Last month, I traveled to the Central African Republic (CAR) to witness the graduation ceremony of the first battalion of the country’s troops trained by the Rwanda Defense Force (RDF). This milestone constituted a shift from keeping the peace to transferring capacity to the CAR’s military so that they do the task themselves. It signals an exit point for the Rwandans from the bilateral defense cooperation. After reflecting on the challenges and opportunities facing similar security arrangements across the African continent, I came to the conclusion that the success of such missions is centered around the ability of a foreign army to avoid the perception from locals of being an occupying force. It is a very delicate task, which even the most powerful armies in the world have failed to undertake, but which a small country is showing is possible.
Beyond alliances, skills and know-how: a value system
Actively seeking military cooperation with a particular country implies that there is something that one seeks to gain from it. Oftentimes, it’s the security that an ally provides, or just the skills and know-how they bring to the table. In this case, it is about all of this and even more. After all, if it was only about alliances, the CAR has one with Russia through the latter’s paramilitary group, Wagner. Military skills and know-how were also provided by EU training until 2021. Indeed, the CAR authorities could have sought alliances and similar services from countries with more powerful armies. But they chose Rwanda. The reasons for this choice become evident once one gets a sense of how Rwandan troops are perceived on the ground.
For the Force Commander of the UN mission in the CAR (Minusca), Lieutenant General Humphrey Nyone from Zambia, Rwandan troops are dependable, selfless, willing to fight and dedicated to their mission. For these reasons, they take risks that other contributors of troops in UN peacekeeping missions are reluctant to contemplate. As a case in point about how these values make Rwanda’s contribution stand out, General Nyone recalled how the troops prevented CAR’s capital, Bangui, from falling into the hands of insurgents led by former President, Francois Bozize in December 2020.
Today, the Rwandan troops operating under the UN flag have been entrusted with ensuring security for CAR’s president, and the capital city, Bangui, while those who are deployed under a bilateral framework secure strategic infrastructure and trade routes within the landlocked country. In this regard, General Nyone also pointed out that without these troops, the main trade route that ensures the flow of goods between the CAR and Cameroon (a vital supply route for the UN force as well) would be shut down due to the activities of insurgents. The end of a 50-day blockade that had cut off Bangui’s lifeline in February 2021 means that the people of CAR can trade with their neighbors, thanks largely to the dedication of Rwandan troops to their mission. The CAR authorities expect the same attitude from the army that will be born out of the ongoing training, and that they will espouse the same values.
The centrality of the people of CAR in the new security architecture
Beyond these military feats, the dependability, selflessness, and dedication of the Rwandan troops are visible in their interactions with the CAR citizens. Mr Bgate Bonaventure, the Director of the KINA School in Bangui, which was rehabilitated by the Rwandan contingent in MINUSCA, had an interesting story to tell.
“The troops of other UN contingents who patrol this area come and stay in their armored vehicles. They don’t talk to us. Rwandan troops are different. They come to us, and talk to us. This creates bonds. So, when we have a problem, we prefer to tell them because we know they will help in any way they can,” Mr. Bgate told me on the side as we watched his students singing and dancing for the Rwandan commanders who had visited their school that day.
Mr Bgate’s story is similar to the tales of Mozambicans in areas such as Cabo Delgado where Rwandan troops operate. The efficiency of Rwanda’s intervention is heavily dependent on the cooperation of the population. Whereas the Swahili-speaking populations in the Northwest of Mozambique have been reluctant to share information with Mozambican security forces for fear of being perceived as collaborators of insurgents, they have been forthcoming with Rwandan troops. The new graduates in the CAR army will be expected to replicate this kind of cooperation with civilians.
Not an occupying force but rather a friend in need
One thing that would strike a keen observer is how the Rwandans are very deliberate in making sure they are not perceived as an occupying force.
“Of course, our officials and their Central African counterparts make sure we are not unnecessarily bothered by the bureaucracy. We are not forced to pay bribes to do business here, for instance. But if you have a problem with the authorities and you are in the wrong, our officials will not intervene. They ask you to get your business in order,” Guy [not real name], a Rwandan businessman who has been Bangui for 2 years, told me.
It is paramount that Central Africans do not see Rwandan businesspeople as skewing the rules in their favor by using the influence of the privileged relationship between the two countries. This would inevitably undermine the blossoming ties between the countries – and the communities by extension. This kind of restraint – a refusal to abuse privileged relations – eluded the French elites who could not imagine a win-win paradigm in their interactions with Central Africans and they have not done anything tangible to show a change in attitude in recent times.
It is worth recalling that despite the presence of UN and Wagner troops, the insurgents led by Bozize had reached the outskirts of Bangui in December 2020. While Rwandan troops in MINUSCA were willing to fight, the UN’s green light to intervene never came. This was not surprising, considering that relations between the country and France, the penholder on the CAR in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), had deteriorated due to what France perceived as Russian intrusion into its sphere of influence. It became clear that France and its allies in the UNSC were willing to let the rebels overthrow the newly re-elected government and, thus, thwart Russia’s attempts to establish itself as a long-term partner of the CAR through its paramilitary group, Wagner. These behind-the-scenes schemes which prioritise Western geopolitical calculations and economic interests at the expense of the security and stability of African countries were nothing new. Luckily, Rwanda’s deployments under a bilateral security agreement saved the Touadera’s administration and stabilized the country. No doubt, Rwanda’s intervention in the CAR demonstrated that Africa cannot remain a playground for superpower rivalries and struggles.
Perfectionism is the enemy of mediocrity
As I witnessed the graduation ceremony of the first battalion trained by the RDF, several issues came to mind.
First, these new graduates ought not to be mixed with their colleagues in the CAR army if they are to have any chance of building a replica of the army that has won the hearts of CAR citizens and the trust of its authorities. Too many elements in the country’s army are corrupt, erecting unofficial checkpoints during the night to collect money, for instance. At this point, a mix would drown out whatever good values the graduates acquired from training by the RDF.
Second, and related, building a professional and capable army takes time, certainly longer than the six months the recruits spent in training. It is paramount to build doctrinal unity and, perhaps, it would be best to consider new training for those already in the force.
Third, there needs to be unity of purpose between the newly-trained army and the bureaucracy inherited by the Touadera administration. As argued elsewhere by Dr Lonzen Rugira, “An army is an idea within another idea: the state.” When there is a contradiction between these two ideas, the army and the state cannot co-exist.
This was evident in post-genocide Rwanda. Whereas the RDF, which was built on the foundational values and ethos of the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) then led by Major General Paul Kagame, was pushing the idea of a new Rwanda free of ethnic divisions, some people within the transitional government were still clinging onto the old Rwanda where ethnicity-focused politics had been the order of the day. These two ideas could not coexist. In 2000, the alignment between the state and the army behind a unity of purpose meant the realignment of the two ideas driving the state and the army. Consequently, Paul Kagame became the evident choice as President of Rwanda at high cost to politicians and elements in the bureaucracy who had rejected the idea of a new Rwanda.
The CAR authorities ought to anticipate and prepare for this clash of ideas and how to deal with it. If training by the RDF is completely successful, it won’t only produce a combat-capable force, but one with the same values as those displayed by the Rwandan troops: dependability, dedication, and selflessness in the service of the country. Such a force will not co-exist with politicians and bureaucrats who are not driven – and who therefore don’t live – by the same values.