The moment Yussuf Abdallah met the Rwandan soldiers, he knew the game was over.
The 18-year-old Islamist insurgent in northern Mozambique was part of a group known to locals as Shabaab. He has loose ties to Isis and has terrorized the northern province of Cabo Delgado for the past four years, displacing over 800,000 people and killing over 3,000.
But then troops from a country barely a fraction the size of Mozambique showed up and cleared most of the area within weeks.
“We were overwhelmed by their numbers, they were also extremely fierce,” said Abdallah, now a Mozambican state prisoner in the coastal town of MocÃmboa de Praia, until August a stronghold of insurgents. “We couldn’t contain the confrontation, they have better weapons, there was nothing we could do.”
The Rwandan brigade of 1,000 soldiers and police did in a matter of weeks what the Mozambican forces and others had not been able to do in years. The turn of events in Cabo Delgado illustrates Kigali’s desire under President Paul Kagame to go beyond its borders and act as a police officer in regional conflicts.
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 wealth, which has the potential to transform Mozambican economy of 14 billion dollars. In April this year, Total, the French energy giant, declared force majeure on Africa’s biggest investment after an attack nearby.
The intervention of Kagame, a former rebel commander whose forces ended a 1994 genocide in which 800,000 people were killed, reflects Kigali’s military prowess and willingness to act.
About 10 percent of the 30,000 Rwandan troops are on mission elsewhere in Africa and it is “the willingness to participate in these operations that has given us a good reputation on a global scale.” It has a lot to do with African solutions to African problems, âsaid Colonel Ronald Rwivanga of the Rwanda Defense Forces.
But Rwanda does not share a border with Mozambique and faced no immediate danger of an insurgency that threatened French commercial interests. There is also some unease about the motives of a country that faces growing international criticism for the alleged persecution of political enemies.
âThis is the responsibility to protect,â a senior Rwandan army officer told Cabo Delgado. He added: âIt is also about projecting the power of Rwanda.
“A solid exercise in public relations”
At the end of September, Kagame arrived in northern Mozambique in military fatigues to inspect his troops.
He rejected speculations that the Rwandan deployment was linked to French interests, despite a late May pledge from French President Emmanuel Macron of 500 M â¬ in development aid during a visit to Kigali.
On that same trip, Macron acknowledged some French responsibility for the genocide, a move designed to end two decades of resentment. A French official also denied that they were funding Rwanda’s counterinsurgency efforts.
“The operations themselves have been largely successful, but they also show what we are capable of doing even with our limited resources,” Kagame told reporters in the regional capital, Pemba. Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi added that there was “no triangulation” across a third country.
But the Rwandans âwere eager to come. They told us âwe have the experience, we have the capacity and you don’t have to pay anything,â said a senior Mozambican official. “For them, it is also a strong public relations exercise.” Their presence, according to residents, was more effective than a regional force deployed by Mozambique’s neighbors, including South Africa.
“Rwandans are better than us”
During the fighting which lasted four weeks, Rwandans say they have killed more than 100 insurgents and suffered only four victims.
âUnfortunately, I have to say that the Rwandans are better than us. Fortunately, they came and things got better, âadmitted a Mozambican corporal, holding a rusty AK-47 rifle, with a magazine held in place by duct tape.
In stark contrast, the Rwandan soldiers have shiny new equipment and crisp new uniforms, their professionalism, discipline and military prowess prompting some observers to call them “Israel of Africa” ââ- a nod to the military position of the Jewish state and to the two countries history of the suffering of the genocide.
Rwanda is small, relatively stable, with a population of only 13 million. Yet, according to data from 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 fighting Boko Haram, and Ethiopia, the continent’s second most populous country in the midst of a brutal civil war.
As part of the UN missions, Rwanda has peacekeepers in South Sudan and the Central African Republic. He also sent around 1,500 troops and police to Bangui last year under a bilateral deal, similar to his deal with Mozambique, which means less bureaucracy but also that Kigali has control of its troops.
Louisa Lombard, a Yale anthropologist researching Rwandan peacekeepers, said their reputation was based on being among the most disciplined and least corrupt missions of any African mission. Unlike others, he was not the subject of any allegation of sexual misconduct.
“We feel more persecuted”
Rwanda’s willingness to get involved must be seen through the prism of its own history, analysts say.
AggÃ©e Shyaka Mugabe, director of the Center for Conflict Management at the University of Rwanda, believes that the deployment of Rwandan troops may be aimed at “promoting the national image”, but it is rooted in the 1994 genocide during of which approximately 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed as the peacekeepers withdrew. “Rwanda knows better than many the cost of not providing assistance to people facing violence,” he said.
But for human rights groups and exiles, the deployment of Rwandan troops to Mozambique can only distract from allegations that the Kagame government – praised for turning the nation into a thriving economy after the genocide – silences opponents at home and abroad.
Last month, a Rwandan court sentenced Paul Rusesabagina, a Kagame critic who inspired a Hollywood genocide film, to 25 years in prison for “terrorism”. Officials say he had a fair trial and deny targeting the critics.
A former Rwandan army officer was killed in Maputo early last month and Cleophas Habiyaremye, president of the Association of Rwandan Refugees in Mozambique said: âWe feel more persecuted since the arrival of troops in Mozambique, but we are not afraid of the troops, we are afraid of the politicians.
“Due to its terrible past, Rwanda has played an active role in conflict resolution and is a major contributor to peacekeeping operations,” said Lewis Mudge, director of Central Africa at Human Rights Watch.
âHowever, this should not exempt the government from being held accountable for its own human rights violations – past and present – or serve as a means to target or exert pressure on Rwandan refugees and diaspora communities. “
“As long as the Rwandans stay, it will be fine”
Crucially for Mozambique, Rwandan efforts could herald Total’s return and the restart of the $ 20 billion gas project. The company âwill come back,â Nyusi told the Financial Times in Pemba, âwhen all is calm; We are working on it. “
However, Total warned at the end of September that even if it restarts next year, the development of the Afungi peninsula could not produce its first LNG until 2026, delaying a project intended to transform the Mozambican economy. Kagame said the troops would stay as long as needed, but not forever.
“As long as the Rwandan forces stay there for a long time, everything will be fine,” said a security contractor at Total’s camp on the Afungi peninsula. If they withdraw tomorrow, there will be problems.
Whatever their motivations for being in Mozambique, the local population clearly welcomed them.
After eight months hiding in the bush, farmer Amina Abdullah returned to her home in Quelimane shortly after the Rwandans took control in August. The Islamists had taken over the region, beheading his brother and taking his daughter with them.
âWe thank the Rwandans for coming, they made a muito bom trabalho – a really good job, âshe said, adding that she did not know if her daughter was alive. âMaybe now the Rwandans can find her and bring her back. “
Additional reporting by Joseph Cotterill in Johannesburg and Tom Wilson in London