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Rwanda’s unilateral interventionism in African conflicts: Determinants and implications

15 Dec 2021

Rwanda’s unilateral interventionism in African conflicts: Determinants and implications

15 Dec 2021

Rwanda’s decision to unilaterally deploy troops in the Mozambican region of Cabo Delgado merits great attention. The unilateral intervention of Rwandan forces – at the express behest of Mozambique’s leader – had immediate and positive effects. Well-trained and armed Rwandan soldiers pushed back a violent Islamist insurgency led by the terrorist group Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jamaah (ASWJ), which saw the demise of Cabo Delgado’s newly booming offshore gas exploitation. That tiny Rwanda led the way – and did the work all on its own – is a demonstration of Kigali’s proactive approach to conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, the actions of Rwandan troops in Mozambique are part of a broader strategy to increase the country’s regional and international role. Rwanda’s President, Paul Kagame, aims at nothing less than to burnish his country’s reputation as a reliable, continental ‘security provider’.

Rwanda lies in Africa’s Great Rift Valley, a strategically important point where the Great Lakes and East Africa regions converge. The country, led since 2000 by Kagame, who is also leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), has succeeded in acquiring domestic stability and reducing poverty rates drastically since the Rwandan genocide of 1994.[1] Despite the results achieved, two factors of extreme fragility persist. The first concerns political and institutional structures. The economic growth rates have not been coupled with any democratization process. Rather, Kagame’s successes have gone hand in hand with the erosion of the rule of law, the centralization of power, and the repression of all forms of dissent.[2] The second factor of fragility lies in the structural weaknesses of the country. Rwanda is a small, landlocked, and densely populated state. Rwanda, unlike its neighbors, is almost completely lacking in natural resources. Therefore, massive foreign aid and investment have fueled the growth and development trends over the past two decades.[3]

While economic dependence on extra-regional powers has been a constraint to the country’s political ambitions, it has also been the catalyst for seeking alternative solutions. In other words, the desire to get out from the external dependence provided the Kigali government with the motivation to adopt a pro-active approach in the regional and continental spheres. The intervention of the Rwandan Defense Forces (RDF) in Mozambique is only the latest example of a policy that began more than a decade ago. Within the framework of Rwanda’s renewed international projection, the military proficiency of the RDF is a key asset in which Kigali has chosen to invest. President Kagame has decided to use military diplomacy as a tool to promote the country’s image on the international scene. Rwanda has participated in a variety of multilateral peacekeeping and humanitarian missions promoted by the United Nations. Nearly six thousand RDF soldiers have been and are still involved in multilateral operations including those conducted in Mali, Darfur, and Haiti. Rwanda is currently the fifth-largest contributor to UN missions, the second largest African country behind only Ethiopia. Rwanda’s willingness to commit to these missions has allowed its military’s efficiency and professionalism to be appreciated internationally. The RDF has built a reputation as a player particularly skilled in civil war contexts and counter-insurgency actions.

In the last twelve months, Kigali has changed its strategy. The Rwandan use of military diplomacy, indeed, has shifted from a multilateral to unilateral nature. President Kagame has not stepped down from the RDF engagement in multilateral missions but has shown the willingness to use the military instrument outside of them as well. The first context in which Rwanda has tested the new approach is the Central African Republic (CAR). Rwandan troops have been present in the CAR since 2014 as part of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA). The RDF has proven to be both highly efficacious on the ground. At the same time, Rwandan troops have shown the ability to coordinate with other actors active on the ground such as the private Russian Wagner Group. In November 2020, Kagame signed a bilateral agreement with the Central African President Faustin-Archange Touadéra ensuring the deployment of new RDF troops.[4] The Bangui – Kigali Memorandum of Understanding has increased the number of Rwandan soldiers. Furthermore, it has allowed them to operate outside the borders and rules of engagement of MINUSCA. As Kagame pointed out: “Troops that have been sent to CAR will not operate within the rules of engagement of UN peacekeepers, but under a new bilateral arrangement with CAR that will authorize them to contain any situation that is aimed at disrupting the elections and also protect Rwandan peacekeepers against being targeted by rebels.”[5]

The abilities shown by the RDF units in CAR, in fighting the guerrillas and in stabilizing the areas under their control, have pushed the Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi to seek Kagame’s help in blocking the advance of the Islamist terrorist group Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jamaah (ASWJ) in the northern region of Cabo Delgado. Last spring, President Nyusi behaved ambiguously, following a double path. On the one hand, he hesitated in the face of pressure from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), eager to launch a multinational mission to avoid the risk of instability in the area.[6] On the other hand, Nyusi negotiated under the radar with Kigali to send an RDF contingent to Cabo Delgado. Between May and June, some Rwandan officers made reconnaissance visits into Mozambican territory.[7] The visits acted as a prelude to the dispatch of a military contingent. Rwanda currently has about a thousand soldiers on Mozambican soil. As in RCA, RDF has operated promptly and effectively in Cabo Delgado, thereby helping to tamp down Islamist activism.

The two deployments in CAR and Mozambique help to understand the rationale behind Rwanda’s choice to employ unilateral military deployment as a foreign policy tool and the possible mid-term implications. These lie in several interrelated dimensions of Rwandan politics: international, regional, and domestic. Internationally, it is worth considering Rwanda’s quest for legitimacy on the continental stage and beyond. To attract new investment and diversify partners, Kagame believes it is necessary to change the outside perception of the country. In other words, Rwanda must build a new brand that overcomes the association of the country solely with the tragedy of the Tutsi genocide. The need combined with the resource represented by RDF’s professionalism has convinced Kagame to promote initiatives that will nurture a new image of the country: that of a security provider. To this end, Rwanda wants to increase its strategic relevance for global players by assuming a role of responsibility in various African contexts of instability.

Rwanda’s actions have garnered international interest, particularly from France. Rwandan troops deployed to Mozambique, for example, established their military headquarters at Afungi in the facilities previously occupied by French oil and gas giant, Total Energies. Total and its staff had been forced to quickly abandon their lucrative exploitation of offshore gas reserves in Cabo Delgado in the face of the ASWJ’s violent advance in early 2021. Paris was stung by this quick reversal in what had been a multi-billion-euro project stretching back years. The RDF’s foray into Cabo Delgado after Nyusi’s secret trip to Kigali dovetailed nicely with French President Emmanuel Macron’s interest in stemming the advance of the ASWJ while also promoting Paris’ broader new strategy of ‘leading from behind, in relation to which Rwandan actions were highly effective. To reduce the political costs of military intervention in crises that threaten national interests, France has increasingly delegated action to various well-trained armies from the African continent. In the Sahel, for instance, Paris has relied largely on the Chadian army. In central-eastern Africa, the Rwandan army seems particularly suited to act as a proxy force for France. The RDF, after all, is highly trained, very well armed, and can potentially act outside the limits of international law with lower political costs for Kigali than Paris.

The rapprochement between Kagame and France offers another important but much less discussed element. It heralds the possible return to prominence of France to the Great Lakes region and, more specifically, to Rwanda. Kagame has made little secret since coming to power that he sees France’s hand behind the shooting down of former Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana’s airplane in 1994 and the subsequent Rwandan genocide. Paris-Kigali relations became chilly, and Kagame went so far as to remove Rwanda from the association of French-speaking states, L’Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), and prioritize English in schools, much to the chagrin of Paris. A warming trend appeared in 2018 when Kagame’s foreign minister was elected the head of the OIF.[8] That France is now counting on Kagame’s RDF – and that Kagame is possibly receiving assistance from Paris – points to a wider détente and the potential for a much greater scope of military and peacekeeping activities in Africa for the RDF and France.

From a continental perspective, the unilateral engagement in CAR and Mozambique has allowed Rwanda to expand its projection beyond the Great Lakes region. President Kagame has the ambition to increase the country’s regional role. The deployment of troops in highly dangerous scenarios has boosted the country’s image and changed the perceptions inside Africa regarding the regime in Kigali and its controversial leader. Inside and outside of Africa, Rwanda has built its reputation as a stable and efficient country that can support African states facing periods of internal crisis. The achievements in Cabo Delgado in countering the Islamist group ASWJ have strengthened the idea of an actor committed to fighting radical terrorism. Kigali’s goal is to present itself as a “bobby” or regional policeman, willing to intervene unilaterally. The talks for the purchase of Turkish combat UAVs point in the direction of Rwanda’s desire to take a leading role in countering situations of insurgency within African countries. The RDF deployment in Mozambique concurrently with the launch of the SADC mission has shown the greater effectiveness of RDF intervention compared to multilateral operations. The latter are often slowed down by cumbersome bureaucratic institutional mechanisms. In addition, regional states often have conflicting interests and historical baggage that complicates efforts at restoring peace in another regional state.

In Mozambique’s case, the SADC, due to its creation and control to a large extent by South Africa, poses problems. During the Cold War, South Africa intervened repeatedly in Mozambique’s bitter civil war with mercenaries and weapons that largely supported the forces of the Mozambican National Resistance (known by its Portuguese acronym RENAMO) against the Liberation Front of Mozambique (FRELIMO), the party that has governed Mozambique since its independence from Portugal in 1975. Nyusi happens to be FRELIMO’s current leader. Consequently, Nyusi’s request to Kagame to intervene served numerous purposes for Mozambique’s leader. It kept regional states in southern Africa at arm’s length and brought in extra-regional troops with combat and peacekeeping experience to deal with the problem. For Nyusi, Kigali and Kagame are far enough away to pose little threat to his regime. Nor are RDF troops likely to pull at Mozambique’s complicated socio-political fabric in a way that SADC troops would. In short, Nyusi’s approach to Kagame and Kagame’s sending of RDF troops to Mozambique served both leaders well. As importantly, Nyusi’s approach to another African state (rather than a regional organization or an external power) and the RDF’s quick success in Cabo Delgado could set a precedent. One that dovetails with Kagame’s interest in promoting a model of unilateral intervention as an alternative and more efficient model than those of multilateral bodies. In the upcoming years, we may expect other sub-Saharan African countries struggling with domestic security issues to request assistance from Kagame and the RDF.

The proactive approach taken by Rwanda’s RDF in Mozambique has ruffled some feathers in southern Africa. First, the deployment of troops on Mozambican soil irritated countries that contribute to the SADC mission, the Southern African Development Community Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM). South Africa, which is leading the mission, has made no secret of its dislike for the presence of RDF troops operating independently in Cabo Delgado. For South Africa, the Rwandan intervention into what Pretoria considers its sphere of influence is seen as a direct challenge to its leadership in southern Africa. That Nyusi prevaricated and then stonewalled the deployment of SADC’s mission until the RDF had achieved the results needed in Cabo Delgado only added insult to injury. Indeed, SAMIM has been given a supporting role and is generally kept away from Cabo Delgado, which is, after all, traditionally a stronghold of Nyusi’s political nemesis, RENAMO. Kagame’s choice has further damaged relations between Kigali and Pretoria[9] after heightened tensions due to the mysterious death of Patrick Karegeya, the former head of the Kigali intelligence services and known critic of Kagame.[10]

Second, states within Rwanda’s East Africa region are monitoring Kigali’s new role as continental peacekeeper with concern. In particular, Rwanda’s traditional rivals, Uganda and Burundi, fear that Kagame’s growing confidence in the capabilities of the RDF could trigger new hostilities or rekindle old ones. Uganda’s octogenarian leader, President Yoweri Museveni, takes particular umbrage with his old nemesis, Kagame. It is an open secret in East Africa that Kagame – former head of military intelligence in Museveni’s Ugandan Army in the 1980s – and Museveni have sparred via proxies as well as with Ugandan and Rwandan soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Kivu regions for years. They have also backed different sides in various regional disputes in South Sudan and Burundi. With a powerful army of his own – one that contributes actively to peacekeeping missions in places like Somalia – Museveni is unlikely to look favorably on his rival’s efforts to transform both the face and the capabilities of Rwanda.

Kigali is capitalizing on its newfound role as a continental security provider within various African and regional organizations such as the African Union (AU), the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS). The RDF engagement in various African crises should pave the way for new strategic partnerships with African countries in multiple sectors. Regional and continental economic integration is a key tenet of Rwanda’s strategy. According to Kagame, increasing interdependence is one of the main strategic options to mitigate the country’s structural fragilities. For this reason, the Rwandan government insists on the need to build a free trade system. The Rwandan agenda is promoted within the agaciro project, the development fund established by the Kigali government to increase the country’s economic self-sufficiency. In Africa, Rwanda’s military commitment in CAR and Mozambique, as well as its many post-genocide domestic successes have increased the prestige of Kagame, considered by many to be an able statesman. If, on the international level, there is strong polarization towards a leader whose methods are increasingly authoritarian, on the continent Kagame is mostly considered a competent and reliable head of state.[11]

However, all is not rosy in Kagame’s Rwanda. The increasingly strong criticisms leveled by Western states at Kagame’s authoritarianism – and his maverick actions such as the assassination of a critic in South Africa – do hold some water. Kagame keeps a tight lid on domestic political dissent, arguing that doing anything else may open another Pandora’s Box of genocide or ethnic cleansing. As such, from a domestic political perspective, the commitment of Rwandan troops to various conflict scenarios constitutes a safeguard measure for the Kagame regime. Like what former Chadian President Idriss Déby Itno did, Kagame uses the deployment of troops in multilateral operations to divert international attention from the country’s significant domestic grievances. The scars from the Rwandan genocide are deep and Kagame sees many political enemies biding their time in neighboring states. In fact, Kagame expects that the RDF’s extra-territorial engagements may increase cooperation with Rwanda in countering both terrorism and the threat of Rwandan political dissidents, who are often refugees outside the country’s borders. This is the case with Mozambique, for example, which has become something of a haven for anti-Kagame dissidents, including some prominent opposition political figures and many of their financial backers.[12] The improvement in relations between Maputo and Kigali has therefore potentially increased Rwandan leverage to affect outcomes favorable to Kagame in Mozambique. Indeed, the pressure by Maputo on Rwandan opposition figures has increased as has the freedom of maneuver of Rwandan intelligence.

Kagame’s Rwanda is operating in a way few African states have done since independence. It has been a force multiplier in CAR, operating outside the bounds of any international or regional mandates. Indeed, RDF soldiers have conducted operations alongside Russian mercenaries. While Rwanda’s actions in CAR formed the template, RDF deployment to Mozambique may be the game-changer for the way conflict is managed in much of sub-Saharan Africa in the future. Mozambique’s leadership clearly eschewed regional assistance in favor of unilateral action by extra-regional Rwanda. They saw little threat from Rwanda to their own regime and understood that the RDF possessed the capabilities – and Kagame had the intent – to prosecute successful military action beyond Rwanda’s own region. It is likely that the next intra-state conflict in sub-Saharan Africa may see another RDF deployment in lieu of a messy and complicated intervention by regional or international actors.


[1] Porte, Jules, “Rwanda: an effective development model, rising to the challenge of its sustainability,” Macroeconomics & Development, no. 32, March 2021.

[2] Rafti, Marina, “A perilous path to democracy: political transition and authoritarian consolidation in Rwanda,” IOB Discussion Papers 2008, no. 3. URL: (accessed 25/11/2021).

[3] World Bank, “Country overview: Rwanda,” The World Bank. URL: (accessed 25/11/2021).

[4] Michael Oduor, “Russia, Rwanda send troops to Central African Republic ahead of general election,” Africa News, 21/12/2020. URL:

[5] Mugisha, I. R. (2020, December 22). Rwanda deploys troops to CAR under bilateral arrangement. The East African.

[6] Sofia Mapuranga, “Mozambique: President Nyusi is not tapping into the full potential of SADC,” The African Report, 11/5/2021. URL:

[7] Joseph Hanlon, “Mozambique insurgency: Rwanda leads the fightback,” BBC News, 6/8/2021. URL:

[8] France 24. (2018, October 12). Choice of Rwandan minister as Francophonie chief makes waves in Africa.

[9] Peter Fabricius, “What price for normalising SA–Rwanda relations?” Institute for Security Studies, 9/7/2021. URL:

[10] Michela Wrong, “Suspects in Rwandan spy chief’s death ‘linked to government’,” The Guardian, 21/1/2019. URL:

[11] Cobus van Staden, “Do African success narratives ignore authoritarian leaders like Kagame?” The Africa Report, 1/10/2021. URL:

[12] Human Rights Watch, “Mozambique: Grave Concerns for Rwandan Asylum Seeker,” 15/6/2021. URL:

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