When the British government expressed its gratitude to Rwanda last week for agreeing to accept thousands of asylum seekers who could soon be deported from the United Kingdom, it marked another victory for Rwandan President Paul Kagame in his quiet campaign to make himself indispensable to the world’s most powerful leaders.
Whether it is a migrant deal or a military intervention that a foreign leader needs, Rwanda is proving increasingly useful. And the benefits to Mr. Kagame are vital: financial aid, diplomatic clout and a willingness by many governments to turn a blind eye to his long authoritarian reign and record of human-rights abuses.
Rwanda is a relatively small and impoverished country: Within Africa it ranks just 28th by population and 36th by GDP. But it punches far above its weight in international circles, partly because of its well-trained and often-deployed military, and partly because of agreements such as the one Mr. Kagame struck with Britain last Thursday.
Under the deal, Rwanda has agreed to accept tens of thousands of asylum seekers who arrive in Britain without authorization. The migrants, who in many cases cross the English Channel on rickety boats after long journeys from points in Africa and the Middle East, will be flown more than 6,500 kilometres to Rwanda, where they will be housed and processed under an agreement that provides $200-million in British financial support for Mr. Kagame’s government.
Just as important as the money, however, is the diplomatic debt Britain now owes to Rwanda. For three years, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been trying to find ways of outsourcing Britain’s asylum processing. He had failed to reach agreements with Albania and Ghana, but finally found a willing ally in Rwanda.
In his speech announcing the deal, Mr. Johnson said he was “grateful for Rwanda’s leadership and partnership.” He praised Rwanda as a safe and welcoming country – a portrait that was sharply challenged by human rights groups, who noted that the Kagame government has a long record of jailing its critics and even allegedly killing them.
Last month, the Democratic Republic of the Congo accused Rwanda of supporting the M23 rebel group, which has captured Congolese territory. The Congolese army has even arrested M23 fighters that it identified as Rwandan soldiers. But there has been almost no international reaction.
The British agreement is just one of a series of migration deals that Rwanda has signed in recent years. It has also pledged to accept migrants or asylum seekers from Israel, Denmark, Libya and Afghanistan.
Although the agreements have been relatively small so far and some were eventually cancelled or have not yet been implemented, they mean European and Middle Eastern governments have fewer migrants to handle – a favour they are likely to remember when Mr. Kagame needs his own favours from them.
Rwanda’s military, widely considered the best-trained in Africa, is another source of diplomatic advantage for Mr. Kagame. By deploying thousands of his troops to conflict zones in Africa and elsewhere, he has earned the gratitude of Western governments, which are spared any need to use their own forces.
Despite its small size, Rwanda is the fourth-biggest contributor to United Nations peacekeeping missions, with nearly 5,300 of its personnel serving in various countries around the world.
In addition to its UN contributions, Rwanda has sometimes used its troops to defend fragile African governments. In 2020, it dispatched several hundred soldiers to the Central African Republic to help fend off rebels who were advancing on the country’s capital. And last year Rwanda sent about 1,000 troops to northern Mozambique to fight Islamist rebels who were endangering the French energy giant Total and its massive multibillion-dollar gas project in the region.
The French company had been forced to suspend its project and withdraw its staff after a rebel attack on a nearby town. But the Rwandan deployment last year was successful, the insurgents were pushed back and Total was able to promise a restart to its project. Perhaps not coincidentally, Total rewarded the Kagame government this year by signing a deal to collaborate with Rwanda on energy projects.
By positioning itself as a reliable ally for Western countries, Rwanda has bolstered its diplomatic muscle and expanded its role as a donor favourite. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau often talks to Mr. Kagame, and Canada has provided more than $500-million in aid to Rwanda since 1994, including $35-million in 2019-20.
In another example of his diplomatic influence, Mr. Kagame has succeeded in winning key roles in both La Francophonie and the Commonwealth, even though Rwanda has no historical links to Britain.
One of Mr. Kagame’s closest allies, former Rwandan foreign minister Louise Mushikiwabo, won the post of Secretary General of La Francophonie in 2018, pushing out former Canadian governor general Michaelle Jean, who was seeking a second term in the post.
In June this year, in another diplomatic coup for Mr. Kagame, the Commonwealth heads of government summit will be held in Rwanda. Some activists have called for a boycott of the summit, saying Rwanda routinely violates the Commonwealth’s principles of democracy and human rights. But Commonwealth members have shown no signs of avoiding the summit.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.