Many a time, I would read about what Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) is doing on different peacekeeping missions and I would think to myself ‘this is too good to believe’.
From bringing about peace in conflict-affected societies, to restoring hope in desperate citizens to building schools and roads in the communities they serve, it all seemed almost unbelievable that Rwandan blue helmets were doing all this, albeit in very difficult conditions in which they operate.
Recently I took a personal initiative to go to the Central African Republic (CAR), to assess business opportunities and how I, like many others, can explore business opportunities that have been born out of the cordial bilateral ties between our two countries.
As I set off from Kigali International Airport (KIA) to the central African nation, there was one thing on my mind -ascertaining with my own eyes the RDF peacekeeping milestones in CAR, and maybe put into perspective how, as of today, Rwanda is the 3rd leading contributor of peacekeepers globally.
The President of the Central African Republic H.E Prof Faustin Archange Touadera yesterday, awarded the Rwandan peacekeepers (Rwanbatt7) serving under @UN_CAR with the Central African Recognition Medal for their contribution to the peace effort in CAR. https://t.co/mjPNj3ct9G pic.twitter.com/xziSg48mWH
— Rwanda Defence Force (@RwandaMoD) April 16, 2021
Surely there must be a reason the United Nations trusts Rwanda to do the job. It can’t be good PR as the detractors often claim, and it can’t be because Rwanda is the biggest country with all the resources to deploy troops on UN Peacekeeping missions across the continent.
It can only be so because RDF has established itself as a trusted and robust professional force capable of restoring peace in situations where it seemed nearly impossible. Of course, it can only be fair to say that they don’t do it alone.
For example, there are several contingents from different countries serving under the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) and whatever milestones have been registered in the country can only be credited to MINUSCA as a whole.
Mine however is to dwell on RDF peacekeepers under MINUSCA because they are the ones I know, the ones I encountered and the ones whose successes in the country need to be documented beyond what we are seeing in the media today.
I am saying this because I was in the CAR and saw it all, experienced it with my own eyes. Beyond the business opportunities that have opened up for all of us, I wanted to go and experience why today Rwandans are very welcome in CAR and the reason behind the warm reception we were accorded.
It cannot be by any other magic. It is what Rwandan peacekeepers have done on the ground, alongside the RDF protection force which was deployed in December 2020 under a bilateral arrangement between Rwanda and CAR, to help halt the advance of the rebels towards the capital Bangui.
Also in a way, the extra force was deployed to offer protection to the blue helmets, who were increasingly being attacked by the insurgents but lacked the mandate to engage as President Paul Kagame recently said.
I cannot emphasize the role of RDF in restoring calm in CAR more than President Kagame and his CAR counterpart, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, did at the beginning of August, when the latter visited Rwanda to reinforce bilateral ties.
The two leaders were very categorical on the role of RDF in ensuring that peace is restored, which as a matter of fact, the main reason for the two countries to sign a Memorandum of Understanding, which would see RDF support the strategy for security sector reforms in CAR.
Though you could argue that peace is yet to be fully restored in CAR, whatever has been achieved in the past 8 months or so gives hope that peace cannot only be achieved but it can be consolidated, to allow the people to exist peacefully, develop themselves and prosper.
As I moved from one location to another in the naturally resource endowed country, it dawned on me even more that what RDF peacekeepers were doing in CAR was not only going to leave behind a legacy for Rwanda but for the entire continent.
Interacting with the people of CAR was one of my proudest moments as a Rwandan. I cried upon hearing the stories. When it comes to describing RDF peacekeepers, Central Africans run short of words. They simply get overwhelmed.
For them, RDF would stay for good because they have never felt safe as they are today. They tell tales of being tired of living a day at a time, ready to run away from their homes at the sound of a bullet, and generally not being able to do anything developmental for themselves.
RDF restored hope in them and they feel confident that very soon, the bad days will be over. Women, men and children, each has a story to tell about RDF. Many are settling back in their homes and are trying to restart income generating activities.
With RDF in the vicinity, CAR populations, particularly in Bangui and surroundings, feel more protected and understandably their adoration of RDF grew, which is why today a Rwandan in CAR is welcomed as one of their own.
I visited places where RDF peacekeepers went beyond their mandate of ensuring security and protection of citizens to establish healthcare services for the locals, support rebuilding communities ravaged by conflict and also help to encourage people to return to their homes and feel safe.
Modeste Poukand, a resident of Bangui I talked to, told me that they had completely lost hope and thought the rebels were going to overrun the city ahead of the elections earlier this year.
He closed his shop, sold off everything he had in it, fearing that he would lose it all but today he has re-established himself as a businessman and is looking forward to growing because he is confident that with RDF around, all is well.
As President Kagame said in the past, the central purpose of peacekeeping operations is the protection of civilians and one cannot emphasize how RDF has embodied this principle wherever they are called on duty.
The ability to go beyond their mandate and do things that impact the communities and restore hope is what makes RDF different. It not only endears them to the local populations but it also creates a lasting legacy not just for RDF but also for Rwanda as a country and Africa as a continent.
As of today, there are 1,360 sons and daughters of Rwanda under RDF who proudly wear the Rwandan flag on their arm, serving under the blue helmets alongside 489 countrymates deployed under the police contingent, making Rwanda the leading contributor of troops in CAR.
While there, I realised that there are troops from different countries but when you speak to the Central Africans, their hopes are cast in RDF and you can’t blame them. Since the arrival of the protection force in December, locals became even more confident that peace will return sooner than later.
It also dawned on me then that the ‘small East African country’ has defied odds and gone beyond the connotation of ‘punching above weight’ because in reality, nobody determines the weight, let alone who punches what weight.
Over and over again, Rwanda has proved that leadership, ambition and vision is what should define a nation, not its size, economic might or labelling by biased media that keeps peddling the line of ‘small African country with good PR’.
Displaced students at Unity Primary School within the Juba #IDP camp in #SouthSudan 🇸🇸, & their teachers, received facemasks, #COVID19 awareness-raising sessions + educational materials from Rwandan 🇷🇼 peacekeepers serving w/ #UNMISS.
— UNMISS (@unmissmedia) May 7, 2021
By proving that peace can be restored in areas condemned to unending conflict, RDF is creating a continental legacy which confirms to us that Africa indeed can solve her own problems without waiting for outsiders or endless peacekeeping missions that turn into money-spinning ventures.
The achievements of RDF in peacekeeping should not only be well-documented for future reference but they should also be consolidated and replicated elsewhere on the continent to make conflict history.
I believe it is because of these gains that President Filipe Jacinto Nyusi of Mozambique chose to look towards Rwanda before anywhere else to seek support to uproot stubborn insurgents from the country’s Cabo Delgado province.
The Writer is a Publisher and Commentator on political and socio-economic affairs in Rwanda & East Africa.
“Today, Rwanda is not just a place on the map. For us, it means something that we can all identify with and be proud of, and in which we feel valued. Rwanda means hope. It means that we care for one another.” Watch President Kagame’s #Kwibohora27 message https://t.co/BMMHIY7EaJ pic.twitter.com/lcKQErdp6D
— Presidency | Rwanda (@UrugwiroVillage) July 4, 2021