Rwanda keeps the peace in Mozambique. Why?

Jean Bizimana/Reuters
Rwandan troops depart for Mozambique in July to help the country combat an escalating Islamist insurgency that threatened its stability.
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African governments facing rebellion generally turn to their former colonizers, or to the United Nations, for help in restoring peace. But Mozambique took an unusual path earlier this year: It asked Rwanda to put down an Islamist uprising.

The intervention worked, prompting some observers to see a new model of inter-African cooperation on the peacekeeping front; Rwandan President Paul Kagame cited African solidarity as the main driver for his involvement.

Why We Wrote This

African countries usually turn to the U.N. or to their former colonizers to help put down rebellions. Rwanda’s success in Mozambique offers a novel solution, but its motives are unclear.

There is no doubt that Rwandan forces are well trained and experienced. But doubts about their government’s motivations have surfaced. The soldiers are deployed around gas-field installations operated by Total, a French energy company, prompting suspicion that Rwanda is protecting French commercial interests in return for a fresh injection of development aid.

Rwandan soldiers who joined the civil war in Congo 20 years ago were widely accused of looting minerals and timber; Mr. Kagame could have his eye on Mozambique’s vast natural gas reserves, it is suggested.

Peace has returned to northern Mozambique, and local residents displaced by the violence are returning home. But it remains to be seen whether there is more to Rwanda’s military intervention than meets the eye.

When rebels attacked her village in northern Mozambique last December, Safia Shawal and her three sons fled into the bush, beating a path through remote plantations in search of safety. By the time the family staggered into a camp for displaced people five days later, Ms. Shawal had had to leave behind the body of her 5-year-old son, Assane.

He was one more victim of an increasingly brutal insurgency that had trapped residents of Mozambique’s far north between rebels and the national army.

Earlier this year though, the situation suddenly changed. Town by town, rebel-held areas were liberated, and returning residents cheered the soldiers who had arrived so unexpectedly. 

Why We Wrote This

African countries usually turn to the U.N. or to their former colonizers to help put down rebellions. Rwanda’s success in Mozambique offers a novel solution, but its motives are unclear.

The troops turning the situation around did not belong to any of the superpowers that have so often stepped in to restore order in their former African colonies. Instead, they came mostly from Rwanda, a tiny East African nation with big – and, critics say, suspect – peacekeeping goals.

Over the course of two weeks in July, a 1,000-strong Rwandan detachment made more headway than Mozambique’s own army and foreign mercenaries had achieved in four years, wresting back key infrastructure that had been under rebel control for two years.

Last month, for the first time since Ms. Shawal became one of more than 800,000 people displaced by the insurgency, she felt hopeful again. 

“We’re going to return home,” she said in the local Emakwa dialect.

Mozambique’s pivot to an African ally could be a blueprint for other countries battling their own insurgencies, where the necessary troops and firepower have traditionally come from former colonizers or other Western nations. Rwandan President Paul Kagame has been quick to play up his country’s battlefield success, crediting African solidarity as the main driver for his involvement.  

But critics fear he might be giving cover to Western powers seeking to exert influence at arm’s length and secure their interests in resource-rich trouble spots without putting their soldiers in the line of fire. Analysts suggest that France might be behind Rwanda’s push into Mozambique, as it seeks to protect a $20 billion gas field investment by French energy giant Total.

Eliot Blondet/Abaca/Sipa USA/AP
French President Emmanuel Macron visits the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where some 250,000 victims of the Rwanda genocide are buried, in Kigali on May 27, 2021. France has pledged fresh development aid to the Rwandan government.

Human rights activists also accuse President Kagame, in power for nearly three decades, of using his role in the conflict to whitewash his human rights record at home, where his opponents are routinely jailed.

Success on the battlefield could position Mr. Kagame as a reliable solution for troubled African countries in a region feared to be the next global insurgency battleground. But some wonder what he will seek in return for Rwandan assistance.

“This support is not free to Mozambique,” warns Borges Nhamirre, a researcher at South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies. “What we don’t know is when and how Mozambique will have to pay for Rwandan support.”

The run-up to Rwanda’s intervention

Five years ago, youths in Cabo Delgado, a resource-rich province on Mozambique’s northeastern coast, launched an uprising against the government. The region’s vast ruby and gold fields have swelled state coffers in the capital, Maputo, 2,400 kilometers (about 1,500 miles) away, while Cabo Delgado remains impoverished. Untapped gas fields have drawn massive investments from the U.S.’s ExxonMobil and Total, but few locals have benefited.

Frustrated, young people in the predominantly Muslim region seeking jobs and government services lit the fires of an insurgency that simmered for four years, largely out of the international spotlight. 

In 2019, the insurgents pledged allegiance to Islamic State, marking the first Islamist-linked conflict in southern Africa and alarming the world. The nature of their relationship is uncertain, but last March the fighters launched a brutal attack on the port town of Palma, close to the gas projects, that left dozens dead. By April, the militants controlled a significant chunk of territory in four of the north’s five provinces.

Total announced it would suspend work on its sites – and that 65 trillion cubic feet of gas would stay underground until the area was secure. Mozambique now had a reason to solicit international military assistance. 

French forces, experienced in fighting Islamist insurgencies in Africa, might have seemed an obvious choice for Mozambique, but Paris is already tiring of its battle with jihadis in former colonies Mali, Chad, and Burkina Faso. Enter Rwanda.

Some experts suspect that France, seeking to protect its corporate interests militarily as it has done elsewhere in Africa, could be bankrolling Rwandan troops to protect the gas concessions. “RDF [Rwanda Defence Forces] are only concerned about the gas sites via France’s interests,” says Jasmine Opperman, a security consultant who follows the Mozambican conflict closely. 

Sources in Cabo Delgado confirmed to the Monitor that RDF troops are specifically protecting the gas sites in the area.

Mr. Kagame denies third-party involvement however. “We are using our means,” he said in an interview aired on Sept. 5 by the Rwanda Broadcasting Agency. “Nobody sponsored us.”

Xose Bouzas/Hans Lucas/Reuters
Emmanuel Macron (right), president of France, and Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, outside the Elysee Palace in Paris, Dec. 20, 2021. Some observers believe Rwandan troops acted as French proxies when they put down an insurgency in Mozambique that threatened a $20 billion gas-field investment by French company Total.

A fresh start with France

Until recently, Franco-Rwandan relations had been frosty; Mr. Kagame has long accused France of backing the Hutu rebels who killed nearly a million Tutsis in the 1994 genocide.

Then in March this year, a commission established by French President Emmanuel Macron concluded that France had been blinded by its colonial attitude to events leading up to the genocide and bore “serious and overwhelming” responsibility.

President Macron later visited the Rwandan capital, Kigali, made up with his Rwandan counterpart, and announced 370 million euros in fresh development aid.

Although one of the smallest countries on the continent, Rwanda plays an outsize role in United Nations-run peacekeeping operations in Africa, sending over 5,000 troops on such missions. The RDF are well trained, well equipped, and experienced in fighting rebels in East and Central Africa. 

But details of their deployment to Mozambique remain shrouded in mystery. The terms of the arrangement between the two countries have never been made public; nor has the exact number of Rwandan soldiers, how long the mission will last, or how it is being funded. The Mozambican Parliament has been left in the dark, with lawmakers saying they were sidelined in the arrangement between President Filipe Nyusi and President Kagame. 

Equally concerning to civil society activists in Mozambique is Mr. Kagame’s reputation. “Rwanda isn’t by far an example of good governance in terms of democracy, freedom, or civic space,” worries Americo Maluana of Mozambique’s Center for Democracy and Development.

Rwandan forces joined the civil war in Congo on the rebels’ side in 1998, and their involvement was notable for allegations that they extracted payment by looting minerals and timber. Mr. Kagame’s intervention in Mozambique could see him profit from the country’s gas too, when it comes online.

At the same time, the Rwandan government is widely believed to be behind a string of assassinations of its political opponents abroad, suggesting another possible motive for its intervention in Mozambique. In the past three years, three Rwandan opposition members who fled to Mozambique have died or disappeared.

“If I were a part of that community” of exiled opposition figures in Mozambique, says Michela Wrong, who has written about the assassinations, “I would be very worried.”

Amade Abubacar contributed reporting from Pemba, Mozambique, to this article.

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