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Is Rwanda’s counter-terrorism model worth emulating?

The model, not the country, should be under scrutiny, especially since the solutions proposed by the globally powerful have not yielded effective results
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As efforts to confront insecurity across Africa become increasingly central to Rwanda’s foreign policy, criticism against its counterinsurgency model seems to be gaining traction in some quarters. Indeed, the demand for Rwanda’s security assistance in different parts of Africa has increased, as recent reports about an agreement signed between Rwanda and Benin suggest. This demand has met with warnings by some commentators that Rwanda’s model cannot be exported to and replicated by other countries. These warnings are misguided at best, ill-motivated at worst.

Failure to assess Rwanda’s model on its merits

For one thing, criticism against Rwanda’s model tends to focus on aspects that have nothing to do with the aims of Rwanda’s military interventions. For instance, some commentators insist that Rwanda is a dictatorship with a questionable human rights record when assessing a mission whose aims are a) to reclaim territory captured by insurgents, b) to pacify areas freed from occupation for civilians to return, and c) to hand over responsibility for security to local authorities once order has been restored.

It should be obvious that even if their criticism of Rwanda was valid, it has nothing to do with the objectives behind the interventions. It would only be valid if Rwanda’s aims were similar to that of an occupation force, in which case the local populations in areas where Rwanda has intervened would be at risk of human rights violations. There are no reports that ordinary Mozambicans and Central Africans have suffered such violations. Therefore, a rational assessment of Rwanda’s model ought to be against the aims of its deployment: recovering territory lost to terrorists and other non-state actors and pacifying the reclaimed areas for civilians to return. Has Rwanda been effective in doing this? On these measures, even the critics tend to answer yes.

Another way critics fail to scrutinize the model itself, how effective it is and its shortcomings, is by focusing attention on the country being small and insignificant in global politics. The model, not the country, should be under scrutiny, especially since the solutions proposed by the globally powerful have not yielded effective results. Instead, the failure to eradicate terrorism has left a gap that is now being filled by Rwanda’s professional and efficient force. In fact, more countries should be encouraged to innovate towards a lasting solution against terrorism regardless of their standing on the global stage. At issue is the merit of the approach because dealing with terrorism should not be a matter of having or gaining political significance; it should be about saving lives and protecting people from the harmful ideologies underpinning terrorism. It should be a matter of determination to deal with a problem.

Third, critics get it wrong when they examine the model specifically as being about Rwanda. In reality, it is not about Rwanda, but a pan-African approach. Rwanda is involved only because it is asked to do so by other African countries in need. So, the model that is emerging as a Pan-African model happens to originate in Rwanda. Rwanda would subscribe to any efficient model whatever its origin, while retaining the core element of its own counterinsurgency doctrine which puts the lives of ordinary people first. Even the fact that an African country has faith in another African country to deal with a problem that usually required seeking the assistance of big powers testifies to the emergence of a Pan-African model.

What is the Rwandan model and what makes it special?

Rwanda’s innovation in counterinsurgency is a combination of military effectiveness and community outreach.  The logic goes like this: since terrorists recruit from within communities, the ideology that results in terrorism is actually a product of unique circumstances that are prevalent in a particular community. So, identifying military targets is insufficient if you don’t engage the community enough. Engaging the community is not only about military success; it is also about uprooting the ideology. In other words, you may temporarily succeed in defeating militarily the terrorists, but without dealing with the ideology (extremism) within the community, military success is not sustainable.

Rwanda Security Forces, Mozambican Security Organs and residents of Palma conduct community work in Palma town, Cabo Delgado Province, Mozambique

Moreover, there is another important component of Rwanda’s counterinsurgency doctrine: to give the enemy the opportunity to surrender. This opportunity can only be appealing if insurgents have assurances that they will not be killed if they chose to surrender. This approach produces a virtuous cycle because captured or surrendering enemies not only offer valuable information to defeat the insurgency but also often become assets in convincing their colleagues to surrender. But a virtuous circle is only possible if one is able to humanize their enemy and to see in them a potential ally during and after the conflict.

Rwanda Security Forces in Mozambique discover a stockpile of weapons and ammunition hidden by Ansar Al sunna terrorists

The Rwandan army believes that the failure to uproot the ideology (extremism) and to establish a virtuous cycle of collaboration with former foes undermines their mission. Instead of sustainable peace, a cycle of violence is nurtured in which the insurgents engage in tactical withdrawals and counter offensives, thereby creating conditions for permanent war which leaves the intervening troops without a clear exist strategy. The intervention turns into a sort of military occupation – a semi colonial approach which can create communal exhaustion and hostility towards those perceived as occupying forces. Community exhaustion and hostility not only stem from the failure to provide security on a sustainable basis, but also from security not being in the hands of the community. Indeed, outsourcing agency for the security challenges leads to a diminished sense of ownership and the sense of dignity that comes from one’s capacity to solve problems with minimal external interference and accepting support only when needed.

The philosophy of this innovation originates from Rwanda’s post-genocide history. Immediately after the end of the war and the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994, the new government had to deal with an ideologically grounded insurgency in the northern and western part of the country. With the worst form of ideology – of a genocidal nature – seeking to uproot an entire section of the population. The insurgency (abacengezi) and associated lessons made Rwandans acutely aware that sustainable defeat of such threats requires community involvement, given the adversary is embedded within communities. A successful counter insurgency involves separating civilians from insurgents and getting the former involved in working together to solve the problem. This counterinsurgency doctrine was best described by Retired Major General Mugambage in these words: The ideology that brings us closer to the people is the secret to our liberation.

The traditional counter insurgency approach promoted by powerful countries and specialized international agencies has major weaknesses. One, it prioritizes political considerations over humanitarian ones. For instance, it is more important for troop-contributing countries to keep the soldiers safe than to save the lives of civilians. This is mainly because these countries fail to identify with the civilians they supposedly came to protect and to treat them as they would do their own citizens, for whom intervening troops should risk their own lives.

Another weakness is their unwarranted interference in the internal politics of the country where they intervene. Through this interference, powerful countries and international organizations usurp people’s agency to solve their problems. Instead, powerful countries prioritize their own strategic objectives while pushing under the rug the needs and aspirations of the people. It explains why few – if any – success stories have been registered. Rwanda is a newcomer and the results of its approach speak for themselves. So, instead of criticizing a new model, there should be, first of all, the acknowledgement that an additional solution has emerged and then discuss whatever shortcomings it may have.

What is actually driving the criticism?

There is consensus that Rwanda’s deployments in the Central African Republic and Mozambique have been major successes. Benin which is requesting for collaboration now is facing jihadist threats just like other countries in the Sahel region (Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania, and Chad). For some reason, critics seem determined to ensure that Benin does not get the assistance it needs. Why is there a reluctance to embrace Rwanda’s model in western circles? Meanwhile, critics cannot present valid arguments against it. Is the criticism driven by ulterior motives, such as a desire to push the idea that Africans are somehow not qualified to handle their own security challenges? Or is this about fear by Western powers of losing spheres of influence? All these questions must be addressed at some point.

More importantly, there is a need for humility in addressing some of the most pressing global challenges. Humility takes you to where the solution is, not to who is the most powerful and influential, regardless of whether they have a solution or not. That the European Union has recognized this by supporting Rwanda’s deployment in Mozambique financially, is a good starting point in setting the stage for meaningful discussions around the sustainability of such interventions. After all, we need solidarity and partnership to recognize and confront threats to civilian lives as a global community.

What the emerging discourse around Rwanda’s model does is to delay solidarity and partnerships. It is a distraction not unlike the kind that which in 1994 revolved around whether the term genocide was applicable to the situation in Rwanda when the discussion should have been about how to save lives. Since that experience of abandonment by the international community, Rwanda’s foreign policy has placed a premium on saving the lives of people facing all kinds of threats, including terrorism and genocide.

“We will always pay maximum attention, even if we are alone,” President Kagame said recently at the 30th Commemoration of the Genocide against the Tutsi, in reference to Rwanda’s foreign policy posture that is in line with the Responsibility to Protect and the Kigali Principles.

Indeed, Rwanda’s choice to take these principles seriously, as a result of its own experience, is an issue of moral clarity. It is not about material capabilities, physical size or global standing.

Ultimately, however, despite the criticism, it is actually good that Rwanda’s approach in the counter terrorism campaign has gotten to a level where it can be classified as a model, to be compared with pre-existing models. Now the debate should not be whether Rwanda’s model is the best or not; it is good that we have several models to deal with terrorism. The focus should be on the merits and demerits of each model so that lessons learned from each other can perfect our different approaches to counterterrorism. It shouldn’t be a one way street of unassailable wisdom on the subject.

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