Rwanda’s Growing Interventionism: The Rise of a New Regional Power in Sub-Saharan Africa


On 27 July 2023, Major General Sylvain Ekenge, the spokesperson of the Forces armées de la république démocratique du Congo (FARDC), alleged that units of the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) mounted an attack on the FARDC inside the territory of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The government of the DRC has repeatedly accused Rwanda of supporting the Mouvement du 23 mars (M23), an ethnic Tutsi-dominated insurgent group that has been waging an intermittent insurgency against the government of the DRC since 2012. But Kigali’s involvement in the DRC War is not the only ongoing Rwandan foreign intervention. In fact, Rwandan troops are currently deployed in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mozambique, while there are possibilities that Rwanda might also send troops to Benin. Thus, Rwandan military footprints across sub-Saharan Africa are expanding rapidly.

The Republic of Rwanda is a small landlocked East African state. With a territory of 26,338 km², Rwanda is one of the smallest states in Africa, but its population (13.4 million) is comparatively large. While its gross domestic product (GDP) is currently worth $13.15 billion, its economy has witnessed rapid growth in the 21st century and its state institutions have gained renown for efficiency and relative lack of corruption. The RDF, Rwanda’s armed forces, contain approximately 35,000 military and paramilitary personnel. Ethnic Hutus make up around 85% of Rwanda’s population, while ethnic Tutsis make up around 14%. However, since the termination of the Rwandan Genocide and the Rwandan Civil War in 1994, the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and its President Paul Kagame have dominated Rwandan politics. Kagame has served as the President of Rwanda since 2000 and has sought to transform Rwanda into the ‘Singapore of Africa.’ However, his government has been accused of authoritarianism, political repression and human rights violations.

Following the end of the Rwandan Civil War, the well-trained, experienced and well-disciplined troops of the RPF were integrated into the newly-formed Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), which was later transformed into the RDF. This provided Rwanda with a relatively stronger military vis-à-vis many African states. Over the years, Rwanda has stepped up military cooperation with the United States of America (USA), the United Kingdom (UK), China, and recently, France. This has enabled Rwanda to provide the RDF with adequate training and procure modern military equipment from different sources. This, in turn, has fuelled Rwanda’s regional ambitions.

Rwandan involvement in the DRC

The DRC has been plagued by armed conflicts for decades, and Rwandan intervention in the country dates back to the 1990s. The eastern provinces of the DRC had been home to large communities of ethnic Hutu, Tutsi, Banyamulenge (affiliated with the Tutsis) and Banyarwanda (a mixture of Hutus, Tutsis and other ethnicities), and this has contributed to Rwandan involvement in the prolonged conflict in the DRC. During and after the Rwandan Civil War, nearly 1.5 million Rwandans, including Tutsis who fled the Rwandan genocide and Hutus who fled the retaliation of the RPF, settled in Zaire (currently the DRC). Hutu ex-soldiers and ex-militiamen, who had participated in the genocide against the Tutsis, attacked Zairian Tutsis, Banyamulenges and Banyarwandas, and waged an insurgency against the RPF-controlled Rwanda with assistance from the Zairian government.

In response, Rwanda, along with its Zairian ally Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo-Zaïre (AFDL), invaded Zaire in October 1996, sparking the First Congolese War (1996–1997). The war resulted in a decisive Rwandan–AFDL victory and the overthrow of long-time Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko in May 1997. However, the government of Laurent-Désiré Kabila, the newly installed President of the DRC, was soon embroiled in a conflict with Rwanda, and with the help of the DRC, Hutu insurgents re-started their insurgency against the Rwandan government. In August 1998, Rwanda, acting in concert with Uganda and along with its local ally Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD), invaded the DRC for the second time in August 1998, sparking the Second Congolese War (1998–2003). The war resulted in a military stalemate, leading to the withdrawal of Rwandan troops from the DRC in exchange for commitment towards the disarmament of Hutu insurgents in October 2002 and the formation of a multi-party transitional government in July 2003.

However, the termination of the war has not prevented Rwanda and the DRC from waging a prolonged proxy war against each other. Rwanda has accused the DRC of backing the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu Power insurgent group based in the DRC. While the DRC has fought against the FDLR and participated in a joint operation with Rwanda against the group in 2009, Kinshasa has reportedly cooperated with the group on a number of occasions. On the other hand, the DRC has accused Rwanda of supporting the M23 and repeatedly violating the sovereignty of the DRC. Since May 2022, Kigali and Kinshasa have been locked into an armed conflict that is gradually spiralling out of control.

Rwandan involvement in the CAR

The CAR has been embroiled in a complex civil war since December 2012. A number of external actors, including France, South Africa, the European Union (EU), the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), intervened in the war at different times, but failed to stop the fighting and had to end their operations in the CAR. The United Nations (UN) deployed the Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation en Centrafrique (MINUSCA) in April 2014 to restore peace in the CAR, but it has not still achieved its goal either. At present, the government of the CAR is dependent on Russia and Rwanda for its security vis-à-vis the proliferating insurgent groups across the country. Russian private military companies (PMCs) and paramilitary organizations, including the Wagner Group and the Russian Imperial Movement, have been active in the CAR since 2017 and are fighting against the insurgent groups.

Meanwhile, Rwanda has been the topmost contributor to MINUSCA, with 2,847 Rwandan personnel, including 2,134 troops and 703 police personnel, deployed in the CAR under the UN’s banner. In October 2019, Kigali and Bangui signed a secretive military cooperation accord. Moreover, following the start of a major insurgent offensive in December 2020, Rwanda intervened in the war on the side of the government of the CAR, and sent approximately 1,000 troops to the CAR. Rwandan troops, acting in concert with the Forces armées centrafricaines (FACA) and the Russian PMCs, repelled the insurgent offensive and protected the government of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. By June 2021, a CAR-Russian-Rwandan counter-offensive succeeded in pushing the insurgents out of the major cities. Since then, however, Rwandan troops have assumed a largely defensive posture in the CAR.

According to an agreement signed in August 2021, Rwandan troops, currently numbering 1,200, have started equipping and training the FACA. Moreover, as a result of the Rwandan intervention, Kigali’s political and economic influence in the CAR has grown significantly. For instance, currently, a number of key personnel of international institutions in the CAR, including the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for MINUSCA Valentine Rugwabisa, the Commander of MINUSCA police Christophe Bizimungu, the chief of the Central African office of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Vedaste Kalima and the representative of the World Bank to the CAR Guido Rurangwa, are Rwandan citizens. Meanwhile, the number of Rwandan companies active in the CAR has increased fivefold since 2019, and Rwandan investors are rushing to do business in the CAR, involving themselves in all ranges of economic activities from the extraction of minerals to the production of yogurt.

Rwandan involvement in Mozambique, South Sudan and Benin

Mozambique has been facing a protracted insurgency in its northern province of Cabo Delgado since 2017. A number of external actors, including the USA, the UK, South Africa, Portugal, the EU and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), have been involved in the conflict to assist the Forças Armadas de Defesa de Moçambique (FADM) in their fight against the Ahlu Sunnah wal-Jamaah and the Islamic State – Central Africa Province (IS-CAP), but Rwandan intervention in Mozambique in June 2021 has proved to be decisive. By June 2023, the authority of the Mozambican government in Cabo Delgado has been largely restored, and the insurgent groups are in retreat. In fact, Rwandan intervention in Mozambique can be considered its most successful foreign intervention so far. At present, approximately 3,000 Rwandan troops and police personnel are deployed in Mozambique to bolster security and train the FADM.

In addition, Rwanda is the topmost contributor to the UN peacekeeping operation in South Sudan, with 3,078 Rwandan personnel currently deployed in the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS). Furthermore, Benin, plagued by insurgency, has increased military cooperation with Rwanda, which might pave the way for Rwandan intervention in the country in the near future. Thus, Rwandan troops are currently deployed in a Central African country (CAR), a South African country (Mozambique) and an East African country (South Sudan) either under UN banner or in independent capacity. Furthermore, Rwanda might intervene in another Central African country (DRC) and a West African country (Benin) in future. So, Rwanda has already undertaken or is poised to undertake military interventions in all regions in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Endgame

A number of factors have been cited as influencing Rwanda’s interventionism, including Kigali’s preference for ‘African solutions to African problems,’ its desire to bolster its national security and to protect its ethnic brethren in other states, its attempts to reap financial dividends, its ambitions of becoming a regional power and its intention to silence dissidents abroad. However, there are growing concerns about Rwanda’s growing military footprints. The EU has partially financed its operations in Mozambique and France has provided it with economic aid presumably in exchange for protecting French financial interests in Cabo Delgado. Consequently, Rwanda might transform into a regional ‘proxy’ for Western powers in Africa. Moreover, established regional powers, including South Africa and Nigeria, are reportedly dissatisfied with Rwanda’s proactive military diplomacy. In addition, extensive Rwandan economic involvement in the CAR has given rise to concerns about possible Rwandan economic exploitation of conflict-torn countries. Furthermore, some have argued that Rwanda’s interventions in the CAR and Mozambique have been at least partly motivated by its desire to deflect Western criticism of Rwandan foreign and domestic policy.

To conclude, Rwanda’s dramatic rise as a security provider for war-torn African states has opened up new possibility for the security architecture in Africa. However, it remains to be seen whether Rwanda’s growing interventionism proves to a boon or a bane for embattled African states.

Source : The Geopolitics