Rwanda’s military support to other countries is part of a strategy to boost its reputation

By Federico Donelli - The Conversation
Article Rwanda’s military support to other countries is part of a strategy to boost its reputation

Rwanda is one of Africa's geographically smallest countries. However, its foreign policy, whose hallmark is military diplomacy, has attracted international attention.

Military diplomacy refers to activities carried out by representatives of a country's security apparatus to pursue its foreign policy interests. These activities include the use of armed forces in combat and non-combat operations.

Powerful countries such as the US and China are the main users of military diplomacy. Smaller players rarely have the necessary capabilities.

Some African regional players like South Africa and Kenya have tried to adopt forms of military diplomacy. However, their attempts have often been met with suspicion by other African countries.

Rwanda, on the other hand, has become one of the world's top contributors of peacekeepers. The country has about 6,000 peacekeepers serving in UN missions. This is the fourth-highest figure globally.

Political scientist Brendon Cannon and I recently analysed the factors driving Rwanda's military diplomacy. We uncovered three motivations: Kigali's intent to gain international, regional and domestic influence.

What makes the Rwandan case of military diplomacy unique is the country's size and the path it's taken since the 1994 genocide. Its military strategy is also reversing the traditional top-down dynamic in global security efforts – where powerful countries intervene in smaller states. Other regional actors could copy the way the Rwandan army intervenes in countries in crisis.

Rwanda's strategy

Kigali has expanded the scope of its military engagements beyond multilateral interventions to unilateral ones. It has been deploying the military in countries beyond its Great Lakes region, which includes the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi and Uganda.

It intervened in the Central African Republic in 2020 and in Mozambique in 2021. These interventions weren't decisive in resolving years of conflict. But they showed what Rwandan armed forces are capable of.

Many of the current Rwanda Defence Forces officers fought in the Rwandan Patriotic Army. This was a Tutsi force during the civil war years of 1990-1994. As a result, the troops have expertise in insurgency and post-conflict contexts.

Rwandan troops have also been able to coordinate well with local and other external actors in Mozambique and the Central African Republic.

The motivations

Our analysis shows that Kigali is looking to enhance its reputation as a reliable security provider. It's doing this in three major ways.

International: Rwanda wants to shift its global image away from one of a country scarred by genocide to one of a country that's risen to a position of influence on the continent. President Paul Kagame hopes that superpowers like the US and European Union will view Rwanda as a reliable partner. Kigali is emphasising its image as a solid country committed to peace and stability in Africa. It's also selling itself as a solvent country where investments pay off. In return, Rwanda receives financial support and less international scrutiny of its domestic politics. It projects the image of a continental security provider.

Regional: For many years, Rwanda limited its projection of military power to its neighbourhood, the Great Lakes region. This was because of material constraints and national security imperatives. Now it is more confident in its army's capabilities and is projecting its interests further afield. This is of crucial economic interest. Kigali wants to reduce its dependency on foreign investment and soften the impact of limited natural resources. The Crystal Ventures investment fund is the economic arm of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front party. In countries where Rwandan troops have intervened, the fund has invested in mining and other projects. It's also expanding its investment portfolio to new continental markets. The fund has negotiated trade agreements that include economic development plans, security sector reform and infrastructure.

Domestic: Rwanda's military diplomacy diverts attention from what's happening within its borders. The trend shows a gradual erosion of the rule of law, centralisation of power in the Rwandan Patriotic Front and the silencing of dissenting voices. Rwanda's choice of countries in which to intervene appears to serve another purpose. Mozambique, for example, has been a haven for Kagame's political opponents for several years. There is growing concern that Rwanda's bilateral military agreements may include clauses that close the space for Kagame's political opponents in exile.

The implications

Rwanda's military activism has had political backlash in its neighbourhood and globally. The country's unilateral use of military force is causing concern among its neighbours, in particular Uganda and the DRC.

Rwanda's involvement in the conflict in the eastern DRC exposes the ambiguities of Kigali's policy. Entanglement in DRC's internal affairs contradicts Rwanda's desired image as a provider of security. In particular, the DRC government and international observers have condemned Rwanda's support for the M23 rebels.

In response to criticism about its involvement in the DRC conflict, Kigali has threatened to withdraw its contingents from peacekeeping operations. This is a technique that Rwanda could use in countries where it unilaterally intervenes to address crises or instability.

Other regional actors, such as South Africa, have also expressed annoyance with Rwandan activism. Pretoria considers some areas to be exclusive zones of influence where South Africa can act directly or indirectly through regional bodies like the Southern Africa Development Community. Pretoria, therefore, perceives Rwanda's overriding of regional stability mechanisms as an affront. Tensions between the two countries have increased, especially after Kigali's intervention in Mozambique.

Still, several African states, such as Benin, are interested in Rwanda's military expertise to counter threats in their countries.

They see two major advantages in Rwanda's bilateral security arrangements.

First, unlike multilateral peacekeeping forces that require cumbersome bureaucratic mechanisms, Rwanda can deploy troops quickly. Second, the involvement of Rwandan troops under a bilateral agreement appears easier to manage than a multinational army under a regional or international organisation.

What next

In Mozambique and the Central African Republic, Rwandan troops achieved good results within a short space of time. Insurgency attacks reduced and civilians were protected.

However, Kigali hasn't shown the ability or willingness to transfer know-how to local forces. This may be motivated by a fear of working itself out of situations where it can offer military interventions.

Rwanda's current activism, therefore, generates a mixture of concern and curiosity. However, it's also offered an alternative to African multilateralism in managing and resolving continental crises.

Federico Donelli is affiliated with the Orion Policy Institute, Washington DC.

By Federico Donelli, Assistant Professor of International Relations, University of Trieste

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