How Rwanda Became Africa’s Policeman

From Benin to Mozambique, President Paul Kagame is flexing his small country’s military muscle—and transforming the continent’s security landscape.

By , a freelance research consultant focusing on political risk and peacebuilding in Africa.
A Rwandan soldier watches fishermen as they come back to the shore in Mocímboa da Praia, in the Cabo Delgado province, Mozambique, on Sept. 27, 2022.
A Rwandan soldier watches fishermen as they come back to the shore in Mocímboa da Praia, in the Cabo Delgado province, Mozambique, on Sept. 27, 2022.
A Rwandan soldier watches fishermen as they come back to the shore in Mocímboa da Praia, in the Cabo Delgado province, Mozambique, on Sept. 27, 2022. CAMILLE LAFFONT/AFP via Getty Images

It was pitch black when a stream of motorbikes charged into Dassari, a town in northern Benin on the border with Burkina Faso. The men driving the bikes paused for a moment outside the police station before unleashing a stream of bullets, killing two policemen and leaving one wounded.

This was one in a series of attacks that Benin has experienced since last year on its northern border, largely the work of Islamist extremist groups that have historically been based in Mali and Burkina Faso, to the north of Benin, but have increasingly sought to attack coastal West African states too.

Enter Rwanda.

It was pitch black when a stream of motorbikes charged into Dassari, a town in northern Benin on the border with Burkina Faso. The men driving the bikes paused for a moment outside the police station before unleashing a stream of bullets, killing two policemen and leaving one wounded.

This was one in a series of attacks that Benin has experienced since last year on its northern border, largely the work of Islamist extremist groups that have historically been based in Mali and Burkina Faso, to the north of Benin, but have increasingly sought to attack coastal West African states too.

Enter Rwanda.

In September, Benin disclosed that it was engaging in discussions with Rwanda over the provision of logistical support and expertise to help it tackle jihadi violence better. According to Bloomberg, around 350 Rwandans could be deployed initially, a figure that could then double. Benin’s government spokesperson claims that the agreement would not include troops on the ground, however.

Since the country’s horrifying genocide in 1994, Kigali has nurtured its armed forces, deploying them in numerous peacekeeping missions around Africa.

This is not the first time Rwanda has become embroiled in other countries’ security dilemmas. Since the country’s horrifying genocide in 1994, Kigali has nurtured its armed forces, deploying them in numerous peacekeeping missions around Africa.

Rwanda is currently the fifth-largest contributor to United Nations missions globally and the second-largest continental contributor, according to the French Institute of International Relations. Its role and performance in these missions, where its troops have yet to be caught up in complaints of poor discipline and sexual abuse scandals that have plagued other contributors to peacekeeping missions, have earned it a reputation for having a highly effective military, despite its diminutive size.

A comparison to Israel could be drawn here, which despite being considerably smaller than most states in the Middle East, is renowned for its armed forces. Indeed, Global Firepower, which examines countries’ military strength, ranked Israel 18 out of 142 countries in 2022.

“Rwanda benefited from its involvement in peacekeeping,” Phil Clark, a professor of international politics at SOAS University of London, says. “It gained a reputation in these multilateral spaces for being organized and effective.”

As a result, countries facing domestic security challenges have increasingly called on Rwanda for assistance. As rebels sought to storm the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR) at the end of 2020 and start of 2021, President Faustin-Archange Touadéra called on Rwanda and Wagner Group, a Russian private military contractor, for assistance.

Initially, these forces were working collaboratively, though in June 2021, Rwanda suspended military cooperation over recurrent reports of attacks on civilians committed by Wagner operatives. Still, with their help, Touadéra was able to ease the stranglehold on Bangui, and Rwandan troops’ ongoing presence has prevented further attacks on the capital, while also ensuring the safety of supply lines into CAR.

Word caught on fast, and it was not long before Mozambique came knocking on Rwanda’s door.

Mozambique had been dealing with an Islamic State-linked insurgency in northern Cabo Delgado province for several years, leading to over 3,000 deaths and more than 800,000 internally displaced people.

But Rwanda’s operations in Mozambique proved even more successful than those in CAR. This was largely because the situation itself was less complex, involving a localized operation in one part of Mozambique against a jihadi group, rather than numerous armed groups rampaging across CAR, though also possibly because Rwanda had developed its expertise in international interventions in CAR.

The Rwandan incursion resulted in a rapid reestablishment of government control in Cabo Delgado, prompting the militants to flee. Mozambicans welcomed Rwandans with open arms, praising their newfound liberators, who have remained present in Cabo Delgado in an effort to rebuild the area and prevent further attacks.


Rwandan officials have suggested there is a moral purpose to many of these missions. Having suffered its own bout of horrific violence in 1994, while the world turned its back, Rwanda claims it is demonstrating an appropriate response to atrocities.

But there may be more going on here.

States across Africa are growing increasingly frustrated with multilateral interventions. From Mali to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), U.N. peacekeeping missions have become increasingly unpopular over perceptions that they are causing a deterioration in the situation, while regional missions led by the African Union (AU), the Economic Community of West African States, or even the Southern African Development Community (SADC) are widely viewed as slow to deploy and weak when they arrive. Regional cooperation remains challenging due in large part to bilateral disputes over sovereignty and concerns surrounding surreptitious meddling in other countries’ affairs, which undermine multilateral interventions.

By contrast, bilateral interventions, such as those launched by Rwanda, can happen fast and on clear terms between the host state and the intervener, without the need for lengthy multilateral negotiations. There are also fewer concerns over violation of sovereignty because these interventions come exclusively at the behest of the host state, and cooperation in the field is easier since it does not depend on complex command structures.

“There is more than just a Rwandan dimension to this,” Clark says. “It is Africa-wide. Countries are increasingly skeptical about the skills of regional or AU missions, and there is a desire for more of these bilateral missions.”

Rwanda is responding to a gap in the market.

There is also a lot of support for these initiatives from the West. “This was a perfect opportunity,” explains Thierry Vircoulon, an associate research fellow with the Sub-Saharan Africa Center at the French Institute of International Relations. “These countries needed security help and Westerners don’t want to be too much involved, so they are very much in favor of a third country intervening.”

Some countries are frustrated that Rwanda is intervening in their spheres of influence. South Africa and Tanzania were infuriated by Rwanda’s involvement in Mozambique.

France, for instance, was publicly supportive of Rwanda’s involvement in northern Mozambique, where French oil and gas major TotalEnergies has a $20 billion liquified natural gas project, and French President Emmanuel Macron later provided $495 million in development aid to Rwanda. At a time when Western interventions in Africa are falling out of favor, as highlighted by France’s virtual eviction from Mali in August, the potential to use an African proxy for security missions has become increasingly appealing.

“This allows France to wriggle out of the neocolonial critique,” Clark says.

But clearly Rwanda is not simply doing other countries’ bidding, so should the international community be concerned about its motives?

Filling the security gap is beneficial for Rwanda, and its actions in both Mozambique and CAR have improved access to lucrative mining, agricultural, and infrastructure contracts and engendered a favorable business environment in both countries.

For instance, in CAR, Touadéra has offered particularly attractive incentives to Rwandan investors, including a 10-year tax holiday for entrepreneurs in rural parts of the country, while Rwanda and Mozambique have signed a memorandum of understanding over increasing business partnerships.

More cynically, establishing a military presence abroad brings with it greater potential to crack down on enemies. Notably, Rwanda’s involvement in Mozambique has also been linked to the presence of Rwandan dissidents there. Indeed, since Rwanda became embroiled in Mozambique’s security dilemma, at least one opponent of the Rwandan government has been assassinated in Mozambique, while two others have faced an attempted kidnapping and one has disappeared.

Rwanda’s involvement as a policeman in Africa is also likely to reduce the willingness to criticize these kinds of actions or even human rights abuses at home. There has been limited outcry over the fate of Rwandan dissidents in Mozambique or Rwanda’s alleged collaboration with the mostly Tutsi Congolese M23 rebel group in the DRC, which has waged war on the eastern DRC intermittently since 2012, let alone Rwanda’s poor domestic human rights record, which has entailed numerous kidnappings and assassinations of political opponents.

In one of the most noteworthy cases, the former head of the Rwandan intelligence services was found dead in a hotel room in South Africa in 2014 after allegedly plotting a coup against Rwandan President Paul Kagame, with rumors that Kagame had hired contract killers to take him out.

Rwanda likely recognizes that through its participation abroad and its upholding of security in Africa, it can make itself indispensable to the very actors in the West who are most likely to critique its human rights practices.

“This is not the major reason for its involvements abroad,” Clark says. “But it is at least part of the reason. If you make yourself useful, people are less likely to criticize you.”

The reaction from around the continent to Rwanda’s increased interventions is another concern. Some countries are frustrated that Rwanda is increasingly intervening in their spheres of influence. South Africa and Tanzania were infuriated by Rwanda’s involvement in Mozambique, while the SADC was irked by Mozambique’s decision to deal primarily with Rwanda rather than the regional force, feeling that it made the SADC look weak.

Equally, there are rumors that even as far west as Nigeria, governments are raising eyebrows at Rwanda’s interventionism, not least because it makes them look bad.

Clark explains that in some powerful African countries, like Nigeria and Ethiopia, questions are being raised about why states experiencing security challenges are depending on tiny Rwanda for assistance when these powerful African countries have bigger militaries and are widely regarded as having more authority across the continent.

Other possible players are not yet forthcoming, leaving the continent increasingly dependent on Rwandan military prowess.

Finally, there is the question of what happens when Rwanda can no longer police Africa. While it has a sophisticated military, it is not enormous, and it is likely to become overstretched if it continues to add to its deployments around the continent.

So, who will fill this gap when Rwanda cannot?

Chad has historically played a somewhat similar role, particularly in West Africa, though it has far fewer resources available to it and is undergoing a complex transitional period following the death of longtime President Idriss Déby in April 2021.

Other possible players are not yet forthcoming, leaving the continent increasingly dependent on Rwandan military prowess. “Now Rwanda is perceived as the security provider,” Vircoulon says.

But “The Rwandan defense forces may find itself increasingly stretched,” argues Clark. “They will hit their limit in terms of the percentage of forces being deployed around Africa.”

Rwanda will need to draw the line at some stage. With countries from Burkina Faso to Togo facing increasingly dire security situations, Rwanda is unlikely to be able to put out fires everywhere while still gaining respect and influence for its effective interventions.

Jessica Moody is a freelance research consultant focusing on political risk and peacebuilding in Africa. Twitter: @JessMoody89

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