD in genetic engineering at the University of East Anglia.
English has also become fashionable even among French-speaking young people in the cities, particularly Tutsis, as a means of rejecting Francophone influence and its association with the Hutu regime responsible for the genocide.
At present the first three years of primary school is in Kinyarwanda after which pupils may choose English or French. The French option is to be dropped.
Instruction at Kigali's elite Institute of Science and Technology is already in English and it is increasingly the language of instruction in the national university.
The drive towards English is in part financial. Close trading ties not only with other east African nations such as Uganda and Kenya but also with South Africa, which has provided investment for luxury hotels and shopping malls, have helped drive an economic boom in Rwanda.
The Rwandan trade and industry minister, Vincent Karega, told Kigali's New Times newspaper that the country is looking beyond the Francophone world.
"French is spoken only in France, some parts of west Africa, parts of Canada and Switzerland," he said. "English has emerged as a backbone for growth and development not only in the region but around the globe."
There is little doubt that a deep loathing of all things French is also an important factor for some of Rwanda's leaders.
The latest salvo against French influence comes weeks after the Rwandan government accused more than 30 French politicians, officials and military officers of complicity in the genocide, including the late president, François Mitterrand, and called for their prosecution.
A two-year investigation by an official commission alleged that French forces in Rwanda committed crimes against humanity and protected those who organised the genocide, helping them to flee the country and escape justice.
The Rwandan inquiry followed allegations by France's leading anti-terrorism judge, Jean-Louis Bruguière, that in effect accused Rwanda's Tutsi president, Paul Kagame, of bringing mass murder on his own people by allegedly ordering the 1994 assassination of the then president, Juvenal Habyarimana, which marked the start of the genocide.
The judge could not indict Kagame as head of state but he issued international arrest warrants for nine of his closest aides and advised the tribunal trying those behind the genocide to pursue Kagame.
France's claim that Rwanda was a French-speaking nation was always somewhat disingenuous given that 80% of the population spoke only Kinyarwanda fluently. But there was no doubt about France's influence over the former Belgian colony.
It remains strong in other Francophone countries in Africa from the Democratic Republic of Congo to the west and central African nations where the national currencies are underpinned by French financial support.
There is little doubt English is encroaching on French influence, not only because it is the language of business in Europe but because of the economic power of South Africa