As Kigali grows its influence, caution is key

Rwandan is steadily gaining ground in its quest for political, economic and diplomatic influence around the globe.

Last weekend, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Viktorovich Lavrov, held talks with President Paul Kagame. Then early this week, a Chinese military delegation was in Kigali ahead of the visit by China’s President Xi Jinping, expected in July.

Observers say that over the past 24 years, Rwanda’s foreign policy has evolved from heavy reliance on international donors to an energetic and independent actor.

Rwanda has 34 diplomatic missions around the globe. It has also taken international responsibilities, actively engaging in peacekeeping — in missions, making it the fourth-largest troop contributor to the United Nations.

Most recently, the country has been actively advocating pan-Africanism and showcasing itself as a model of African integration by opening its borders to citizens of the world with a 30-day visa on arrival.

As the African Union chairperson, President Paul Kagame he has been instrumental in pushing through the Africa Continental Free Trade Area agreement.

Rwanda was the third country to ratify the AfCTA and the first to ratify the Protocol on Free Movement of Persons on the continent.

“Major international powers like Russia and China are looking to build new partnerships with Rwanda because of its strategic location at the heart of a dynamic region.

With major infrastructure projects planned across the East African Community and the Great Lakes, Rwanda is seen as an important services and logistics hub linking central Africa with both the southern African states and the coast,” said Phil Clark, an expert in international politics at the London-based School of Oriental and African Studies.

“Russia and China also view Rwanda as a well-trained, disciplined military partner — which in key respects is similar to themselves — and therefore an important ally in their current military expansion across Africa,” Mr Clark added.

According to Dr Pritish Behuria, Hallsworth Research Fellow, Global Development Institute at the University of Manchester, over the past two decades, Rwanda’s foreign policy has become increasingly visible in international affairs.

“Rwanda has also been increasingly involved in discussions on African industrialisation and has taken bold moves in banning second-hand clothes despite the withdrawal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act benefits by the US.

Since the Rwandan government and President Kagame have successfully presented themselves as leaders of pan-African ambitions and more nationalist ones in relation to industrialisation, a fast-changing international environment may see the country as more important within the continent than its size may imply,” Mr Behuria said.

For countries like China, India and Russia, partnerships with the Rwandan government may be important for benefits at the continental and regional level (EAC). This is especially true during President Kagame’s tenure as AU chairperson.

“Clearly, the interests of these countries is not simply benevolent and there may be some degree of resource extraction that has been a feature of relationships with Western donors,” Mr Behuria underscores.

However, observers note that while more interest from different superpowers means more options for the Rwandan government, ultimately, how it benefits will depend on how Kigali negotiates space for deals that reflect the national interest and needs of the population.

“In Rwanda, job creation for a very young population remains a key challenge. If the government can use such investments to provide investments in sectors that can create such employment, it could have lasting benefits,” Mr Behuria said.

Yet the government must remain attentive to the risks of foreign investment without technology transfer.

This is common in developing countries where investors come for a short period and no local companies are supported to absorb technologies before they leave.

This is particularly true for ‘footloose’ sectors like apparels in countries like Lesotho where Agoa access did not lead to lasting benefits. Similar pressures may apply in Rwanda.

New interests from rising powers may not come with investments given the limited domestic market and low manufacturing base within the country.

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