Looking More Closely At Rwanda’s Offer to Migrants


The world, and particularly Africa, was recently shocked by the news and images of African immigrants being auctioned into slavery in Libya. African leaders and African celebrities worldwide hastened to condemn this modern-day form of slavery, but most reactions remained mere indignation. No action. None of the countries from where the immigrants come decided to go and repatriate their citizens. Only tiny and poor Rwanda, whose citizens are not even being auctioned, has offered to accommodate up to 30,000 people out of the more or less 400,000 immigrants stranded in Libya. This appears to be a courageous and noble move, on the surface at least. I personally have a few worries that push me to think that the move might not be as disinterested as it seems. Here is what worries me.

Rwanda has a history of destabilizing neighbours using immigrants or refugees from those countries. Almost all rebel groups in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have been constituted of refugees to whom Rwanda had generously opened its doors. The DRC is constantly exposed to attacks from Rwanda or by Rwanda-backed rebels, most of who had sought asylum in Rwanda. Those who remember the rhetoric of the mid-1990s will recall that Rwanda kept claiming that that war to topple president Mobutu was amongst the Zaireans [Congolese] themselves. However, the story could not convince anymore when a Rwandan general, James Kabarebe, the current defense minister in Rwanda, was appointed [or appointed himself] as the chief commander of the Congolese armed forces.

An almost similar situation happened between 2013 and 2015 when the government of Tanzania expelled many people it designated as Rwandans residing illegally in that country. At that time, Rwanda claimed they were Kinyarwanda-speaking Tanzanians. The doors were wide open, even to army officers deserting the Tanzanian army. Both countries were very close to open war. Rwandan president Paul Kagame openly warned then president Jakaya Kikwete that he would hit him unexpectedly, like thunder. Fortunately, that never happened, as Kikwete handed power over to John Magufuli in 2015. It is not clear whether the expelled people are still in Rwanda.

A more recent case is one of tens of thousands of Burindian refugees who ran to Rwanda after political turmoil surrounding the reelection of president Pierre Nkurunziza in 2015. International organizations and the government of Burundi repeatedly accused Rwanda of training the refugees so that they can attack Burundi. Armed people were reported to have crossed into Burundi and to have started their military operations there. As I write, the situation is tense between the two countries. Fire can break out at any time.

This destabilizing role in which refugees play a central part becomes more worrying when one looks at Rwanda’s diplomacy and its frequent use of blackmail. One example: Rwanda ‘generously’ and ‘courageously’ contributed thousands of troops to the UN peace mission in Southern Sudan and in the Central African Republic. In both countries, they constitute the backbone of the mission. Removing them would mean closing the mission. Now, whenever the UN tries to investigate the past crimes committed by the current rulers, who were once ruthless rebels, the threat to withdraw from those missions surfaces. The UN has to choose between having a happy Rwanda that contributes to its peace missions and a frustrated Rwanda that has the power to make two of its main missions fail. The choice is quickly made.

My fear is that the same is likely to happen with these 30,000 immigrants from West Africa. The African Union is going to be dependent on that country. The organization, the immigrants’ home countries, and even the Western governments which have a lot to gain from the transfer of the immigrants far away from the EU borders, are going to be exposed to blackmail: “You do this or else I let [understand: I facilitate] them come back”.

Perhaps I am being too skeptical here, but I believe that when one sees the same ingredients that led to some effects more than once in the past, one has a point observing that similar effects might follow.

by Olivier Nyirubugara   (Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

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