Mocimboa da Praia, a port city in northeastern Mozambique with a population of 127,000, had become a strategic holdout for the jihadist insurgency in Cabo Delgado province.
In one of Al-Shaabab’s first attacks in the country on 5 October 2017, Mocimboa da Praia was targeted and then occupied for 48 hours. The jihadists only took possession of it on 12 August 2020.
“A significant breakthrough for the Rwandan army”
The key rebel stronghold – located south of the Afungi peninsula, home to a gas mega project operated by French oil major TotalEnergies – was recaptured a year later. The breakthrough occurred a month after the Rwandan armed forces arrived in Mozambique.
“The fall of Mocimboa da Praia change[d] a lot of things, because it was an insurgent stronghold,” says Colonel Ronald Rwivanga, RDF’s spokesman. “Because it was a port town, many supplies passed through it, which helped their war effort through illicit trade networks. Losing it weakens them considerably.”
“It is an important breakthrough, but counts in terms of the image of the Rwandan army, which is quickly justifying its presence on the ground just one month after its arrival, while the SADC (Southern African Development Community), which has been trying to intervene for several months, has only just begun its mission,” says Craig Moffat, the programme director at Good Governance Africa and a former member of the South African diplomatic service.
As the counteroffensive continues, this early success highlights Kigali’s military deployment outside its borders, in theatres far removed from Rwanda’s immediate security concerns.
Rwanda offers an interesting ‘contract’ to these countries. They exercise pragmatic diplomacy and know how to adapt to the local context…
More than 1,000 Rwandan soldiers are currently present in Cabo Delgado. They are fighting alongside the Mozambican army and were joined by Botswana and South African contingents who were brought in under the SADC framework and operated, according to a source on the ground, “in different sectors of responsibility”- at the end of July.
The capture of Mocimboa da Praia, symbolic as it is, does not mean that the insurgency has come to an end. Its real impact on enemy troops is uncertain.
“We can only estimate the number of those we have seen physically – about 90 jihadists killed – but many others have been killed by long-range weapons,” said Rwivanga. “We will conduct aggressive security operations to eliminate pockets of insurgents wherever we have recaptured towns.”
The Rwandan military, whose official mandate on the ground involves “combat operations and security sector reform,” is therefore here to stay.
Seeing the Rwandan army involved in theatres of operations far from its borders and the Great Lakes sub-region is not a novelty. Rwanda, which has 5,331 troops engaged in UN peacekeeping missions (according to figures from the end of May), is the fifth largest contributor to UN peacekeeping operations, and the second largest on the continent, behind Ethiopia.
Security as export?
However, in recent months, President Paul Kagame has demonstrated a willingness to deploy Rwanda’s military elsewhere on the continent, as he has also sent contingents to the CAR: first as part of Minusca and then on a bilateral basis ahead of the December 2020 elections.
Why the uptick in military engagement?
On the Kigali side, the discourse remains vague. “When we are asked to help and when we are in a position to do so, we do so on the basis of good bilateral cooperation and in the spirit of African solidarity,” says a Rwandan official source. This mention of ‘African solidarity’, in response to crises, is in line with the Rwandan President’s own arguments.
When asked about his involvement in the CAR during an interview in May, Kagame justified the Rwandan deployment by citing a parallel with the events of 1994. “Given our own experience during the genocide, we cannot allow this type of situation to deteriorate. There is a force on the ground that is supposed to keep the peace, but it is bound hand and foot, as in 1994 in Rwanda. If the Rwandan forces engaged under our bilateral agreement had not been there, the elections in the Central African Republic would not have taken place, that is a certainty, everyone will tell you that,” he said.
For Rwanda, it is also a way of projecting itself beyond a region where relations between neighbours are not always clear.
The Rwandan army is reputed to be competent and well-trained, so can it become an ‘export tool’ for Kigali? “We have a professional army. It depends on the situation and what is asked of us, and what we are able to do at the time,” says the Rwandan presidency.
“They have long limited their field of action to the Great Lakes region, leading more controversial interventions, especially in the DRC. There, they present themselves as security providers, which allows them to utilise their military skills outside their traditional sphere of action,” says a expert of the region, who feels that these successful operations can be used as the basis of political and diplomatic leverage by Rwanda when confronted with criticism.
Tensions within SADC
While the initially successful operation in Mozambique was praised by many leaders, the RDF’s presence has raised questions among some neighbours, who do not see the Rwandan intervention – which was discreetly negotiated over several months – simply as an act of solidarity.
“The South Africans, in particular, did not appreciate that after months of pressure from SADC, President Filipe Nyusi turned to a country that is not a member of the organisation, and with which the organisation’s main contributor has a delicate relationship, to say the least,” says a diplomat from a SADC country, referring to the tense relationship between Pretoria and Kigali ever since former spymaster Patrick Karegeya was assassinated on 1 January 2014, in the suburbs of Johannesburg.
For several months, following the jihadists’ spectacular capture of Palma last March, the SADC put significant pressure on Nyusi to send a mission to the region. On 8 April, this option was discussed at a SADC summit; however, Nyusi felt it was too soon for the regional organisation to intervene. Nevertheless, a technical mission was deployed a few days later another possible mission consisting of 3,000 soldiers evoked.
Rwanda, which is increasingly being referred to as a ‘policeman’ on the continent, is opening its door to other fields of cooperation, particularly economic.
Maputo stood firm, citing issues of sovereignty.
But at the same time a partnership with Rwanda was gaining ground. On 28 April – the day that an SADC summit was to be held in Maputo but was eventually cancelled – Nyusi discreetly went to Kigali to define the contours of Rwanda’s future intervention. Following this meeting, the Rwandan army carried out reconnaissance missions between May and June, an official source confirmed.
On 23 June, when the SADC finally dispatched troops, the specifics regarding the Rwandan operation were at that stage almost finalised. The deal was made official on 9 July and, according to the Rwandan communiqué, was a continuation of the bilateral agreement that had been signed in 2018.
“This proves that bilateral interventions are more direct and effective than those negotiated in regional organisations. Nyusi, who is closer to the Swahili-speaking side, believes that Rwanda is a reliable partner who has mastered this type of conflict,” says Moffat. Coincidentally, SADC officially launched its intervention mission the day after Mocimboa da Praia had been taken over.
Despite extensive communication, some of the operation’s details have not yet been released, including cost and sources of funding. “Our part is entirely financed by our government,” says a spokesman for the Rwandan army, who refuses to put forward an amount and denies that external support is being given. By way of comparison, it cost $66m to send South African troops on a mission estimated to last three months, according to an announcement made by President Cyril Ramaphosa at the South African Parliament.
In CAR, military aid and business go hand in hand
Rwanda, increasingly being referred to as a ‘policeman’ on the continent, is opening its door to other fields of cooperation, particularly economic. This is the case, for example, with CAR – another of Kigali’s current allies. Although Rwanda doesn’t share borders with this country either, it has been investing in its security field for several months.
Relations between the two countries have been strengthening ever since Kagame’s first official visit in October 2019, at the end of which initial agreements were signed, particularly in the mining sector. Rwandan soldiers – who have been engaged in Minusca since 2014 and make up the majority of the force – are also present in the CAR on a bilateral basis, fighting on the same terrain as Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group.
“Rwanda offers an interesting ‘contract’ to these countries. They exercise pragmatic diplomacy and know how to adapt to the local context, which in CAR’s case allows them to get out of the Franco-Russian influence struggle and find other allies. For Rwanda, it is also a way of projecting itself beyond a region where relations between neighbours are not always clear,” says one expert on the region.
This cooperation was again reinforced during President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s four-day visit to Kigali in early August.
Four agreements were signed in various fields: economic planning, mining, reform of the CAR’s security sector and cooperation in transport. Since December, the two countries’ economic rapprochement has been gaining momentum, as a Rwandair route was opened between Kigali and Douala via Bangui two months later. Several delegations of businessmen have travelled back and forth between the two capitals.
Kigali is also involving Crystal Ventures, its powerful investment fund, in the discussions, which is a sign that Rwanda wants to extend its economic influence in the country. This company – which is the investment arm of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, Kagame’s party – is working to open an Inyange production unit on Central African soil, whose products would be destined not only for the CAR market but also for export. Almost exclusively involved in Rwandan territory, it also plans to involve its construction branch in various infrastructure projects.
The investment fund is working hand in hand with the Strategic Orientation and Monitoring Unit for Major Works and Strategic Investments that is headed by Pascal Bida Koyagbele from the CAR. He is one of the men at the heart of this economic rapprochement, made possible – according to Kigali – due to the good security cooperation between the two countries.
According to our information, Crystal Ventures, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, is looking to expand its activities elsewhere on the continent. A source involved in the case has stated that one of the countries being considered is Mozambique, where the Rwandan military is continuing its counter-offensive against jihadists.
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