Page last updated at 12:53 GMT, Friday, 27 November 2009

What would the Commonwealth do for Rwanda?

Young Rwandans enjoy a game of cricket
Rwandans who were forced to flee to English-speaking Uganda brought back a passion for cricket when they returned

By Will Ross
BBC News, Kigali

The head of Kigali Independent University has a problem. Professor Alphonse Ngagi has just overseen the switch from using French to English as the teaching language. But the professor himself does not yet speak English.

"All the lessons are in English but the French will never leave the students' heads so they will still use it," said Professor Ngagi.

"We are putting a lot of emphasis on English because it is not yet widely spoken here and after all it is the international language."

Downstairs, the noticeboards are all in English.

There is a special message for a student expelled for cheating during a quantitative methods test - written in English, of a sort.

"Your reintegration will be conditioned by a written forgiveness request and the engagement to confirm yourself to the university based on ethic values," the letter states.

Across town there is further evidence of Rwanda's attempts to encourage English.

A Rwandan cricket team
Rwandans have embraced the English game of cricket

"Wait. Yes, run!" shouts Eric Dusingizimana as he scampers a quick single. Yes, you've guessed it - some Rwandans are playing cricket.

"I saw the Indians playing it and then my coach came to our school and now it is my game," said Mr Dusingizimana who - when he is not studying civil engineering - opens the batting for Rwanda.

Rwandans exiled in English-speaking Kenya and Uganda due to conflict, learnt the game there and brought it back when they returned after the 1994 genocide.

President Paul Kagame was exiled in Uganda too, though I have no idea if he played cricket. If he had tried his hand at the game, he might have made a wily spin-bowler or a difficult-to-get-out batsman.

Worsening ties

Rwanda's decision to become Anglophone and turn its back on La Francophonie is not surprising.

As well as trade opportunities, relations between France and Rwanda have been poor for years with the Rwandan government accusing France of having backed the forces that went on to instigate the genocide.

Despite having no historical link to Britain, Rwanda is trying to become the 54th member of the Commonwealth.

But not everybody thinks it should be allowed into this club of mostly former British colonies.

The country may have come a long way since the genocide 15 years ago in terms of security and governance, but human rights groups paint a grim picture.

A recent report by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) urges Rwanda to tackle a lack of political freedom and harassment of journalists before it can be admitted.

Journalist Jean Bosco Gasasira
It is as though people are in a communist era where people are scared to talk
Jean Bosco Gasasira

"CHRI acknowledges that Rwanda has what appears to be a well-deserved reputation for governmental efficiency and for being less corrupt than a number of other countries - but its claims about the lack of corruption appear hollow when considering its complicity in the illicit economy of the region, and its plunder of the DRC's natural resources," the report reads.

His critics describe Frank Habineza, who is trying to set up the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, as a mere opportunist but the party would provide an opposition to President Paul Kagame's RPF.

But he complains of harassment by state agents and says efforts to register the party have been blocked.

He told me that several party representatives have been locked up recently, including Gaston Bihibihindi who was trapped near his home by soldiers.

"He was kicked and slapped and asked why he was recruiting people for the party. Then he was taken to a prison inside the ministry of defence and he stayed there for four days without food," said Mr Habineza.

"He just wants to make publicity for himself so the party gets some new members," is how Eugene Munyakayanza, the permanent secretary in the foreign affairs ministry, sees it.

He dismissed the report by the CHRI as lies and suggested the authors were working alongside those who carried out the genocide.

Mr Munyakayanza insisted that Rwanda was a leader when it came to democracy and human rights.

'Oppressive laws'

But one encounter troubled me on this visit - I asked a man in his twenties playing football what he made of Rwanda's switch from French to English.

He looked at me and said: "Sorry, I don't have permission to speak to you."

Does Rwanda gain any real economic or political benefit from joining the British Common Wealth, other than probably upsetting the French?

If that is not a sign of a climate of fear, then I do not know what is.

Journalist Jean Bosco Gasasira has scars on his head and arm - the results, he says, of being beaten into a coma by state agents two years ago after writing critical articles about people in high places.

When Mr Gasasira suspected a state agent was tracking him, we moved to his car to continue the interview.

"We are tired of oppressive laws which are designed to suppress citizens," he said.

"It is as though people are in a communist era where people are scared to talk. When you do talk they'll beat you up and you may end up dying or in prison with false allegations made against you," he added.

"Paul Kagame has done many things, including bringing back security to Rwanda and governance, but we also need security in people's hearts - people need to be free to speak."

In the foreign affairs ministry, Mr Gasasira was dismissed as a self-publicist and a liar.

"If he was persecuted he would not be able to live freely in Rwanda," said Mr Munyakayanza.

As I left the Chinese-built ministry, two Chinese businessmen walked in and I wondered whether the whole Francophone v Anglophone issue was really a sideshow to a far more important friendship for Rwanda.

Back at the university, Professor Ngagi was off to his afternoon appointment with an English teacher.

"Next year I will be able to do the interview in English," he said.

But he added that perhaps learning Chinese might also be a good idea.

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