Rwanda’s new drone fleet raises regional security concerns

As new evidence emerges of Kigali’s sponsorship of rebels in foreign countries, Central African nations worry that Rwanda’s new drone fleet may find military applications. The drones begin flying strictly humanitarian missions in July or August, but can a government prone to nefarious military operations be trusted with drone technology?

If the country were not one with Rwanda’s history of regional skulduggery, ulterior motives for government’s embrace of a drone air force for humanitarian purposes might not be suspected. For more than a decade the UN has released evidence that Rwanda was a financial sponsor of the M23 rebel group that fought the government of neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Subsequent evidence has emerged of Rwanda seeking to destabilise the DRC by supporting other insurgency operations. The motive appears to be to keep portions of the DRC lawless so as to smuggle out that nation’s considerable mineral wealth for the enrichment of foreign entities, presumably Rwandan.

Zipline - Delivery
Zipline drones will start making humanitarian deliveries in Rwanda beginning in July 2016. Photo courtesy Zipline.

In May 2016, new UN evidence was presented implicating Rwanda in the training of Burundian rebels to overthrow the government of Burundi. The UN report confirmed the suspicions of the government of Burundi and enflamed dangerous ethnic tensions in the region. A predictable dance has emerged from Kigali as each new revelation of its misdeeds is publicised. The government of Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame routinely dismisses each report, treating evidence as hearsay and characterising proof as ‘unsupported allegations’. The denials are couched in a hauteur that employs such adjectives as “ridiculous,” “childish” and “unworthy of comment.”

As Rwanda and the UN circle one another in a thus far interminable pas de deux, with neither side knowing how to end the dance, a new tool has fallen into Kigali’s hands. The new capability of drone aircraft, like all new technology, has potential for doing great good but also great harm. However, wariness of Rwanda may prompt neighbouring nations to create drone air forces of their own, and not necessarily for humanitarian purposes, spending money that the region’s indigent nations require for social services and nation building needs. 

Humanitarian flights show what drones are capable of if used malevolently

The Rwandan plan calls for the country to have the world’s first “autonomous system” of aircraft; that is, propeller-driven airplanes that fly on their own without human pilots and are guided by ground controllers far away. The instigator is a US firm, Zipline, from California’s high-tech Silicon Valley, that has forged a partnership with government’s health ministry, some medical NGOs and the global delivery company United Parcel Service (UPS). Package deliveries by drones are already being made by UPS in the US. The company’s experience and status as a pioneer in the successful and practical commercial use of drone technology prompted the firm’s charitable arm, the UPS Foundation, to offer funding of US$ 800,000 for the Rwanda initiative. Indeed, one commercial customer is already lined up. The German firm Mobisol wants to use the Zipline drones to deliver spare parts for the solar power systems it has installed in Rwanda for 13,000 customers scattered throughout the country. Rwanda’s underdeveloped road infrastructure makes drone flights a more timely and assured option for delivery.

The drones have a range of 75 km. The British architect Norman Foster is designing a drone airport 40 km outside Kigali, where drones capable of carrying payloads of up to 150 kg will take off and land. Rwanda’s Minister of Youth and ICT, Jean Philbert Nsengimana, said of the drone initiative “This is all part of the vision in Rwanda to position itself as a leading innovation hub in the continent. We want to attract the best technology and talent.”

Humanitarian rather than commercial use will occupy the first flights. Initial deliveries of blood to clinics in both urban and remote areas are scheduled for July, with full service planned to be up and running by August. The drones with their three metre-long wingspans will not land and take off from their destinations but will circle the delivery spot and drop parcels from a height of 91 to 121 metres. The parcels will descend to earth at the end of paper parachutes, to be retrieved by clinic staff in mobile phone contact with the drone’s home port controller for real time communication. The drones are equipped with video cameras so controllers can see where they are going in real time.

After the delivery of blood, the next cargo scheduled to be transported is vaccines. Here the new technology will also be utilised for genuine humanitarian purposes, with the saving of lives in many situations a likely outcome. What concerns critics of the nefarious Kagame administration, which has been proved mendacious when it comes to its secretive military activities, is the world’s aviation history. Just 12 years after the first airplane successfully flew in 1903, aircraft were at use as aggressive military weapons in the First World War.

There’s nothing to stop Kigali from nationalising any drone operations in the country. Government can cite national security, a terrorist threat or any other excuse. Unaccountable autocratic governments do as they please. The humanitarian initiative of the Zipline company is laudable, and the commercial applications envisioned by UPS will be a boon to the Rwandan economy. The concern is that the instigators’ idealism in choosing to work in Rwanda may be undermined by their naiveté of government’s military agenda.

Rwanda’s neighbours’ suspicions confirmed by UN evidence

On 12 May, a confidential report from the UN Security Council (UNSC) laying out evidence of Rwanda’s financing of Burundian rebels was published by the Reuters news agency. The report’s panel of six independent experts appointed by the UNSC to monitor arms and other sanctions on war-torn DRC reported events that were an extension of Rwanda’s activities in DRC and with Burundian refugees. Previous UN reports chronicled how the Rwandan military coerced Burundian men in refugee camps to undergo military training. The men were among the 265,000 Burundians who fled their native country in the political upheaval instigated by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s 2014 decision to stay in power. The refugees feared that ethnic cleansing was the next step after Nkurunziza’s power grab.

Rwanda’s army trained the Burundian refugees to be rebel militants and sent them to the DRC to fight. That the young male refugees involved were coerced into the plot seemed likely because the Burundians had no reason to fight the DRC government. The boredom of refugee camp life seems an unlikely reason to participate in a dangerous and possibly deadly undertaking in a foreign country. However, some of the Burundians would more likely have a desire to avenge their exile and the exile of their families. To them, revenge could come in the form of joining a rebel confrontation with Nkurunziza.

Rwanda denied previous UN reports that 18 Burundian rebel fighters captured in the DRC in February 2016 were recruited in Rwandan refugee camps in mid-2015 and trained by Rwandan military instructors. Some Western governments, motivated by their desire to maintain friendly and profitable relations with Kigali, reportedly opined that Rwanda probably trained Burundian rebels in 2015, but ended before 2016.

The May UN report related that Rwanda never ceased training rebels, and continues to do so in 2016. “This took the form of training, financing and logistical support for Burundian combatants crossing from Rwanda to DRC,” the report stated.

The UN panel “met with Rwandan nationals as well, who said they had been involved in the training of Burundian combatants or had been sent to the DRC to help support the Burundian opposition.” This is the first mention of Burundian rebels acting as an opposition force. This is also the concern of Burundi’s government, that Rwanda is determined to destabilise the country. The motives for Kigali seeking regime change in Bujumbura are a matter of speculation. Burundi is not mineral rich like the DRC, and thus the profit to be derived from looting the country’s natural resources is less. Kigali’s motives may also be altruistic for all anyone can speculate – by unseating Nkurunziza’s government, which many Burundians and the UN fear may unleash ethnic cleansing, Rwanda may wish to spare Central Africa the horror of genocide. In Rwanda in 1994, 800,000 people of the Tutsi tribe were massacred by the Hutu-led government. Burundi has the same ethnic composition as Rwanda.

Suspicion of Rwanda’s foreign agenda cloud the drones’ humanitarian mission

Only Rwanda can alleviate the fear that drones which will soon be delivering blood and vaccines may later be put to military use, making spy forays into Burundi and the DRC and after retooling, drop bombs and shoot missiles. The West is content to not castigate Rwanda over the training of Burundian refugees to be rebel fighters if only the Rwandan army would cease doing this.

Kigali seems content to follow its secret course of sponsoring rebel movements in Central Africa and arming Burundians who may mount an attack on their home country, according to leaked UNSC reports. Routine denials of the evidence reassure no one and only further alarm neighbouring countries. Both Burundi’s Nkurunziza and the DRC’s Kabila are politically insecure and if provoked, may retaliate against Rwanda. Should a regional war break out because of Rwanda’s current mischief-making, at the very least the drones’ blood supply deliveries will be rerouted from domestic clinics to the frontline battlefields.