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Rwanda Defense and Police Symposia – the baby must now run

While the symposia began as the intellectual element of Rwanda’s security model, they have morphed into seeking solutions for the multiplicity of challenges Africa faces


In May and June 2024, the Rwanda Defense Force (RDF) and the Rwanda National Police (RNP) organised back-to-back national security symposia. For the past 10 years, the two institutions have been holding separate policy-focused conferences on themes around the quest for the ‘African perspective’ on matters of global security. These symposia take place just before students on senior command and staff courses leading to a Masters degree in security and peace studies graduate from the respective police and military colleges.

Over several years, since their inception, I have been closely linked to the two programmes, either as a lecturer or as a panelist during symposia. I am therefore a witness to the humble beginnings of the two symposia. Rwanda’s security forces possess remarkable capacity for organizing events of different kinds. To each event, they bring the kind of discipline that is expected from professional security armed forces. It was therefore not surprising that even during the very early stages of the symposia this aspect was in evidence. Back then, however, the organizers lacked experience in putting together discussion panels and synchronising the speakers in ways that resulted in intellectual coherence during the discussions. But, even as they struggled with this particular aspect, it was never a good idea to bet against them. They are both known for getting things right when they focus on them.

And as far as the symposia are concerned, they have. These annual gatherings have grown in both quality and quantity, alongside the pedigree of speakers and the size of the audiences. Today they are close to mastering the balance of panels to include academic theorists and professional practitioners, a point to which I shall return shortly. This combination has brought life to the interactions. Where moderators sometimes fail to exploit the opportunity to reconcile underlying tensions in some of the more robust discussions, the audience often jumps in to highlight convergences and divergences.

As great as these strides are, however, more remain to be made. If the symposia were a baby, it has been crawling. Now is the time to help it onto its feet to walk and then run. If they were a hatchling, now is the time to encourage it to fly.

First, given the quality of the gatherings, the symposia ought to be elevated from the status of ‘national’ to ‘international’ events. The scope and nature of the issues usually discussed are rarely national. The themes and topics of discussion tend to be about the consequences of global politics for African lives and the security of the continent. In other words, the discussions increasingly focus on the effects of global geopolitics on Africa. Also, increasingly the speakers are persons of international standing, if not by their CVs, by the breadth of their knowledge of the subjects they tackle. Increasingly, there is little that is ‘national’ or domestic about them. Hence, the moniker ‘International Conference for Peace and Security’ would be appropriate.

While the symposia began as the intellectual element of Rwanda’s security model, they have morphed into seeking solutions for the multiplicity of challenges Africa faces, especially those to do with human insecurity. The initiative is important, given that the paucity of good leadership across the world increases the threats to human life globally. Put differently, Rwanda must now project its aspirations as a major convenor of thinkers on matters of human security via these symposia, without thinking of itself as a domestic actor. Here is why.

First, the quest for the ‘African perspective’ on matters of global security transcends Rwanda’s borders. As a result, the symposia, for all intents and purposes, are no longer strictly Rwandan. Second, because Rwanda’s security forces are no longer strictly Rwandan. They may carry the Rwandan flag, but their reach when it comes to tackling insecurity extends beyond the confines of its borders. It is not by accident that Rwanda has been among the leading contributors to United Nations Peacekeeping, that it is being sought for bilateral arrangements in conflict zones around the world, or that ideas like the Kigali Principles carry that name.

However, three things must happen for the symposia to align with this reality. One is that the two symposia should merge into a single symposium. As of today, they take place one after the other.  This dilutes the capacity to attract the best brains for both events. Even more compelling, the two address the same issues – peace and security from an African perspective.

Crucially, elevation to an international conference would bring focus to how Africans experience the dynamics of global conflict and violence. This has been a challenge in a context where high-level delegates from all over the world are invited to the Munich Security Conference during which Europeans and Americans talk about global security threats as they experience them. Africans need to have these discussions on our own terms. If we are to invite outsiders, it should be done in ways that do not disrupt the objective of centering the African experience and seeking solutions to the disruption of African lives through instability.

Finally, there would have to be more women and young people on the panels, not for the sake of representation based on gender and age, but because there are many women and young people in activities that are impacted by the challenges of instability across Africa. Their perspectives would convey how they experience insecurity. It makes a lot of sense, given that women and youth are disproportionately affected by insecurity. Failure to integrate them amounts to self-isolation that threatens to turn the symposia into something of an echo chamber of a particular generation of men talking to themselves, which would constrain the ability to attract Africans to what is otherwise a consequential conversation given the centrality of peace and security in the lives of all Africans. Gradually, the result would be intellectual redundancy and exhaustion within the chamber itself.

The symposia were born in the northern town of Musanze, where both the senior command and Staff College of the army and that of the Police are located. The RDF’s symposium has moved to Kigali, perhaps in reaction to the substantial growth in content and the number of delegates from mainly national to international.

But this is not enough. The symposia can physically take place anywhere. However, in their growth, there must be recognition that, in the hearts and minds of participants and observers, they belong to Africa. That said, this psychological shift requires merging the two and elevating them to something much bigger in the realm of The African Conference on Peace & Security or something to that effect. Indeed, referring to these symposia as national security symposia was always reductive, given the initial intent behind them was always to project an African perspective on security and peace to the world. The time has come to live up to that intent.

Any parent will tell you that it is not easy to let go of one’s baby. However, parents also know that it is only by letting go that the child’s growth happens. It’s a labour of love.

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