The Risks of African Military Capacity Building: Lessons from Rwanda

Danielle Beswick


Civil war and insecurity are widely seen as obstacles to development and threats to international stability, and donors are therefore keen to develop African capacities to manage conflict on the continent. Building the capacity of African militaries is hazardous, however, given their frequent roles in coups, support for authoritarian regimes, and violence against civilians.

This article argues that the risks of military capacity building can be assessed more accurately by understanding how national governments view and utilize the military as a policy tool. It demonstrates this using the case of post-genocide Rwanda, a significant contributor to African peacekeeping but also to instability in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The article identifies four features of the Rwandan regime’s understanding and use of military force, using these to explain the dual and divisive role of Rwanda’s military as an agent of instability on the one hand and peace on the other. Finally, the article explores the M23 crisis, considering implications for donor efforts to manage risks inherent in international commitments to “African solutions”. It concludes by arguing that, as African military capacity building continues, recognizing the ways in which such enhanced forces are likely to be used will be crucial to developing a better understanding of the continent’s peace and security prospects.

Key findings:

  • During recent crises in Mali and the Central African Republic, African insecurity has again been posited as a direct security threat to developed states, sparking renewed commitment to build African military capacity. Such support brings significant risks, including security risks for African states and communities that may find enhanced military capacity used against them, and also political risk to donors’ domestic and international reputations in the event of misuse. It also entails a risk, reminiscent of cold war bipolar approaches to alliance and military aid, of reversing or stalling political reform in Africa, particularly in states whose peacekeeping contribution encourages donors to overlook democratic backsliding. Such scenarios are not hypothetical. They have emerged in Uganda and Ethiopia as well as Rwanda, with often limited and inconsistent donor responses to the increased authoritarianism of regimes considered central to the implementation of “African solutions”.
  • With few exceptions, the leaders of key African contributors to missions on the continent are accused of degrees of authoritarianism. Rwanda, accused of destabilizing neighbouring Congo and of domestic authoritarianism, but also Africa’s third-largest contributor of peacekeepers to UN missions, exemplifies this challenge. Two overarching factors affect how Rwanda’s post-genocide regime sees the military and military force in domestic and foreign policy: the terms of settlement of the 1990–4 conflict and the ‘pathway to power’ of the RPF. In ending the genocide the RPF succeeded where the international community, and the UN, had failed. Victory meant ‘they did not have to make any significant political concessions to their military adversaries, their political allies, or the discredited international community’. Secondly, the RPF was an armed refugee group in exile, an armed rebel group fighting a civil war in its ‘home state’, and finally the dominant force in post-genocide politics. This path gives Rwanda’s leaders a keen awareness of the threat posed by opponents in exile and a militaristic approach to managing security threats and reconstruction.
  • All policy decisions entail risk. Donors cannot control the ways in which the African forces they train will be used. However, by analysing the national and policy context of the national militaries they choose to support, and considering the circumstances in which they are likely to use military force, donors can develop a more holistic understanding of the risks and benefits of providing such assistance, and make better-informed decisions on that basis.


Beswick, D. (2014). The Risks of African Military Capacity Building: Lessons from Rwanda. African Affairs. 113(451), 212–231.