Rwandan troops in Mozambique are successfully protecting civilians - By Ralph Shield


English

Rwanda’s involvement in peacekeeping operations for the United Nations (UN) and African Union (AU) has increased since 2004.

The relatively small East African nation is Africa’s most active troop-contributing country and the fourth most active worldwide. It has nearly 6,000 soldiers and police committed to UN peacekeeping missions.

In recent years, however, Rwanda has deployed its army independently of the UN or AU. In 2020, it sent 1,000 troops to fight anti-government rebels in the Central African Republic. A year later, it sent soldiers to deal with jihadist militants in northern Mozambique and now has 2,500 troops there.

These two missions aim to confront and eliminate armed enemies of the host state. The operations – which aren’t under the UN and AU protocols – raise questions about the conduct of Rwanda’s army and its counterinsurgency doctrine. Specifically when it comes to avoiding civilian casualties.

Traditional peacekeeping missions have a disappointing record of protecting innocent bystanders. UN and AU forces have been criticised for being risk-averse and under-resourced in preventing crimes and violence against civilians.

In 2015, Rwanda was one of several countries arguing that the UN should do more to defend civilians in conflict. It sponsored a set of recommendations eventually codified as the Kigali Principles on the Protection of Civilians. They identified various shortfalls that handicap many peacekeeping missions.

I’m a conflict researcher who has examined Rwanda’s military intervention in Mozambique. In a recent paper, I used the deployment to evaluate the Rwandan army’s commitment to protecting civilians.

The Mozambique mission is independent of the UN and AU. Therefore, the Rwandan military is less subject to the monitoring that guards against excessive force and abusive practices. As an offensive counterterrorism operation, the mission is also potentially more aggressive and violent than peacekeeping.

Conventional wisdom would predict that an authoritarian government like Rwanda’s would be heavy-handed in putting down an insurrection. But my findings suggest that’s not so in Mozambique.

The Mozambique campaign is unlike the disaster across Rwanda’s border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). There, Rwanda’s army stands accused of backing the M23 rebels who have committed war crimes and accelerated a humanitarian crisis.

The Mozambique mission

The province of Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique has been struggling with a vicious jihadist insurgency since 2017. Efforts by Mozambique’s security forces and foreign mercenaries failed to stop decapitations, village burnings and attacks on government forces and infrastructure.

When militants threatened oil and gas development projects that once promised to lift Mozambique out of poverty, President Felipe Nyusi turned to Rwanda for help in 2021. The Rwandan Defence Forces began to attack Islamic State-aligned militants.

Yet, the Rwandan army has balanced the pursuit of insurgents and the protection of the population. Operations to annihilate insurgents often kill and injure civilians as well. Strategies that focus narrowly on protecting civilians, on the other hand, tend to make counterinsurgent forces gun shy.

What worked

My study suggests how Rwanda has been able to hold down civilian casualties while battling insurgents. The Rwandan army was in Mozambique nearly a year before inflicting its first recorded civilian fatality – a single curfew breaker in a tense recovered town.

First, Rwandan troops actively patrol and interact with the community to collect information about the local people and the insurgents who threaten them. Rwandan soldiers benefit from their knowledge of Swahili, which enables them to communicate directly with the locals. It helps them tell friends from foes.

The second factor is restraint: a more disciplined use of firepower. As the experience of Western armies in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown, maintaining restraint under the persistent threat of ambush isn’t easy. It comes with some risk too.

Other conditions likely contributed to Rwanda’s early success in Mozambique. The insurgents don’t use suicide tactics, for instance. And at least until recently, they have lacked sophisticated explosives.

Also, portions of the affected area in Cabo Delgado were largely abandoned when the Rwandans arrived. This helped in sorting insurgents from innocents.

Still, these considerations shouldn’t discount the Rwandan army’s achievements. Its record in the Central African Republic is also consistent with its conduct in Mozambique. There as well, Rwandan forces have attained impressive battlefield results without inflicting substantial civilian harm.

Rwanda in DRC

The story is different in the DRC. A case has been made that Rwanda’s destabilising activities there are motivated by strategic interests that don’t apply in Mozambique or the Central African Republic.

This doesn’t explain the mentality of rank-and-file soldiers, though. The army’s record in Mozambique and the DRC suggests instead that Rwandan battlefield behaviour may be conditioned by cognitive framing and service culture.

Studies of the way foreign armies approach missions in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Lebanon have found that culture and framing often shape how troops perceive their environment, interpret threats and understand their role.

Fighting in eastern DRC may be perceived differently by Rwandan soldiers because it’s so intimately tied to the traumas of the 1994 genocide. They may worry about spillover violence affecting stability in Rwanda, or about ethnic discord tearing the army itself apart.

Armed forces elsewhere have demonstrated a tendency to prize their own cohesion above human rights concerns in high-stress scenarios.

The civilian factor

My research suggests the Rwandan army’s actions in Mozambique have been consistent with the core promises of the Kigali Principles.

In response to persistent militant raids, Rwandan troops in Cabo Delgado have conducted pursuits across district boundaries. Troops have gone further afield at Maputo’s request.

The presence of Rwanda’s soldiers has also helped to curb the mistreatment of local inhabitants by Mozambique’s police and armed forces. These forces have a history of corruption and abuse.

The Islamist insurgency in Mozambique, however, has yet to be defeated. A long-term solution will require more fundamental political and social measures, as well as reform of Mozambique’s security services.

Rwandan army operations have demonstrated what a competent African force can do when properly resourced and committed to the mission. It also suggests that soldiers are more effective when empowered to exercise discretion in applying force.

Article by Ralph Shield, a conflict researcher at the US Naval War College



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