Rwanda seems to be looking East as its relations with the Trump administration get icy over Kigali’s stance on second-hand clothes imports from the US.
Last week, two top officials of Russia and China visited Kigali and held talks with the Paul Kagame government on trade and military deals.
African countries are increasingly seeking new partnerships with the East, distancing themselves from the demanding West.
Russia and China have particularly focused on the Great Lakes Region, a move which political observers say is aimed at neutralising decades’ long influence by the US.
Last week, Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov met with President Paul Kagame in Kigali and among their discussions was a deal for Russia to supply air defence systems to Rwanda.
At a joint press briefing with Rwanda’s Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo, Mr Lavrov said his country would work with Rwanda to boost the different sectors, including mining, agriculture, and medicine. Mr Lavrov said that Russia will engage with Rwanda and other East African countries.
He said that Russia will work with the United Nations to address conflicts on the African continent, declarations which show Russia’s increased interest in Africa.
“We believe it is important in the context of discussing the reform of the UN Security Council to achieve broader or adequate representation of African countries, Latin American countries and Asian countries,” said Mr Lavrov.
The Russian diplomat, in a veiled reference to Western support, said that Russia, through the African Union, would collaborate with African countries to find “African solutions” to the challenges facing the continent.
Mr Lavrov spoke on the co-operation between Rwanda and Russia in broader terms, but when asked to provide specific areas of co-operation, he revealed that Russia is supplying Kigali with military equipment.
“We do indeed have good level of military and technical co-operation. We have supplied to the Rwandan security forces, the army and police, our helicopters, cars. We have supplied small arms to the security forces. We have also discussed supplying air defence systems,” said Mr Lavrov.
Ms Mushikiwabo did not comment on the defence co-operation agreement with Russia, but said that Rwanda looks forward to expanding areas of co-operation with the European country.
Rwanda being the current chair country of the AU, Ms Mushikiwabo said that the African continent would make use of Russia, which is a permanent member of the UN Security Council to push for improved representation from Africa at the global body.
While Rwanda and Russia have had diplomatic ties over the past 55 years, Moscow’s involvement in Kigali and many African countries has been minimal. But according to a Russian diplomat based in Kigali, the country wants to strengthen its presence on the continent.
The same week, Rwanda also received a Chinese military delegation, led by Major-General Zhang Yingli. The group met Rwanda’s Minister for Defence, Gen James Kabarebe, and the Chief of Defence Staff Gen Patrick Nyamvumba.
According to a Ministry statement, the two countries discussed bilateral military ties and how they can strengthen them.
“Rwanda and China have always had good relations, so this visit is aimed at discussing ways of strengthening the existing co-operation,” reads the statement.
Rwanda is also reported to have strong military ties with China, and in recent years it was reported to have procured a state-of-the-art new medium-range surface-to-air defence missile system known as Sky Dragon 50.
According to the Chinese military magazine Kanwa, the Chinese Defence Company Norinco exported the military equipment to Rwanda in a deal whose details were not revealed.
Magnus Taylor, an International Crisis Group Horn of Africa analyst who covers Sudan and Uganda, said that Russia is trying to use countries like Sudan to make a re-entry into Africa.
“Russia has a history of military co-operation with Sudan and has been very protective of the country at the UN Security Council by continuously opposing sanctions against Khartoum,” said Mr Taylor.
In Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza is covertly leaning towards Russia after the African Union, the US and the European Union ostracised him for running for a third term.
In Kenya, apart from supplying the government with a single transport helicopter, Mi-17V-5 for the police, Russia’s state-owned nuclear firm Rosatom is working on a partnership with Nairobi to offer Small Modular Reactors technology that enables faster link-up of nuclear power to the national electricity grid.
Rosatom last year signed a memorandum of understanding with Uganda to help launch a nuclear industry in that country.
But Sudan remains the strongest Russian ally in the region. President Omar al-Bashir maintains dicey relations with the US. Despite the Trump administration having lifted the 20-year sanctions against Sudan in October last year, the US Congress and influential civil society groups remain barriers to the normalisation of relations with Khartoum.
Khartoum had hoped that the US would thereafter remove Sudan from the list of countries sponsoring terrorism, but the Trump administration hesitated in the wake of bombing of churches in what appeared to be targeting Christians. This prompted President al-Bashir to reach out to Russia, where he met President Vladimir Putin in Sochi in November last year.
While the two discussed the Russian offer to set up a military base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast, President al-Bashir sought Russian “protection” from the aggressive acts of the US and also supported Russia’s policy in Syria.
Russia — together with China — have often sought to protect Sudan at the UN Security Council on Darfur and the case facing President al-Bashir at the International Criminal Court. After the visit, Sudan became the first Arab state to obtain Russia’s fourth-generation Su-35 fighter jets.
Mr Taylor says that President al-Bashir’s frustration came from the fact that it was hoping for the US to lobby for debt relief and to remove the country from the list of terrorist sponsored, which never materialised.
“Russia does not offer what can help Sudan come out of the current economic crisis. What President al-Bashir can hope for is to attract a significant number of Russian investors. Otherwise, the US holds the card to debt relief and Sudan’s removal from the list of terrorist sponsors,” said Mr Taylor.
It is the same story with South Sudan, where President Salva Kiir has been banking on Russia and China to fight off US sponsored sanctions and arms embargo at the UN Security Council since the civil war begun in 2013.
President Kiir is currently under US arms embargo and key government officials have been sanctioned by the US and the European Union.