On the surface, Rwanda is not an obvious security provider, having endured one of the worst genocides in recent history just three decades ago. However, in recent years, the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) has emerged as one of the most capable militaries in Africa with a wide operational footprint across the continent. Rwandan forces have engaged rebels in the Central African Republic (CAR), conducted counterinsurgency operations against Jihadists in Mozambique, and if speculation is accurate, may soon be deployed to Benin, also.
These deployments are part of President Paul Kagame’s energetic strategy of military diplomacy which has positioned Rwanda to become one of Africa’s most active security providers. By adopting such a strategy, Kagame is able to build stronger ties with regional and international actors, increase Rwandan diplomatic influence, and secure lucrative economic partnerships for Rwandan companies.
Rwandan Forces Are Operating Across Africa
The RDF consists of only about 33,000 regular soldiers but they are kept active with various peacekeeping and security provision tasks. In fact, Rwanda is the fourth largest contributor to UN peacekeeping missions in the world, with between 4,500 and 6,000 Rwandan soldiers donning blue helmets.
Rwandan personnel currently operate in CAR both as a part of the UN peacekeeping mission (MINUSCA) and as a result of a bilateral agreement between the Central African and Rwandan governments. Rwanda contributes the most personnel to the UN mission, with about 2,148 military personnel and 690 police officers. At the Central African government’s request, Rwanda sent additional troops in 2020 to provide security against rebels ahead of the presidential elections.
Rwanda likewise maintains an important military presence in Mozambique, which has struggled with a jihadist insurgency since 2017 posed by Ansar al-Sunna, mostly in the Cabo Delgado province. The RDF dispatched 1,000 troops in July 2021 at the request of Mozambican President Felipe Nyusi. Since then, they have reportedly thinned out the 2,500 strong insurgency to just 300 fighters and retaken key areas such as Mocímboa da Praia during joint missions with the Mozambican army as well as troops from the South African Development Community (SADC) taskforce and Tanzanian forces.
Now, the RDF looks set to expand its area of operations to Benin, which has faced incursions on its northern borders by jihadists from Niger and Burkino Faso. The Rwandan military’s future role in Benin remains unclear, although following a meeting with Kagame in April this year, Beninese President Patrice Talon said that the RDF could assist with ‘supervision, coaching, training, joint deployment.’
Strategic Rationale: Diplomatic and Economic Gains
Kagame, who has been in power since 2000, is a shrewd politician and has thus far been able to leverage Rwanda’s military involvements to produce diplomatic and economic gains. A strong proponent of ‘African solutions for African problems,’ Kagame has harnessed the RDF’s commitments in CAR and Mozambique to bolster Rwanda’s image as a dependable security guarantor and provided economic access to companies affiliated with Crystal Ventures, a holding company that acts as the investment wing of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front.
In CAR, Rwanda’s influence is enhanced further by a range of agreements between Bangui and Kigali that are intended to enhance the Central African state’s ability to govern. These include measures to modernise the civil service and improve the security sector. This, combined with the RDF’s military presence, has persuaded the Central African government to grant Rwandan firms privileged access to conduct business in the country.
More than 100 Rwandan companies now operate in CAR and are involved in the extraction of valuable materials such as diamonds, gold, and timber. The Rwandan government has been granted 25-year concessions for at least five mines. According to a report by the International Crisis Group, RDF troops are sometimes more heavily involved in protecting Rwanda’s economic prospects in the country than they are fighting rebels or patrolling insecure areas.
The terms of the agreement between the Rwandan and Mozambican governments remain unclear, although there are conceivable economic and diplomatic incentives here too. Energy giants ExxonMobil and TotalEnergies have long sought to extract vast quantities of natural gas from Mozambique. Potential profits are now even greater because of Europe’s search for alternative suppliers to Russia amid the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. However, these plans have long been frustrated by the insurgency in Cabo Delgado. The country also holds immense potential for the graphite and gemstone industries, but extraction efforts have likewise been complicated by the insurgency.
Since its initial deployment in Cabo Delgado, which has largely been around Palma and Mocímboa da Praia, the RDF’s remit has expanded to the southern region of the province as well. This means that Rwandan forces are responsible for security in areas where natural gas exploration and the extraction of gemstones and graphite is occurring. The degree to which Rwandan firms have access to these industries in Mozambique is uncertain, although they are known to have a presence in the country. In any case, the RDF’s status as a security guarantor in areas vital to these interests will give Rwanda an important voice that stakeholders will be obliged to listen to.
An Alternative to Wagner Group
A further way Rwanda may enhance its influence is as an alternative security guarantor to Wagner Group. Although Rwanda maintains cordial relations with Russia and President Kagame has defended Russia’s presence in Africa, the RDF suspended military cooperation with Wagner in June 2021 when reports emerged that mercenaries belonging to the group had attacked civilians in CAR. Notably, Wagner also had a presence in Mozambique but withdrew its forces after just a few months when it failed to repel insurgents in 2019.
With the West determined to limit Russian influence, Wagner Group’s activities in the region are perceived as a threat. The mercenary group enables Russia to act as a security guarantor in Africa without having to deploy it conventional forces. Meanwhile, the West’s influence on the continent is waning, with France suffering particularly bad setbacks during the wave of recent coups and actors like the US generally being more hesitant to commit its forces to Africa.
Under these circumstances, Rwanda is an attractive alternative to promote as a security guarantor in Africa, and although Kigali is not interested in anything approaching alignment with the West, it would welcome grater diplomatic gravitas and investment. The West has already shown receptiveness to this idea. Late last year, the EU granted €20 million ($22 million) to Rwanda’s efforts in Mozambique and RDF troops have gained access to training and equipment from NATO members.
Thus far, Kagame’s strategy of exporting security seems to be paying off. As long as the RDF continues to find relative success during peacekeeping and counterinsurgency operations, Rwanda is well positioned to enhance its national prestige, expand its diplomatic influence, and gain access to valuable resources.
Rwanda is an attractive security provider to both African nations in need of military assistance and various external actors – namely Western ones – because the RDF can provide ‘African solutions for African problems.’ After centuries of colonisation and decades of Cold War-era meddling, African nations are naturally wary of external interventions by non-African actors. The RDF have found success in Cabo Delgado, for example, due to their cultural understanding and ability to interact with civilians in their own language (Swahili).
Meanwhile, the West is an awkward position because political turbulence in Africa continues to threaten European security and economic interests, but the US, EU, and other Western actors are either hesitant to become entangled in the region or have recently suffered serious setbacks. For these reasons, Rwanda’s utility to a variety of regional and international players will continue to grow.
Of course, intervention does not come without risks. Rwanda has a relatively small population when compared to other African countries and cannot afford to overstretch militarily. There are also some human rights advocates who are sceptical of the Rwandan military’s conduct, both abroad and domestically. Additionally, Rwanda’s economic and political interests in the country’s where the RDF has deployed hardly makes it a dispassionate peacekeeper. For now, however, these doubts do not look set to significantly challenge Kagame’s geostrategic ambitions and Rwanda’s status as a dependable security provider looks set to grow.
Source : Modern Diplomacy