Rwanda is set to expand its military operations in West Africa, with Benin being the latest candidate for deployment to help it secure its borders from insurgents operating in the neighbouring Sahel region.
While details of the deployment are yet to be made public, President Paul Kagame and Benin’s Patrice Talon confirmed the plans for military cooperation, during the Rwandan leader’s whirlwind tour of the region this week.
"We are ready to work with Benin to prevent anything that may happen around its borders,” President Kagame said during a joint press briefing held on April 16 in Cotonou.
“We are going to work with Benin on what might happen along borders or beyond, or anywhere, given the prevailing security situation in the region. We are happy to share whatever decent capacity we might have,” he added.
Rwanda’s third deployment
The expected deployment will be Rwanda’s third after similar bilateral arrangements that saw Kigali send troops to Mozambique to fight insurgents, and the Central African Republic for peacekeeping, including a special protection force during the country's presidential election.
Analysts blame the deteriorating security situation in the Sahel region partly on the declining influence of France in the region, which has widened the security vacuum.
This was after Paris was forced to withdraw troops from Mali in August 2022 after a deployment in the country of almost 10 years.
Its withdrawal undermined the work of the G5 Sahel force, which included troops from Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, set up in 2017 to counter armed groups across the region.
According to Crisis Group, in early 2013, the French army’s counterterrorism operations in the region had helped to oust insurgents. Since then, however, the French-led campaign against militants in the Sahel has struggled against local al-Qaeda and Islamic State branches.
French operations killed militant leaders, but the insurgents extended their reach from northern Mali to its centre and to parts of Niger, Burkina Faso and even the Gulf of Guinea countries.
While Rwanda maintains that the military operations are motivated by its history and its commitment to promoting international peace and security, analysts link the deployments to growing diplomatic rapprochement between Kigali and its Western allies, in particular France.
For instance, France reportedly promoted the idea of Paris and other European capitals funding the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) operations in Mozambique. In December 2022, the European Union announced funding worth €20 million ($21.9 million) to support the continued deployment of RDF in Cabo Delgado Province in Mozambique.
‘Leading from behind’
“Rwandan actions also slotted nicely into Paris’s new strategy of ‘leading from behind’ and they followed on the heels of Macron’s meeting in Paris with both Kagame and Nyusi in mid-May 2021. This, in turn, was followed by Macron’s visit to Kigali at the end of May,” noted Researchers Brendon J Cannon and Federico Donellili in their paper, Rwanda’s Military Deployments in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Neoclassical Realist Account, published last year.
Last week, President Kagame was also hosted by Guinean junta leader Col Mamady Doumbouya, who became interim president after leading a coup against President Alpha Condé on September 5, 2021.
Guinea, a former French colony, remains suspended from the bloc Ecowas and the AU. It faces a myriad of security challenges, including maritime insecurity, transnational organised crime, border disputes, and people and drug trafficking in the Gulf of Guinea.
While security cooperation was not announced during this visit, Guinea’s transitional government, which says the “Rwandan model fascinates President Mamadi Doumbouya,” is expected to seek Kigali's assistance in building its security apparatus.
In an interview, Federico Donelli, assistant professor of international relations, Department of Political and Social Sciences University of Trieste, told The EastAfrican that military deployments are a common strategy that smaller nations use to gain visibility and prestige.
Investing in niche areas
“It is common for small countries with ambitions to gain international visibility or prestige to invest their financial and political efforts in niche areas. Rwanda's military use in African crisis contexts is a niche diplomacy tool. At the same time, there are aspects of it that are instead traceable to its post-genocide political path, particularly in the role that the military plays within the country, including political power structures,” he said, adding that one of Rwanda's most ambitious goals is to gain credibility and support from key extra-regional players.
“Being able to present itself as a reliable partner in countering Islamist insurgencies is an excellent business card. At the same time, in the coming years, more and more extra-regional players may likely decide to rely on African security forces instead of launching military operations on African soil,” said Donelli.
“Therefore, the training and efficiency shown in counter-insurgency activities by the RDF could become increasingly relevant. In that case, the Rwandan strategy of investing in military diplomacy could prove successful,” said Donelli.
Rwanda is the fourth largest contributor to UN's peacekeeping operations and some special political missions, with 5,931 personnel as of February 2023, according to UN data.
“In Cabo Delgado, for example, RDF has not been tainted by any negative incidents, compared to the military forces of the host country and the Wagner Group. This gives it leverage for future deployments by winning international and continental trust as a reliable and disciplined force that knows what it is doing,” said Hawa Noor Zitzmann, associate fellow, Institute for Intercultural and International Studies at the University of Bremen.
“Besides financial resources, Rwanda also stands to gain from social capital, by its utilising of soft power to spread its homemade ideas (such as the concept of community service). This of course helps to divert attention from accusations human rights violations at home.”
Recently, Rwanda signed a deal with the UK to deport asylum seekers to its soil, and so it seems it "is up to securing itself a large space at the table despite its relatively small size. However, doing things right is one thing, winning legitimacy especially amongst the local populations where RDF is deployed is another.”