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What the Alliance of Sahel States can learn from Rwanda’s post-genocide experience

The solidarity among the Sahel states against the looming threat of an ECOWAS-led proxy military intervention in post-coup Niger has considerably complicated the Community’s resolve to intervene in the country
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On 16 September 2023, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger Republic governments signed the Liptako-Gourma Charter, which is grounded in the principles of collective security and mutual defence. While the alliance is ostensibly intended to counter the threat of military intervention in Niger Republic by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), it also has the potential to reduce the vulnerability of the Sahel region to transnational organised crimes and Islamic fundamentalism. Drawing from Rwanda’s post-genocide example, the Francophone countries in the Sahel can resist the prevailing international pressure to prolong French neo-colonial dominance of the region while stabilising an embattled region.

A much-needed African alliance

While critics attempt to delegitimise the Liptako-Gourma tri-border mutual defence pact as a cynical ploy to consolidate military rule under the pretext of regional security, there are solid grounds to justify its establishment for the defence of African interests.

For one thing, the humanitarian and security conditions dictate that governments in the region act decisively and urgently to protect populations. For over a decade now, the Liptako-Gourma region, where the borders of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger converge, has been a haven for the nefarious activities of violent extremists, transnational organised criminals, and other non-state actors mainly linked to Boko Haram, Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Overall, the last decade of instability has displaced about 2.6 million people in the region, with hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring into neighbouring countries.

For another, the G5 Sahel force (consisting of troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger), which was set up in 2014 to stabilise the region in the aftermath of NATO’s disastrous intervention in Libya, has failed to achieve its goals. Despite receiving tremendous international support from France, the United Nations Security Council, Germany, the United States, the European Union, Russia and China, the counterterrorism campaign contributed to the spread of violent groups to countries across the Sahel. This failure is traceable to France’s preference for unilateralism and its little understanding of local realities and dynamics. Today, instead of constructively addressing these security challenges, Western powers and their allied institutions are exacerbating the region’s problems through their prioritisation of geostrategic competition.

In such a context, it is paramount that the Alliance of Sahel States steps in to reorient the region’s agenda (away from foreign interests) towards the stabilisation of the region and the restoration of state authority in order to respond to people’s aspirations for security, peace and development.

Moreover, the solidarity among the Sahel states against the looming threat of an ECOWAS-led proxy military intervention in post-coup Niger has considerably complicated the Community’s resolve to intervene in the country, thus preventing, even if temporarily, further destabilisation of the Sahel region. In this regard, the Alliance has partially achieved its primary objective and delayed an impending humanitarian catastrophe.

Lessons from Rwanda’s post-genocide experience

Rwanda shares a historical commonality with the military-led Sahel states of Burkina Faso, Gabon, Guinea, Mali, and Niger. Despite not being a former French colony, Rwanda was under France’s tutelage before the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, and maintained a close relationship with France during the genocide. This explains why the aftermath of the genocide continues to shape France-Rwanda relations, which remained tense for over two decades. France’s role in the United Nations Operation Turquoise, which allowed genocidal forces to flee to and regroup in former Zaire, added to the strain.  For many in the East African country, France’s quest to maintain its spheres of influence in Africa, often through violent means, symbolises a period in Rwanda’s history marked by violence, ethnic distrust, resentment, political tension, and the rule of Hutu power ethno-supremacists.

Given the multiple economic sanctions facing the member-states of the Alliance of Sahel States, there are essential lessons in ideological clarity, resilience, discipline, professionalism, and the realignment of global partnerships that these countries can draw from Rwanda’s post-genocide experience.

First, Rwanda’s ability to articulate its own governance model from the outset without conforming to global ‘best practices’ based on one-size-fits-all approaches to governance, as well as its home-grown approach to post-conflict justice, peacebuilding and development, played a pivotal role in its success. The visionary leadership of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF)-led government enabled the country to break free from the divisive genocidal regime and its global collaborators. This leadership made a significant difference even though the RPF-led government had meagre financial resources in the aftermath of the genocide. Today, similar political ingenuity is required from the West African states if they are to succeed in their decolonisation project.

On the ideological front, for instance, Rwanda prioritised the eradication of ethnic divisions, nepotism, sectarianism, corruption, and other practices that had characterised the France-backed genocidal regime. For the military-led Francophone Sahel states, the importance of peacebuilding, national cohesion, unity, reconciliation, and integration in overcoming the threats posed by insurgencies, corruption, France’s covert and overt manoeuvres, and the hostility of France’s collaborators cannot be overstated. As emphasised in my previous intervention regarding the political situation in Niger, merely assuming power is insufficient; it is more crucial to wield that power to pursue overarching objectives that resonate with the general populace.

The Alliance of Sahel States should also take inspiration from the remarkable resilience displayed by post-genocide Rwanda. Although the wounds of the 1994 genocide still linger, Rwanda has demonstrated remarkable determination in its liberation journey. The desire to liberate Rwanda from the conspiratorial attacks of genocidaires and their foreign supporters has fuelled unwavering commitment among Rwandans to defend their choices, enabling them to withstand external pressures. Only this kind of resilience will allow the people of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger to endure the inhumane sanctions (imposed by their neighbours under the directives of Western powers) while crafting grassroots, indigenously inspired governance models that are responsive to their aspirations.

Moreover, the military-led Francophone Sahel states should strive to emulate the virtues of discipline and professionalism demonstrated by the RPF fighters during Rwanda’s liberation struggle. Their professional conduct led them to eschew revenge killings, even when some of their family members had been victimised by the genocidaires. This profound commitment to the nation-building mission, which has been emulated by the Rwanda Defence Forces, has guided the behaviour of Rwandan troops over the past three decades. It is also this behaviour that allows these troops to conquer hearts and minds in countries like Mozambique and the Central African Republic where they intervene. Thus, the military-led Sahel states should uphold the highest standards of professionalism as they work to free their countries from terrorism and French neo-colonial dependency.

Lastly, the foreign policy objectives of the Sahel states should be recalibrated to ensure the realignment of global partnerships on mutually beneficial terms. Current tensions between the three African countries and France are a stark reminder of those that existed between Rwanda and France until recently. At one point, the RPF-led government severed diplomatic ties with France. The language of instruction in Rwandan schools was also changed from French to English in 2008, and Rwanda joined the Commonwealth of Nations in 2009, despite not being part of the former British Empire.

The confrontation between the two countries persisted until France accepted to acknowledge, albeit half-heartedly, its overwhelming responsibility in the genocide against the Tutsi and ceased its destabilisation schemes. It is worth noting that while the context of unipolarity after the fall of the Soviet Union offered Rwanda limited choices in terms of possible alliances to counter France’s hostility, today’s geopolitical context offers even more possibilities in terms of partnerships for West African countries that seek to wrestle themselves from France’s dominance.

The mutual defence pact between the three African nations is a rather inspiring first step. Starting with regional cooperation within the Sahel belt and transcending the constraints imposed by ECOWAS, the AU, and France, the military-led Sahel states should seek both bilateral and multilateral cooperation and partnerships on mutually advantageous terms.

At any rate, if a landlocked country like Rwanda could succeed in pursuing its foreign policy objectives and choosing its own path to socio-economic development, it is safe to assume that three allied nations in West Africa have a greater capacity to overcome the challenges posed by France’s determination to counter Africans’ aspirations for freedom.

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