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Rwanda's Kagame defends Russia's presence in Africa

April 19, 2023

While visiting West Africa, Rwandan President Paul Kagame said that Russia had the right to be anywhere in Africa ― as much as any other country. He also accused the West of dragging Africa into its own political issues.

Kagame shakes hands with Putin in front of a sign reading "Russia-Africa"
Rwanda's President Paul Kagame (left) shakes hands with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in Sochi in 2019Image: Gavriil Grigorov/TASS Host Photo Agency/dpa/picture alliance

Rwandan President Paul Kagame made a clear reference to the ongoing war in Ukraine by saying that the West was trying to drag Africa into its own problems, as certain African countries have chosen to remain neutral on the issue. Some nations, like South Africa ― Africa's economic powerhouse ― have instead even deepened military ties with Russia despite the war.

While visiting a number of West African states (Benin, Guinea-Bissau and Guinea), Kagame said that Russia had the right to be anywhere in Africa as much as any other country has the right to be anywhere.

In Benin's capital Cotonou, Kagame said that "Russia or any other big power should not be our problem. The issue is these big powers have their own issues to sort out, and then they keep sucking in these small countries of ours.

"You know, you hear people complain about China and Russia's presence in Africa, but how about them, and what right do they have to be in Africa that others don't have?" Kagame questioned.

To each their own problem

Kagame added that Africa has to identify its needs in terms of international partnerships, and turn to those "who [offer] what we need."

"We are trying to sort out our own problems that affect us directly, that have nothing to do with one big country or another," Kagame said, stressing that cooperation agreements with Russia in particular didn't need to be a reflection on attitudes towards the war in Ukraine.

"Leave them to their own other problems. Like they have a problem with the war in Ukraine. I have no idea [about] its origins and how it's going to end."

Russia's and China's growing presence in Africa have both led to growing concern among Western countries, particularly because of their support for military regimes, as is the case in Burkina Faso.

But there is also a human rights dimension to the complex matter, which Western powers are keeping a keen eye on, as France and Germany are beginning to gear down their involvement in the Sahel region:

Russian mercenaries working under the Wagner group have also been accused of committing human rights violations in the Central African Republic and other parts of Africa where they operate, making their presence, and their motivation, highly questionable in the eyes of the West.

Kagame's calculated approach

During his latest tour of West Africa, Kagame took part in a number of engagements, including witnessing the signing of nine bilateral deals between Rwanda, Benin, and Guinea, as well as holding bilateral talks with his respective counterparts.

He stressed the general importance of international cooperation, be that in Africa or globally, during a joint press conference held with Guinea's junta leader, Colonel Mamadi Doumbouya: "No one has everything needed all in one place to succeed alone. So the cooperation in different fields is indispensable."

In regards to Rwanda's relationship with Guinea in particular, Kagame said that "the friendship and the determination to work together for the benefit of the people of Guinea and Rwanda is more present than ever. 

"Every country on our continent has challenges. In Rwanda, we have our own challenges. In Guinea, there are challenges. Working together, there is no challenge we can't address," Kagame stressed.

Keeping security concerns at bay ― together

Apart from strengthening bilateral cooperation in trade, governance, and other strategic areas, Kagame is increasingly seen as also pushing for military cooperations with West African countries ― in an apparent bid to bolster Rwanda's military presence in the region.

Kagame seems to want to position Rwanda as a reliable security partner that can provide extra support for countries that are either facing high pressure in their own security matters or have security worries brewing in the background.

In an interview with DW, Paul Melly from Chatham House in London said that Rwanda hopes to support countries like Benin, Guinea  and others, which have suffered attacks from jihadists in the past but are generally regarded not as vulnerable as the Sahel region is.

"It's a concern for both Guinea and Guinea-Bissau as well that haven't yet suffered jihadist attacks, but they are worried that they could be exposed to the overspill of the Sahel crisis," Melly told DW, highlighting the fact that jihadists could overrun countries like Burkina Faso and expand their operations from there.

"When it comes to the west or the center-west of the continent, Rwanda may be able to offer some experience about the delivery of public services, but it isn't. Its contribution is more security and political than economic," Melly concluded.

'Not a lot but enough' on offer from Kagame

In Cotonou, Kagame said that there are no limits as to what African countries can achieve together, including addressing challenges in security matters. He reiterated that Rwanda is ready to play her role in West Africa and beyond.

"We have forces working in the Central African Republic, in South Sudan, and Mozambique. So because of that and our history, we have been building certain capacities, decent capacities. There is no exaggeration here, it's not a lot but enough to deal with some problems, especially when you work with other countries," Kagame said.

"So it is in that context that we are going to work with Benin for what might happen along borders or beyond or anywhere, given the prevailing security situation in the region."

Drawing inspiration from Kagame

During Kagame's visit to Guinea, which was one of the first by any leader since the September 2021 coup d'etat, the military junta said it felt "inspired" by the Rwandan "model."

"From the 1994 genocide to the reunification of the country, Rwanda has been able to recover... and rebuild, before asserting itself as an African benchmark," the Guinean presidency said in a statement on Tuesday.

Kagame responded to the compliments with an invitation for Guinea's leader, Colonel President Mamadi Doumbouya, to come to Rwanda. 

Guinea's military ruler Mamady Doumbouya
Guinea's military junta leader Colonel Mamady Doumbouya has promised to hand over power to a civilian government in 2024Image: uncredited/AP/picture alliance

However, the Guinean opposition meanwhile said that Kagame's visit should not serve as a legitimization of the junta regime. Its supporters have been calling for a rapid return to civilian rule, alongside the release of political prisoners. But the junta insists that it must carry out far-reaching reforms first before handing back power to the people.

"Profoundly rebuilding Guinea while inscribing it on the path of national reconciliation, autonomy, and emergence ― such is the real challenge," a statement from Guinea's presidency said.

Learning about self-reliance before time runs out

But there are also cooperation plans in the making that go beyond the sound of military marches: In Guinea, Rwanda will focus on extracting gold, as back at home, Kagame wants to put Rwanda's gold refinery to good use. 

Meanwhile in Benin, Kagame signed an agreement on granite and marble exploitation. Rwanda and Benin also signed agreements on double taxation avoidance, digitization, agriculture, local governance, and sustainable development as well as renewing agreements on trade and economic cooperation.

Throughout the trip, leaders across the region were all smiles during photo ops, and as a tribute to the visit, Guinea even named a major road junction after Kagame.

Speaking to DW, Guinea's technology and communications minister, Ousmane Gaoul Diallo, described Kagame's visit as the start of a new kind of South-South cooperation, which he believes will benefit both countries. 

"We have a lot to learn from Rwanda to enable us to adequately manage our technology. Rwanda has mastered lots of things, and we would like in the weeks and year to come to become self-reliant," Diallo said.

If, however, the military leadership in Guinea truly wants to take Rwanda as a role model and learn anything from the small nation, there isn't too much time left: General Doumbouya has already relented to international pressure, pledging to return power to an elected civilian governmentby the end of 2024.

Edited by: Sertan Sanderson