President Paul Kagame of Rwanda has in recent weeks been on a double-barreled diplomatic offensive addressng economic and political issues.
According to experts, Kagame has been seeking to open and consolidate markets for Rwandan manufacturers on the one hand and to neutralise the threat posed by dissident forces operating in Southern and Central Africa on the other.
In the past couple of weeks, he has been to Mozambique, Congo-Brazzaville and Gabon, where he signed several co-operation agreements.
“Knowing that its economy is dominated by imports from East African countries, Rwanda has recognised that its export market is in Western and Southern African countries and this explains the focus,” said Prudence Sebahizi, an expert on regional integration and international development and chief technical advisor on the Continental Free Trade Area.
According to Ms Sebahizi, because of its young and small manufacturing industry, Rwanda’s immediate aim is to win markets for its national carrier RwandAir, whose latest acquisition of two wide-body Airbus A330 aircraft meant for long haul flights means it is serious about expansion of its African routes.
“Most of the Southern and West African routes are underserved and they represent a source of air transport revenue that can help Rwanda reduce its growing trade deficit,” Ms Sebahizi said.
Recent data from the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda show that Rwanda’s trade deficit increased by 3 per cent in the second quarter of 2016 compared with the same quarter in 2015.
“Rwanda’s traded $626.53 million worth of business — higher by 2.59 per cent over the second quarter of 2015 — with exports being worth $92.24 million, imports worth $483.86 million and re-exports valued at $50.43 million,” said a statement by the Institute.
The figures translate to an increase of 2.8 per cent in imports and a domestic exports decrease of 1.76 per cent in the period under review.
According to analysts, bilateral air service agreements (BASAs) signed during President Kagame’s visits to Gabon, Brazzaville and Mozambique are meant to counter what the management of RwandAir termed as barriers to the aviation industry’s growth.
“The lack of an African open skies policy continues to slow down our growth. High operating costs on the continent continue to burden us,” RwandAir chief executive John Mirenge told The EastAfrican.
Following Kagame’s recent visit to Mozambique, “RwandAir may in the near future fly to Maputo as the airline pushes for more Southern and West African routes,” said Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo.
The airline recently launched flights to Cotonou tagged to the existing Kigali-Douala and Libreville routes and flights to Abidjan are tagged with Accra. RwandAir’s website also indicates that in the first quarter of 2017, it will operate new routes to Harare and Durban.
Political analysts on the other hand see President Kagame’s African tour as a strategy to consolidate his emerging status as a Pan-Africanist.
With an eye on the Southern Africa region, experts say that Rwanda is looking for strategic allies in this region to counter the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), an opposition group made of former bigwigs who fell out with the current government as relations with South Africa remain shaky.
The visit to Mozambique bore fruit as he was assured of support by his counterpart Filipe Nyusi.
“This visit gave us the opportunity to very happily hear from the president of Mozambique that his country will not allow any acts of destabilisation of Rwanda by some elements in the Rwandan community here in Mozambique,” Louise Mushikiwabo told the media at a briefing.
Analysts now believe that Rwanda sees Mozambique as a frontline states in its fight against both the RNC and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu rebel group operating from the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“Given the frayed relations between Rwanda and South Africa — which hosts RNC leader Kayumba Nyamwasa — Rwanda believes it must thwart RNC’s efforts by engaging with other states in the region,” said Dr Phil Clark, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
According to the Dr Clark, there are worries that Mozambique could become a launching pad for an armed campaign against Kagame’s government especially in the lead-up to the 2017 presidential election.
With President Nyusi’s comments, a stark message was sent to the RNC, FDLR and other forces opposed to Kagame’s government that they won’t find a safe haven in Mozambique.
“President Magufuli has said similar things about Tanzania, which under his predecessor Jakaya Kikwete was becoming home for various anti-Rwandan groups. All of this shows that Rwanda is trying to build a buffer of friendly neighbouring states against opposition forces,” Dr Clark said.
Mozambique, Zambia and Malawi host tens of thousands of Rwandan refugees some of whom, according to the government of Rwanda played a role in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Mozambique alone is said to host around 3,000 Rwandan refugees among whom 12 are wanted for genocide-related offences and the government of Rwanda has requested their extradition to face trial.
Most of the Rwandan refugees in Mozambique left their country after the Genocide and have never been back and sources told The EastAfrican that a number of them actually decamped from the FDLR, making them vulnerable to political manipulation.