This article is excerpted from the Cabo Ligado monthly report looking back at May 2021, published on 15 June 2021
Rwanda’s entry into the constellation of interests over Cabo Delgado in late April was, in retrospect, perhaps not unexpected. The involvement of individuals and armed groups from the Great Lakes region has been documented nearly since the start of the conflict, giving Rwanda legitimate interest in the conflict. Yet Rwanda’s connection to Cabo Delgado goes back at least 45 years, when a 19-year-old Fred Rwigyema was one of 28 men, led by Yoweri Museveni, who spent two years in Montepuez district being trained by Frelimo. Museveni went on to lead Uganda’s National Resistance Army (NRA), and eventually Uganda itself to this day. Major General Rwigyema rose in the ranks of the NRA before leading the nascent Rwandan Patriotic Front’s (RPF) first incursion into Rwanda in 1990, only to be killed on the second day. His successor atop the RPF, Paul Kagame, has led Rwanda since 2000.
May 2021 saw the return of Rwanda to Cabo Delgado, with a reconnaissance party reportedly traveling to the province in the wake of President Filipe Nyusi’s meeting with President Kagame 28 April. At the meeting, Nyusi is understood to have made a bilateral request for military assistance in putting down the insurgency. Since then, Rwanda has been busy diplomatically, seeking to reassert its influence in Southern Africa. The final result of these efforts will depend on how Rwanda balances its ambitions against the sometimes competing interests of the Southern African Development Community's (SADC) main players and the interests of western powers. Thus far, Rwanda’s focus is on Tanzania, South Africa, and Mozambique.
Parallel to the Rwandan reconnaissance mission to Cabo Delgado, in the second week of May, Rwanda’s Chief of Defence Staff General Jean Bosco Kazura and Inspector General of Police (IGP) Dan Munyuza spent five days in Tanzania for talks with counterparts General Venance Mabeyo and IGP Simon Sirro. Publicly, counterterrorism collaboration topped the agenda. In a video statement released on social media, IGP Sirro noted that recruits from Rwanda as well as Tanzania are joining the insurgency in Cabo Delgado. IGP Munyuza committed to “take on the terrorists and defeat them” and to continue collaboration into the future.
Both states share a similarly harsh military doctrine when confronted by Non-State Armed Groups (NSAG). The 2010 ‘Mapping Report’ of abuses by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights presented evidence of alleged war crimes by Rwandan forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the First and Second Congo Wars of 1996 and 1998. Ironically, Rwanda’s incursion in 1998 prompted SADC intervention. The challenge in Tanzania from NSAGs has been less acute, but the security forces reaction has been just as severe. The emergence in Pwani Region’s Kibiti District of a NSAG of extremist ideology, and with ties to both Cabo Delgado and North Kivu in DRC, prompted a crackdown by Tanzania’s security forces, in which hundreds of people were allegedly killed or disappeared. Most recently, at a graduation ceremony for cadets of the Tanzania People’s Defence Forces (TPDF), it was driven home to them that the key challenge they face is terrorism, both in the south of the country and embedded in communities in other areas of Tanzania. The graduation speaker, Major General Paul Simuli, warned the cadets not to be tempted to join any terrorist group, since even powerful insurgent groups like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had been soundly defeated. Simuli’s warning is particularly dark, as the Sri Lankan security forces’ campaign against the LTTE involved unlawful killings and detention, disappearances, torture, and systematic rape, as determined by a United Nations investigation in 2015.
Tanzania has not demonstrated any desire to formally intervene in the Cabo Delgado conflict, but is keen to see it brought under control. A Rwandan force would address its interests, and likely do so in a way to which Tanzania would be sympathetic. However, for this to happen, some sort of SADC approval will be necessary, and South Africa’s agreement will be needed to underpin it.
South Africa’s relations with Rwanda had stalled with the expulsion of Rwandan diplomats Claude Nikobisanzwe and Didier Rutembesa from Pretoria following the murder of Patrick Karegeya, former head of military intelligence in Rwanda and later founder of the opposition Rwanda National Congress. In subsequent years, Mozambique became the fulcrum of the Rwandan state’s activity in Southern Africa, and one of its most important posts. The appointment of Claude Nikobisanzwe as Rwanda’s first High Commissioner in Maputo in 2018 came after two years as Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation in Kigali.
The arrest of Rwandan dissident exiled journalist Cassien Ntamuhanga on 23 May at Isla Inhaca, Maputo raises fears that Maputo may finally be giving in to Kigali’s pressure to hand over dissidents based in Mozambique. Mozambican NGO Centro Para Democracia e Desenvolvimento sees Ntamuhanga’s arrest and suspected detention at the Rwandan High Commission as the culmination of President Paul Kagame’s efforts to get Mozambique to deal with Rwandan dissidents, efforts that stretch back to 2016 at least.
At the heart of Rwanda’s manoeuvring, however, is South Africa. This led to Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta’s meetings in Pretoria on 4 June with Naledi Pandor, his South African counterpart, and earlier that day with Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan in Dar es Salaam. While public statements were cordial, South Africa stressed the importance of respecting “territorial integrity and national sovereignty.” South Africa’s sovereignty concerns regarding Rwanda are current. In February this year, a leader of the Rwandan National Congress, Seif Bamboriki, was shot dead in unclear circumstances in Cape Town.
The Extraordinary SADC Summit scheduled for 23 June should be the venue to finalize this rush of diplomacy. While Tanzania has a shared interest in dealing with terrorist networks within its territory, it will be wary of giving carte blanche to Rwanda in Cabo Delgado. South Africa’s concerns are more deeply held. Recent experience suggests that there may be no conclusive outcome from the summit.