The moment Yussuf Abdallah met the Rwandan soldiers he knew the game was up.

The 18-year-old Islamist insurgent in northern Mozambique was part of a group known to local people as Shabaab. It has loose ties with Isis and has over the past four years terrorised the northern province of Cabo Delgado, displacing more than 800,000 and killing more than 3,000.

But then troops from a country barely a fraction of Mozambique’s size showed up and cleaned up most of the area in a matter of weeks.

“We were overwhelmed by their number, they were also extremely fierce,” said Abdallah, now a prisoner of the Mozambican state in the coastal city of Mocímboa de Praia, until August an insurgents’ stronghold. “We couldn’t contain the confrontation, they have better weaponry, we couldn’t do anything.”

Rwanda’s 1,000-strong brigade of soldiers and police achieved in weeks what Mozambican and other forces had been unable to do in years. The turn of events in Cabo Delgado illustrates Kigali’s willingness under president Paul Kagame to reach beyond its borders and act as police officer in regional disputes.

Residents look on as a patrol of Rwandan soldiers drives by in Quitunda Camp in Afungi, Cabo Delgado.
On patrol: A thousand or so Rwandan troops have helped clear northern Cabo Delgado of insurgents © Simon Wohlfahrt/AFP via Getty Images

The Rwandan efforts have not only restored calm and security — allowing families who had fled the terror to return home — but will also help revive the development of multibillion dollar offshore gas riches, which has the potential to transform Mozambique’s $14bn economy. In April this year, Total, the French energy giant, had declared force majeure on Africa’s single biggest investment after an attack nearby.

The intervention by Kagame, a former rebel commander whose forces ended a 1994 genocide in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed, reflects Kigali’s military prowess and willingness to act.

About 10 per cent of Rwanda’s 30,000 troops are on missions elsewhere in Africa and it “is the willingness to partake in these operations what has given us a good reputation globally. It’s got a lot to do with African solutions for African problems”, said Col Ronald Rwivanga of Rwanda’s Defence Forces.

But Rwanda does not share a border with Mozambique and faced no immediate danger from an insurgency that threatened French commercial interests. There is also some unease over the motives of a country that is facing increasing international criticism for alleged persecution of political foes.

Map showing Rwanda and Mozambique

“This is about responsibility to protect,” said a senior Rwandan military officer in Cabo Delgado. He added: “This is also about projecting Rwanda’s power.”

‘A strong public relations exercise’

In late September Kagame showed up in northern Mozambique in military fatigues to inspect his troops.

He dismissed speculation that the Rwandan deployment was linked to French interests, despite a pledge in late May by France’s president Emmanuel Macron of €500m in development aid during a visit to Kigali.

People in Pemba show pictures of the Mozambican and Rwandan presidents after Paul Kagame arrived to inspect troops
People in Pemba show pictures of the Mozambican and Rwandan presidents after Paul Kagame arrived to inspect troops © Simon Wohlfahrt/AFP via Getty Images

On that same trip, Macron admitted some French responsibility in the genocide, a move designed to draw a line under two decades of rancour. A French official has also denied they were financing Rwanda’s counterinsurgency efforts.

“The operations themselves have been largely successful but they also show what we are able to do even within our limited resources,” Kagame told reporters in the regional capital, Pemba. Mozambique’s president Filipe Nyusi added there “was no triangulation” through any third country.

But the Rwandans “were keen to come. They told us ‘we have the experience, we have the capacity and you don’t have to pay for anything’,” said a senior Mozambican official. “For them this is also a strong public relations exercise.” Their presence, locals said, was more effective than a regional force deployed by Mozambique’s neighbours, including South Africa.

‘The Rwandans are better than us’

In fighting lasting four weeks, the Rwandans say they killed more than 100 insurgents and suffered only four casualties.

“Unfortunately, I have to say the Rwandans are better than us. Fortunately, they came and things got better,” acknowledged a Mozambican corporal, holding a rusted AK-47 rifle, with a magazine held together by tape.

In a stark contrast, Rwandan soldiers have shiny new equipment and crisp new uniforms, their professionalism, discipline and military prowess prompting some observers to call them the “Israel of Africa” — a nod to the Jewish state’s military standing and the two countries’ shared history of the suffering of genocide.

Rwanda is small, relatively stable, and has a population of just 13m. Still, according to data by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute compiled by the World Bank, its military spending as a percentage of gross domestic product is higher than that of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation that is fighting Boko Haram, and Ethiopia, the continent’s second-most populous country in the midst of a brutal civil war.

As part of UN missions, Rwanda has peacekeepers in South Sudan and the Central African Republic. It has also sent about 1,500 soldiers and police to Bangui last year under a bilateral agreement, similar to its arrangement with Mozambique, meaning less red tape but also that Kigali has control over its troops.

Line chart of military expenditure (% of GDP) showing Rwanda spends heavily on military

Louisa Lombard, a Yale anthropologist researching on Rwanda’s peacekeepers, said their reputation was based on their being among the most disciplined and least corrupt of all African missions. Unlike others, it has faced no allegations of sexual misconduct.

‘We feel more persecuted’

Rwanda’s willingness to get involved should be viewed through the prism of its own history, analysts say.

Aggée Shyaka Mugabe, director of the Centre for Conflict Management at the University of Rwanda, believes the deployment of Rwandan troops may be about “the promotion of the national image”, but it is rooted in the 1994 genocide in which about 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed as peacekeepers pulled out. “Rwanda knows the cost of lacking assistance for people facing violence better than many,” he said.

But for human rights and exiles groups the deployment of Rwandan troops to Mozambique may only serve to distract from allegations that Kagame’s government — praised for transforming the nation into a thriving economy after the genocide — silences opponents at home and abroad.

Last month, a Rwandan court sentenced Paul Rusesabagina, a critic of Kagame who inspired a Hollywood film about the genocide, to 25 years in jail for “terrorism”. Officials say he had a fair trial and deny they target critics.

Rwanda’s Col Ronald Rwivanga: ‘It’s got a lot to do with African solutions for African problems’ © Andres Schipani/FT

A Rwandan ex-army officer was killed in Maputo earlier last month and Cleophas Habiyaremye, president of the Association of Rwandan Refugees in Mozambique said: “We feel more persecuted since the troops arrived in Mozambique, but we are not afraid of troops, we are afraid of politicians.”

“Because of its terrible past, Rwanda has played an active role in addressing conflict and is one of the largest contributors to peacekeeping operations,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

“However that should not exempt the government from being held accountable for its own record of human rights abuses - both past and present - or serve as a means to target or exert pressure on Rwandan refugee and diaspora communities.”

‘As long as the Rwandans stay, it’ll be fine’

Crucially for Mozambique the Rwandan efforts could herald the return of Total and the restart of the $20bn gas project. The company “will return” Nyusi told the Financial Times in Pemba, “when everything is calm; we are working on it.”

Total warned at the end of September, though, that even if it restarts next year the development in the Afungi peninsula may only produce its first LNG in 2026, delaying a project meant to transform Mozambique’s economy. Kagame said the troops will stay as long as needed, but not forever.

The insurgents killed Amina Abdullah’s brother and took her daughter: ‘Maybe now the Rwandans can find her and bring her back’ © Andres Schipani/FT

“As long as the Rwandan forces stay for a long time, it’ll be fine,” said a caretaking contractor at Total’s camp in the Afungi peninsula.” If they pull out tomorrow, there’ll be problems.” 

Whatever their motives for being in Mozambique, the local population has clearly welcomed them.

After eight months hiding in the bush, farmer Amina Abdullah returned to her home in Quelimane soon after the Rwandans took control in August. The Islamists had taken over the area, beheading her brother and taking her daughter with them.

“We thank the Rwandans for coming, they did a muito bom trabalho — a very good job,” she said, adding she didn’t know if her daughter was alive. “Maybe now the Rwandans can find her and bring her back.”

Additional reporting by Joseph Cotterill in Johannesburg and Tom Wilson in London

Get alerts on Rwanda when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article