In April 2021, Islamic State jihadists overran the Mozambican town of Palma, killing dozens of people and forcing a standoff between insurgents and hundreds of civilians holed up at the Amarula Hotel. The vicious insurgency that started in 2017 had overwhelmed the increasingly desperate Mozambican government. Faced with its own inefficient army, the country first sought help from South African mercenaries, a Southern African regional defense force and the infamous Russian mercenary Wagner Group.
The country’s greatest success, however, happened when it turned to an unlikely partner to defeat the jihadists: the Rwandan Defense Force.
At the request of Mozambican President Felipe Nyusi in July 2021, Rwanda deployed 1,000 of its own troops to the embattled Cabo Delgado province. Since then, their remit has mainly been Palma, home to a $30 billion gas project run by the French giant TotalEnergies with Mocímboa da Praia, a key port town through which essential materials for developing the plant are shipped. Local jihadists had previously ravaged both towns.
This region in Mozambique is of major strategic importance. ExxonMobil is building its own gas field nearby, which it expects to produce 31 million tons of LNG annually. Most of the gas is going to Britain and France, who are still sourcing their energy needs outside the Russian gas they have used for years because of solidarity with Ukraine in fighting Russia.
The Rwandan military’s efforts have proven successful. Fighting alongside the Mozambican military as well as a Southern African Development Community (SADC) joint force and a Tanzanian mission, they have all played a primary role in reducing a 2,500-strong insurgency, which has carried out massive attacks on civilian infrastructure and caused 800,000 people to flee their homes, to about 300 men, according to Bloomberg. A modicum of peace and stability has been restored to many parts of the most war-ravaged towns in the province, including Palma and Mocímboa da Praia. Now multinationals like TotalEnergies and ExxonMobil are planning to resume major gas projects there.
Rwandan troops, police officers and intelligence agents in Mozambique now number 2,800. Despite Rwanda’s small population of 13.5 million, the country is establishing a brand as a counterinsurgency expert on the continent. But can it be a model for other successful African-led interventions?
The Sahel is one region — on the other side of the continent — that is becoming increasingly unstable as a regional standby force, drawn from Ecowas, threatens force to restore constitutional order in Niger. The country’s elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, remains hostage in the custody of pro-junta soldiers, who overthrew the government in late July and continue to keep a grip on the country. The Malian military ousted French troops and hired Wagner to stop terrorism within its borders in 2022, but results have been mixed. Early this month, there were reports of clashes between Tuareg rebel groups and the Malian military, supported by Wagner, as Mali looks ready to resume war with the armed groups it signed the Algiers Accord peace deal with in 2015.
The Sahel region is in dire need of positive models for counterinsurgency.
As Rwanda recently signed an agreement to provide security for Benin — with no details about date of deployment or official role made publicly available — do Rwanda’s forces-for-hire operations present a potential competitor to the Wagner Group’s band of mercenaries?
Rwanda battles jihadists in Mozambique
Mozambique has been at war with jihadists in Cabo Delgado, the poorest province in one of the poorest nations in the world, since 2017. Northern Mozambique has a history of economic marginalization and exploitation that dates to the slave trade of the 1700 and 1800s as well as forced labor on Portuguese plantations during colonial rule. The area was also the site of violence during the country’s 10-year fight for independence, won in 1975, and the brutal civil war that followed, from 1977 to 1992. When major gas projects like TotalEnergies’ launched in the mid-2010s and residents reaped few benefits from the billions being made from the corporate presence, insurgents exploited a population with many grievances. (Even today, only 1 in 4 women in the province knows how to read.)
Before deploying to Mozambique, Rwandan soldiers had achieved some success in stabilizing the Central African Republic (CAR) by working both within the UN peacekeeping mission in the country and through a bilateral operation requested by the country’s president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra. In CAR, the Rwandans worked alongside Wagner forces until June 2021, when Rwanda suspended military cooperation over recurring reports of attacks on civilians committed by Wagner operatives, according to Foreign Policy. Since then, Rwandan troops have avoided doing joint missions with Wagner soldiers in Africa.
Rwanda’s distancing from the Kremlin-backed mercenaries occurred long before the attempted mutiny by its boss, Yevgeny Prighozin, in Russia in July. At the same time, Kigali’s operations appear to be increasingly favored by Western powers — despite Rwanda being a dictatorship run by President Paul Kagame since 2000. (Mozambique is currently an elected member of the UN Security Council and aims to keep a neutral stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; in the General Assembly it has abstained from condemning Russia’s war.)
A confluence of interests forms “a square between Mozambique, Rwanda, France, and Total” in Cabo Delgado, according to João Fejió, a sociologist and researcher at the Observatório do Meio Rural think tank in Maputo, the capital. Although there is no clear information about who is paying for Rwanda’s defense mission in Mozambique, it’s likely “EU social support funds to Rwanda in exchange for security in an area where there is French interests and a need for Mozambican political stabilization in order to extract gas needed for global market and keep prices at a sustainable cost,” Fejió told PassBlue.
Rwandan troops’ professionalism stands out from their Mozambican counterparts and contributes to their good relations with the local population, according to researchers studying the Cabo Delgado conflict. The Rwandans don’t ask for bribes or otherwise racketeer from communities, and their knowledge of Swahili and cultural similarities with northern Mozambique residents have created a strong bond and trust, numerous researchers say.
“The fact is that for the first time in many decades, local populations in Palma and Moçímbo da Praia are seeing soldiers with military uniforms respecting them and speaking to them in their language, Swahili,” Fejió said.
The Rwandans “are effective, they have good equipment, they are well paid,” Fejió added. “It’s the opposite of Mozambican army, whose soldiers are recruited from the suburbs of the main cities and join the army to have a job. They don’t have a good salary, are not properly equipped, and are not trained to deal with this type of situation. Local populations were caught in the crosshairs of the overzealous Mozambican army. Local populations do not collaborate with national army because they don’t trust them.”
A model for counterinsurgency?
With Palma and Mocímboa da Praia relatively calm, the Mozambican government is pushing hard for TotalEnergies to restart its gas plant operations. ExxonMobil’s project is also dependent on Total’s restarting. The latter company has signaled that its security conditions have been met but are renegotiating pre-pandemic contracts signed before the project was halted, Fejió said.
But is the ability of multinationals to extract resources from Cabo Delgado enough to call Rwanda’s counterinsurgency a success? For Mozambican human rights monitors, doubts persist.
For starters, the details of Rwanda’s intervention have never been disclosed to the Mozambican parliament or the public. It is unclear under which provisions of the Mozambican constitution the Rwandans are working and who is accountable for their actions. The number of civilians killed and combatants jailed by Rwandan, Mozambican, Tanzanian and SADC forces is not disclosed. Human rights monitors attempting to answer these crucial questions are being surveilled while doing their investigations in Cabo Delgado, hampering their ability to find accurate data.
Kagame has been president of Rwanda for 23 years. He won his last election in 2017 with a score of 98.8 percent and has exiled and assassinated many of his political opponents. Rwanda’s well-organized, disciplined military has become a major tool in Kagame’s diplomatic policy, which allows him to consolidate power and shake off criticism of his political dictatorship. It is the fourth-largest troop-contributing country to UN peacekeeping forces, and the largest African contingent. Moreover, Rwanda’s financial deal with Britain to accept asylum seekers to the country continues to draw domestic and global outrage. Rwanda has also been repeatedly accused of funding the M23 rebel group in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo and using its influence to destabilize eastern Congo while pursuing its mineral wealth.
Yet Rwanda’s operation in Mozambique has worked well as an advertisement for its services in other African countries. In April, Benin and Rwanda announced a defense agreement and military support from Rwanda to tackle growing insecurity in northern Benin from Sahelian jihadist groups. With Western counterinsurgency in the Sahel foundering after more than 10 years and Wagner taking its place, notably in Mali, Rwanda’s presence and prowess beyond its base in central and southern Africa could grow in West Africa as instability is spreading quickly.
Yet one of Rwanda’s key tools to success in northern Mozambique — a shared African language and cultural ties — will be missing.
“Big multilateral, particularly UN interventions, are not working. And you’re seeing countries in the region trying to find locally driven solutions,” said Peter Borfin, an analyst at ACLED’s Cabo Ligado project. Borfin warned against drawing too many conclusions from the Mozambican case.
“Mozambique has appeared to be successful in pushing back insurgents, thanks to a very messy three-pronged intervention: Rwandans, SADC and Tanzanian bilateral interaction with Mozambique,” Borfin said in a phone interview. “I’m not sure it presents a model because the circumstances are so unique. In DRC, there’s a range of actors and forces and there’s not the same level of success,” he said, referring to interventions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo by the UN peacekeeping mission there, Monusco, as well as the East African Community Regional Force and SADC.
For Zenaida Machado, the Angola and Mozambique senior researcher in the Africa Division at Human Rights Watch, the lack of clear information on the Rwandan intervention in Mozambique means it’s impossible to fully assess the success of its counterinsurgency in Cabo Delgado. The opacity also precludes it from being used as a model in other regions.
“The world is desperate for good models,” Machado said. “When big multinationals like Total come into the country, it’s very easy to sideline important issues. It’s not good to use Mozambique as a model when transparency and independent monitoring has been lacking. You cannot just assess a joint military operation at the end of it. We don’t know the negative consequences of this operation; all we have heard so far are the positive ones.”
Joe Penney is a writer, filmmaker and photographer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Lagos. He directed a documentary, “Sun of the Soil: The Story of Mansa Musa,” about the reign of Mali’s 14th-century king. Penney’s articles and essays have been published by The Intercept, The New York Times, Quartz, Reuters and Paris journals. He was West African photo bureau chief for Reuters, and his pictures have appeared in Geo, Jeune Afrique, Le Monde, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and Time, among others. He has photographed presidential elections in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone as well as the 2012 coup in Mali and the French military intervention in 2013, Mauritanian refugee camps, mining sites in Niger, migrants in the Sahel, counterterrorism campaigns in Cameroon, the 2013-2014 conflict in Central African Republic and the people’s coup in Burkina Faso in 2014. Penney co-founded Sahelien.com, a news company covering the Sahel region, in 2013. In Africa, he has lived in Ivory Coast, Mali and Senegal. He graduated from McGill University in Montreal and speaks English, French and Spanish.