Rwanda's Sezibera could be pivotal in regional ties

Sunday October 21 2018

Richard Sezibera

Richard Sezibera swearing-in as Rwanda’s Foreign Affairs Minister on October 19, 2018. PHOTO | URUGWIRO 

By IVAN R. MUGISHA
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The appointment of Richard Sezibera as Rwanda’s Foreign Affairs Minister is considered a positive move towards the normalisation of relationships between Rwanda and some of its neighbours.

The 54-year-old replaces Louise Mushikiwabo, who will now be based in France as the new Secretary General of the International Organisation of Francophonie nations (OIF).

Dr Sezibera is a seasoned diplomat who served as the secretary general of the East African Community from 2011 to 2016 — during which time Rwanda and its neighbours maintained cordial relations.

He also served as President Paul Kagame’s special envoy to the Great Lakes Region, where he played a key role in improving relations between Rwanda and the DR Congo.

During his tenure as the Great Lakes Region envoy, he negotiated an official declaration by the Kinshasa government to the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) that they were no longer welcome inside DR Congo, which marked a turning point, averting fighting between FDLR forces and those of the DR Congo. Kigali considers the FDRL genocidaire forces who perpetrated the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

Kinshasa’s declaration resulted in joint military operations between DRC and Kigali that helped to neutralise the FDLR.

Sezibera’s appointment comes at a time when Rwanda is experiencing frosty relations with both Uganda, Burundi, and which are undermining the spirit of regional co-operation and integration.

In particular, key regional projects including the standard gauge railway, which is supposed to connect the port of Mombasa to Kigali via Uganda, have stalled due to escalating tensions between Rwanda and Uganda on the one hand and with Burundi on the other.

It is also undermining free movement of people, goods and services in the region with haphazard arrests of citizens crossing borders and the introduction of both tariff and non-tariff barriers.

Mending ties

Now experts say that Mr Sezibera’s political connections with the region could help to rebuild Rwanda’s burned bridges with Burundi, Uganda and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR).

“He will probably consider relations with the East African Community as an important priority, because he has worked at the top position in regional affairs and understands best the importance of fostering regional peace,” Ismael Buchanan, is a Researcher and Senior Lecturer of International Relations at the national University of Rwanda told The EastAfrican.

“Dr Sezibera’s appointment comes at a time when Rwanda has achieved better relations with the western and Asian world. France for example, is now a strong ally of Rwanda and endorsed Louis Mushikiwabo to head OIF. That means that people will be looking mostly at what he can bring to the table in terms of building cordial relations with EAC neighbours.”

The former Rwandan senator also comes at a time when Rwanda has threatened to quit regional body, ICGLR, over what the government considers its “failure to ensure regional security”.

But Mr Buchanan also believes that Dr Sezibera’s appointment should send signals to Uganda, Burundi and ICGLR that Rwanda intends to end its spat with them, and they should also play their part in ensuring that relations normalise.

Smart politics

“Every country needs to work smart politics, not just Rwanda. It is now up to Uganda and Burundi to also take steps in finding a lasting solution to the hostility that has existed for some time now,” he said.

Other than that, Mr Sezibera will also be confronted with filling the boots of a predecessor who is billed as one of Rwanda’s finest diplomats.

Ms Mushikiwabo has played a crucial role in defending Rwanda’s sovereignty by responding swiftly and in strong terms to international organisations and donors who often criticize Kigali’s handling of political opponents, rule of law and media rights.

“There styles of leadership may be different, but both Sezibera and Mushikiwabo are top diplomats who are linguistically rich. Sezibera will always be compared to his predecessor and how he responds to occasional government critics will be an important point of comparison,” Mr Buchanan said.