Rwanda, a relatively small country by African standards (population of about 13.5 million people), is a kind of magic wand for its neighbors in the region in the fight against jihadists, separatists and other dangerous groups. All the more so because thirty years ago Rwanda itself experienced one of the longest and most brutal inter-tribal crises in modern history, when the ethnic majority, the Hutu people, wiped out, according to official figures alone, more than 600,000 Tutsis.
In recent years, however, the Rwanda Defense Force (RDF) has grown into one of the most capable armies in Africa, with the help of neighboring governments. The most successful operations were the actions against terrorist groups in the Central African Republic and the fight against Islamic extremists in Mozambique, and now in the African media there is information (although not officially confirmed yet) about the possible transfer of the Rwandan military contingent to Benin.
The country has achieved success in the military field thanks to the policy of President Paul Kagame, and this strategy can be called «military diplomacy». This course of Rwandan leadership, which is showing its effectiveness, has proved to be very promising, because by providing military assistance to neighboring countries, Kagame strengthens ties and raises the status of his country, interacting not only with regional but also with international political players.
Rwanda’s defense forces are deployed almost all over the continent. According to the latest data, regular RDF units number about 33,000 fighters, which in practice allows Rwanda to rank fourth in the number of participants in UN peacekeeping missions in the world: between 4,500 and 6,000 Rwandan soldiers wear blue helmets. Note that Rwanda has contributed some 2,148 soldiers and 690 police officers to the UN peacekeeping mission in CAR alone.
In addition, in 2020, on the eve of the presidential elections, CAR asked Rwanda to send an additional military contingent to help the republic’s military in the fight against anti-government groups, which already indicates the authority of Rwandan units.
Rwandan troops are also fighting jihadists (offshoots of Ansar al-Sunna, mainly in Cabo Delgado Province) in Mozambique, and have been doing so since as early as 2017. In 2021, they were able to confront jihadists in joint operations with the Mozambican army, as well as troops from the South African Development Community (SADC) Task Force and Tanzanian units.
If the information is confirmed, RDF will soon join operations against jihadists in Benin, where they are being moved from Niger and Burkina Faso. In April 2023, Benin President Patrice Talon announced that the Rwandan Defense Force would be involved in training and educating Beninese soldiers.
So why does all this benefit Rwanda?
Naturally, military assistance is not a free service. But that is not the main point.
Through the operations in CAR and Mozambique, Kagame has strengthened Rwanda’s image as a reliable security guarantor, and thus at the same time provided certain preferences for Rwandan firms to do business. As a result, more than 100 Rwandan companies are now operating in CAR, mainly in the mining sector. In addition, the Rwandan government received a 25-year concession for the development and operation of five mines. It should be noted that the parties prefer not to disclose the details of these deals.
However, it is not surprising, because all this is very similar to the measures to protect Africa from the influence of the West. Kagame has repeatedly said that Africa «needs Africa’s wealth» and not for the further enrichment of the «Golden Billion».
With such tacit agreements with the countries of the region, he, in fact, prevented the entry into Mozambique of energy giants ExxonMobil and TotalEnergies, which have long sought to extract huge amounts of natural gas in this country. It turns out that now RDF is not only fighting the rebels in Mozambique, but is also responsible for security in areas where natural gas exploration, gemstone and graphite mining are taking place.
It can also be said that RDF has become a kind of competitor to the Wagner Group. Although Rwanda maintains friendly relations and defense cooperation with Russia, in June 2021 RDF suspended cooperation with Wagner (previously, Russian PMC fighters and Rwandan military participated in joint operations) and began to act independently.
Thus, RDF is increasingly strengthening its status as a guarantor of security in Africa. However, this could quickly come to naught if Kagame takes advantage of his current position and makes a secret alliance with the EU, becoming its proxy in Africa. There are already some signals to this effect: at the end of 2022, the EU allocated 20 million euros for Rwanda’s operations in Mozambique, and RDF troops have been allowed to train in NATO member states and purchase weapons and military equipment from them. Brussels does not grant such preferences for nothing.
Nevertheless, as long as RDF continues to achieve relative success in peacekeeping and anti-terrorist operations, Rwanda can further enhance its national prestige, expand its diplomatic influence, and gain access to natural resources in the region.
In any case, Rwanda is now a security guarantor for a number of countries on the continent, because the RDF knows how to deal with Africans in the «African way» (for example, in Cabo Delgado, the RDF won largely due to its cultural code and its ability to interact with civilians in their native language, Swahili).
In addition, the West and Asia are extremely interested in Africa, its potential and resources. Freeing mineral-rich areas from extremist groups will allow global players to get access to the next natural goldmine. For these reasons, the usefulness of Rwanda (more specifically RDF) to various regional and international players will continue to grow.
But let’s add a spoonful of tar. Compared to other African countries, Rwanda has a relatively small population, and therefore a limited mobilization resource. And this, in turn, limits the RDF’s ability to conduct operations abroad. For the moment, however, this problem is not acute, as Kagame manages to maintain a balance between a state of war and peace. If the imbalance does not arise in the future, it seems that Kagame’s geostrategic ambitions are destined to come true, because Rwanda’s status as a reliable defender will be strengthened.