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Military cooperation between Benin and Rwanda can end the Sahel crisis

Insecurity somewhere in Africa is a threat to security everywhere

Governments, analysts, and commentators across the continent who are lauding the “African solution to African problems” approach to development are, more often than not, unwilling to walk the talk. They are quick to seek advice from former colonial powers and adopt ‘ready-to-wear’ programmes of international organizations like the United Nations, predictably leaving poor results in their trail. The emerging bilateral relationship between Benin and Rwanda can reverse this trend.

Avoiding superpower rivalries

While on a visit to West Africa last April, President Paul Kagame signed a military cooperation agreement with his Beninese counterpart, President Patrice Talon. In the ensuing press conference, both heads of state noted that there would be “no limit” to the extent of the cooperation. This is an interesting development in the Sahel region, which is affected by Islamist terrorism and tense geopolitical crises.

Prior to that, and in order to address the dire regional security challenges caused by transnational Islamic terrorism, West African nations in the region partnered with Western countries for a coordinated response. Despite being endowed with a start-up budget of 450 million euros in 2017, the regional force, dubbed G5 Sahel, failed to defeat insurgencies which have continued to cause military and civilian deaths across borders.

To make matters worse, the Sahel region has now fallen victim to the growing rivalry between superpowers. The region was for a long time under France’s dominance, as retaining ‘le pré carré africain’ (spheres of influence) was arguably France’s top foreign policy priority. However, states like Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea are now turning a new leaf and broadening their scope of partners to the likes of Russia amidst growing accusations of sabotage on the part of France, thus attracting the wrath of Western powers and negative coverage from their mainstream media.

Interestingly, however, countries like Benin, who have long been spared by the plague of terrorism, are now turning to other alternatives to avoid being collateral damage of an ever-ending struggle between superpowers. Bilateral cooperation with another African state seems to be the preferred way forward.

Rwanda’s approach to peace and security

Rwanda’s approach to peace and security is marked by its history, and the international community’s unwillingness to save more than 1 million people during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.  The search for stability and preventing a repeat of genocide (both at home and abroad) was an integral part of Rwanda’s national and international policy framework post-genocide. It is in this difficult context that Rwanda’s commitment to the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) peacekeeping doctrine was born.

This human security approach combines community engagements with a clean human rights record by its soldiers. For instance, in all places where the Rwanda Defense Force (RDF) are deployed, military personnel conduct multiple community engagement initiatives such as Umuganda (community work), or provide medical care free of charge.

In a context where peacekeeping missions all over the world have been hit by scandals, Rwandan peacekeepers’ discipline and respect for local populations have become increasingly popular. Indeed, starting from the successful engagement in Darfur in 2004, Rwandan troops have built a reputation for being efficient and reliable fighters in the many multilateral missions where the RDF has been deployed (such as in Liberia, South Sudan, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, and Haiti).

In addition, a new targeted bilateral approach to military cooperation in the likes of the Central African Republic or Mozambique has extended Rwanda’s security expertise, making it one of the most insurgent-experienced military forces on the continent.

Why does security in the Sahel matter to Rwanda?

Unlike traditional Western partners, Rwanda does not premise its cooperation on the condition of a right to interfere in the domestic politics of its partners or commercial gains before striking a deal. On the contrary, Rwanda’s benefit from its interventions is not of imperialist or pecuniary nature. First and foremost, there are humanitarian considerations at stake. Moreover, gaining reputation and stature guarantees Rwanda a seat in important discussions, beyond what its size or economic might may entail. However, these are not the only reasons why the Sahel is key to Rwanda’s interests.

From a security perspective, the global nature of cross-border terrorism and its ever-shifting forms is a threat to countries on all corners of the continent. By being part of the solution in West Africa, Rwanda aims to stop the dangerous spilling of terrorism in East Africa and beyond. In Mozambique, for example, enabling the rapid control of the Government in Cabo Delgado was crucial to saving this region from becoming a terrorist hotbed.

From an economic perspective, Rwanda is a champion of African economic integration, through the leadership of President Kagame over the African Union reforms, and its strong advocacy for the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement. Being a landlocked, small-scale economy, Rwanda knows that its own development is dependent on the prosperity of its continent. In the 2050 vision, Rwanda aims to become a high-income country with sustained growth over the next 20 years. Only by tapping into the African market for economic opportunities can this vision become reality.

At any rate, it is paramount that African countries embrace Rwanda’s pan-African approach to security because furthering African collective interests, economic or otherwise, depends on it. To paraphrase a Rwandan security expert on this matter, “insecurity somewhere [in Africa] is a threat to security everywhere.”


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