Rwandan foreign minister elected Francophonie head
The world organisation of French-speaking nations on Friday elected Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo as its new head despite her country's shift to English a decade ago and controversy over its rights record.
Mushikiwabo was elected in a suspense-free vote on the last day of the International Organisation of La Francophonie (OIF) summit in the Armenian capital Yerevan. She will replace Canadian politician Michaelle Jean.
The 57-year-old visited dozens of countries to campaign for support and received the backing of the African Union as well as the crucial support of France.
"We can do much more and much better. The Francophonie is there to weigh in on matters whether it is in the heart of the UN or in our regional organisations," said Mushikiwabo, who takes over in January for a four-year term.
Ironically Rwanda, a former Belgian colony where French was the lingua franca, switched to English as the language of education in 2008 and joined the Commonwealth a year after.
Her election is a victory for both Rwandan strongman Paul Kagame and French President Emmanuel Macron, who have sought to improve relations between their two nations, long fraught due to Kigali's accusations of French complicity in the 1994 genocide that killed at least 800,000, mostly Tutsis.
Her candidacy sparked criticism with Rwanda under fire over human rights violations and Kagame's controversial constitutional changes that allow him to extend his stay in power.
"Rwanda is far from having a political regime that respects individual and political freedoms, while the charter of the Francophonie assigns primary importance to these principles as a core of its fundamental values," France's former minister of Cooperation and the Francophonie, Pierre-Andre Wiltzer, said.
"Seeking the leadership of the Francophonie is clearly part of Rwanda's goal for a greater continental and global role," said Elissa Jobson who researches the African Union (AU) for the International Crisis Group think tank.
"It's a significant move given Rwanda's frosty relations with France, its adoption of English as the country's main language and its admission to the Commonwealth."
Real transition in Rwanda
But Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hailed her election as a "reflection of the importance of Africa for the Francophonie."
And French President Emmanuel Macron said "Rwanda is in the midst of a real political transition or I hope so in any case."
Rwanda's rights record has come under severe criticism.
Two detailed reports by Human Rights Watch published last year alleged that summary executions are carried out in Rwanda by both the police and the army, with the military also accused of using torture.
In July, the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture cancelled a visit to Rwanda for a second time, accusing Kigali of a lack of cooperation.
In the run up to the Francophonie vote, opposition leader Victoire Ingabire was unexpectedly freed from jail, and government critic Diane Rwigara was granted bail in an ongoing trial after a year in prison.
Established in 1970, the OIF unites the world's French-speaking countries.
It has 58 members and 26 observers which together account for a population of over 900 million people, including 274 million French speakers.
French is currently the world's fifth most spoken language after Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish and Arabic, according to official French estimates.