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The Rwanda Defence Force: indigenous African military diplomacy

- By B.J. Cannon & F. Donelli

-Research article here


The armed forces of the tiny state of Rwanda have deployed to three African states far from Rwanda’s Great Lakes Region to battle bloody insurgencies. The Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) is now fighting Islamist groups in the Central Africa Republic (CAR), Mozambique, and Benin. To give an idea of the magnitude of Rwanda’s contribution, it would be as if tiny, landlocked Liechtenstein sent its military to protect regimes and fight insurgencies in Sweden, Montenegro, and Ireland.

For several years, the RDF was deployed only as part of multilateral peacekeeping missions under UN auspices, for example. The dispatch of Rwandan troops on a purely bilateral basis, however, began in 2020, and marked a significant departure from Kigali’s previous modus operandi. In essence, Rwanda now calls the shots in terms of how, when, and where it fights insurgencies in other African countries, all based on leader-to-leader bilateral agreements. Simply put, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame and the RDF appear to be refashioning security provision and conflict management across the length and breadth of Sub-Saharan Africa: one example is the case of Benin.

For more than a year, this West African state on the Gulf of Guinea has been the target of attacks by multiple jihadist groups. They threaten one of the region’s most stable and wealthy states as well as Côte d'Ivoire and Togo. Several factors contribute to the spread of jihadist activities: First, the pressure exerted by multinational security forces in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. Second, the infighting within the jihadist galaxy among loosely al-Qaeda- and Islamic Jihad-affiliated groups, i.e., Jamaat Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimin and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, respectively. Third, the porous nature of intersecting state borders, much of which are blanketed by huge national parks such as W-Arly-Pendjari. Fourth, combustible socio-economic conditions such as increasing discrimination against nomadic Fulani communities that are, in turn, exacerbated by climate change. Fifth, neighboring Burkina Faso is increasingly fragile and unable to combat the jihadists owing to two coups d’etat in less than a year. These trends, taken together, will increasingly (and negatively) affect both Benin's domestic stability and that of its West African littoral neighbors.

In July 2022, the Chief of Staff of Benin’s Armed Forces (Forces Armées Béninoises), General Fructueux Gbaguidi, paid an official visit to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. The fact that he visited Kigali rather than Paris is worthy of note. In the past, regional leaders would have turned to France, a former colonial power, rather than another African state for security-related matters. This time, however, Benin dispatched its chief of staff to Rwanda for discussions that reportedly centered on Benin’s jihadist threat and how Rwanda’s military could assist Benin in countering it.

Soon after the Kigali meeting, a bilateral agreement between the two states opened the door for an initial deployment of 350 RDF personnel to Benin. This marked another milestone in security provision in post-colonial Sub-Saharan Africa. Not only would it mark the RDF’s first mission to West Africa, but it also demonstrated the desire and preference of Benin to contact a fellow African state for assistance rather than a former colonial power or an intergovernmental organization such as West Africa’s ECOWAS or the UN.

While the future is impossible to predict, Rwanda’s military mission to Benin may build on the RDF’s previous successes against violent insurgents in both CAR and Mozambique. Kagame’s decision to work with Benin’s leaders to tackle the existential threat is, therefore, one more in a series of efforts by the president to refashion his country’s tarnished, post-genocide image and put into practice the dictum, “African solutions to African problems”. To do so, Kagame has prosecuted a robust defense diplomacy and attempted to make it the centerpiece of Rwanda’s African and international engagement and bolster the country’s reputation.

The RDF’s multiple extra-regional deployments to CAR, Mozambique and Benin are potentially revolutionary in that they may herald significant shifts in conflict management and peacebuilding in post-independence Sub-Saharan Africa. That a small, landlocked, resource-poor state has produced such adventurous foreign policy with its military should not be underestimated. President Kagame’s use of the RDF to what he sees as Rwanda’s political, economic, and military interests therefore provides a fascinating and promising case study of indigenous African military diplomacy and conflict management.


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