What does Rwanda stand to gain from its Mozambique deployment?

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On 9 July, 1,000 Rwandan troops landed in Cabo Delgado, northern Mozambique to assist the Mozambican army in fighting the armed insurgency. Two months later on, questions remain over how the intervention is being financed — or at least, what Rwanda is getting in return. The Rwandan Defence Force says it is financing itself, but few Rwanda-watchers believe it, noting that Rwanda is one of the poorest countries in the world. The intervention in Mozambique — which is reportedly already being expanded — is unlikely to come without some quid pro quo for the aspiring African powerhouse, they say.

One widespread assumption is that Rwanda’s army has been brought in to provide the necessary security for the TotalEnergies-led gas project to go ahead in Palma — and that finance for the deployment is coming from France, and perhaps from the energy company itself. The Rwandan army has confirmed that its focus is on securing the districts of Palma and Mocímboa da Praia, both vital to the gas project.

TotalEnergies told Zitamar News, however, that it is “not providing any support for foreign forces present in Mozambique.” It said the Mozambique LNG project, which it operates, “provides logistical support to the Mozambican state forces assigned the task of protecting the project’s activity,” but “there are no discussions underway to extend the existing framework agreement.”

The French government, meanwhile, has neither confirmed or denied its financial involvement. The French foreign ministry’s press department did not address a direct question from Zitamar as to whether it is financing the Rwandan deployment, saying only that “France is following the situation unfolding in the Cabo Delgado Province in Mozambique with great concern,” and that it “stands alongside Mozambique in the fight against terrorism.”

France, it continued, “encourages the countries in the region and partners of this country to show support to Mozambique. It welcomes the initiatives taken by the members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and Rwanda, in liaison with the Mozambique authorities, to tackle the crisis in Cabo Delgado.”

However, when French president Emmanuel Macron visited Kigali on 27 May, his speech strongly suggested that Rwanda’s deployments are an extension of French power in Africa. “On the regional scene, Rwanda is an actor that matters and which is at the heart of this capacity that France may have to help bring out regional responses,” Macron said. “This is what we were able to do recently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” he continued; “and this is what should now be done in the Central African Republic or in Mozambique, as we have discussed together.”

Macron’s visit to Rwanda was key to the deployment of Rwandan troops in Mozambique, according to Professor Phil Clark of the School of Oriental and African Studies, in London. “I think the French dynamic is the most important one,” he told Zitamar News. “If it hadn’t been for Macron’s trip to Kigali this year we wouldn’t see them there.”

Macron was “undoubtedly seen in Kigali as a potential economic saviour,” Clark added. While there, his most high profile act was seeking forgiveness for France’s role in the Rwandan genocide — stopping short of an official apology, but Kagame at a joint press conference said Macron’s “words were more powerful than an apology.”*

“Most people in Kigali expected Kagame to take a really hard line against the French… but he was incredibly conciliatory. Macron came to Kigali knowing that. And I think that’s a big reason why we’re seeing [Rwanda’s deployment in Mozambique],” Clark said.

Does Rwanda need French support?

Multiple sources told Zitamar that it was Mozambique — not France — that initiated the idea of the Rwandan intervention, saying that President Nyusi should take the credit for the initiative.

The timeline of meetings between the three presidents suggests this may well have been the case. Macron’s visit to Kigali in May followed hot on the heels of meetings between Macron, Mozambican president Filipe Nyusi, and Rwandan president Paul Kagame in Paris. This in turn followed a surprise visit by Nyusi to Kigali to meet with Kagame on 28 April.

And it is possible, at least in this initial phase, that Rwanda is in fact funding the mission itself. The troops are well equipped, “but not to the point that it must have been an external financier,” says Darren Olivier of the African Defence Review. The motor vehicles and boats they are using are not new, he points out; and “nothing speaks to the fact that there has to have been direct French involvement in this.”

Jonathan Beloff, author of Foreign Policy in Post-Genocide Rwanda: Elite Perceptions of Global Engagement, thinks its unlikely the French are providing any military aid to Rwanda. “Many within the inner core of Rwanda’s military perceive France with extreme hesitation and distrust because of French involvement during the previous regime and the genocide against the Tutsis,” he says. “President Macron is trying to restore Rwandan-French relations but it will take a while before the RDF’s command will cozy up to the French or French interests,” he says.

The promise of aid or the threat of its withdrawal

But financial support for the intervention — which comes at a crucial time for Rwanda, whose economy was hit hard by the covid pandemic — would not necessarily need to go directly to the military.

“Rwanda is one of the poorest countries in Africa and it is currently struggling to pay for a series of wasteful prestige projects,” says journalist Michela Wrong, author of Do Not Disturb, a book on Rwanda under Kagame. “It continues to be heavily aid dependent, so even if Rwanda is nominally funding this operation itself, Western aid, spent in areas such as health and education, effectively frees up the funding needed for this kind of operation.”

Along with the almost-apology, Macron offered funding: a €60 million loan to help Rwanda deal with the coronavirus pandemic, and a €1.5m grant to support sports in Rwandan schools. French public investment bank Bpifrance also signed three cooperation agreements with Rwanda’s sovereign wealth fund, called Agaciro.

One of those agreements says Bpifrance will develop “joint actions in terms of direct and indirect investments” — suggesting it could invest alongside Agaciro. Agaciro says it invests both domestically and internationally — opening the door for Bpifrance to invest French public money in Rwandan projects.

Increased French support is especially useful amid fears that the UK and US may cut aid to the country. “Both have made noises in the last year or two about significant reductions in the aid package to Rwanda — both because those countries’ public opinions are quite anti-aid, but also because of human rights concerns,” says Clark.

Rwanda’s intervention in Mozambique could help safeguard against this. The US in particular has shown a strong interest in containing the insurgency in Mozambique. It has recently increased its military training package in the country, and has just moved the US ambassador to Rwanda to Mozambique.

Rwanda’s willingness to lend a hand in crises across the continent gives it “leverage they can use at other times,” Clark says. “When human rights critics start threatening to withdraw aid, Rwanda starts threatening to withdraw from Darfur or the Central African Republic,” he tells Zitamar.

Even if not from France, payment is likely to come from somewhere. “Rwanda has a track record of benefiting economically from its military interventions — these are costly operations and it tends to make sure it’s not left out of pocket,” says Wrong. “It made its money back for its intervention in the Democratic Republic of Congo by ruthlessly exploiting that country’s mineral resources. An obvious question now is: ‘What’s the quid pro quo in Mozambique going to be?’ There’s bound to be one. This isn’t an act of charity.”

Containing terrorism — and dissidents

Rwanda has other motivations for involvement in Mozambique — including a genuine desire to combat Islamist terror groups in the region. “There’s been a growing concern in Rwanda about Islamic terrorism, coming from two angles,” Clark says: “A discourse in Rwanda that they need to keep an eye on [Islamic State-affiliated group the] ADF, in eastern Congo; and also in Rwanda, where in 2019, police shot dead a prominent Imam in Kigali who was accused of building an Islamist cell. So there is a growing narrative that Rwanda has to be wary of a growing Islamist threat.”

The Mozambique intervention also fits with Rwanda’s wider ambitions on the African continent. Getting involved in a conflict like that in Cabo Delgado allows Kagame to burnish his image at home and internationally.

Kagame’s regime has faced a number of damaging stories recently, “so when an incident comes along allowing Kagame to present himself in his favourite guise: proactive, dynamic, militaristic, shaming other African countries with his energy and guts — it’s a godsend,” says Wrong.

“Rwanda’s bloggers and Twitter trolls have been going crazy hyping this operation,” she pointed out. “It’s Kagame’s way of saying to Africa and a West showing signs of tiring of his autocratic style of rule: ‘See what I’m capable of? I’m the man who gets things done. You may disapprove of the way I run Rwanda, but in a crisis, you need me.’

It also provides Rwanda with an opportunity to undermine SADC — and specifically South Africa’s — role in southern and east Africa.

“Rwanda has had a long-standing fight with SADC, whom they see as too interventionist in the region,” Clark says, going back “to SADC and Tanzania putting troops into DRC, undermining Rwanda’s position there.”

There is also little love lost between Rwanda and South Africa. At least some of that animosity dates back to the killing of the former head of Rwanda’s secret services, Patrick Karegeya, in a hotel in Johannesburg in 2014. Karegya had become a critic of Kagame and set up an opposition party, the Rwandan National Congress, in exile.

Following that incident, South Africa expelled two diplomats, including Claude Nikobisanzwe, who is now Rwanda’s High Commissioner in Mozambique — the first person to hold that position, after the High Commission was opened in 2019.

“Rwanda has been looking to Mozambique as a potential partner for some years,” says Clark, as it has been “worried about Mozambique as a frontline state for Rwandan dissidents.” The Rwanda National Congress “had been setting up shop in Maputo,” Clark says, “so I think Rwanda wanted to quell dissidents using Mozambique as a launching pad.”

In May this year, after Nyusi’s trip to Kigali, but before Rwanda’s military support for Mozambique had been confirmed, one Rwandan dissident, journalist Cassien Ntamuhanga, was mysteriously abducted by men in Mozambican police uniforms — accompanied by one apparently Rwandan person — in Maputo. His whereabouts remain unknown and the police deny knowledge of the abduction.

In mid-August, two more Rwandans, including the secretary of the Rwandan Refugees Association in Mozambique, were taken by Mozambican police, but quickly freed after protests from the association.

“What compromises on the human rights front will the Mozambique government need to make vis-à-vis the Rwandan political dissidents and human rights activists on its soil?”, asks Michela Wrong. “Will it be expected to turn a blind eye to everything the Rwandan embassy does, however legally questionable? There are already signs of that happening.”

*This paragraph was updated on 6 September 2021 to reflect that Macron did not apologise.

© 2021, Zitamar LTD. All rights reserved.

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