US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Rwanda, the final stop on a three-nation African tour in which he has articulated Washington’s new strategy for engaging Sub-Saharan African nations as “equal partners.”
Blinken arrives in Rwanda at a difficult time for Africa’s Great Lakes region, with the small central African country at odds with its vast neighbor Congo over allegations that both governments support rebels opposed to each other.
Blinken is scheduled to meet with Rwandan President Paul Kagame on Thursday to discuss efforts to defuse tensions. Rwanda has rejected a new report by UN experts who claim to have “solid evidence” that Rwandan armed forces are conducting operations in eastern Congo in support of the M23 rebel group.
According to Blinken, reports of Rwandan support for M23 appear “credible.” Following a meeting with Congolese authorities on Tuesday, he stated that the US will support African-led efforts to end the fighting.
Rwandan authorities, for their part, accuse Congo of providing refuge to ethnic Hutu fighters involved in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, which killed ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Tensions between the two countries have existed for a long time. Rwanda sent forces deep into Congo twice in the late 1990s, joining forces with rebel leader Laurent Kabila to depose the country’s longtime dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko.
Both Rwanda and Congo deny supporting rebel groups, and Rwandan authorities have dismissed the latest report by UN experts as an attempt to “distract from real issues.” Rwanda also claims that its security needs cannot be met while armed genocide survivors operate from within Congolese territory.
On July 6, Kagame and Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi met in Angola and issued a joint statement calling for the restoration of normal diplomatic relations, the cessation of hostilities, and the “immediate and unconditional withdrawal” of the M23 from its positions in eastern Congo.
However, M23, which is mostly made up of ethnic Tutsis from Congo, continues to hold positions near the Ugandan border, keeping the spotlight on Rwanda.
The chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a letter to Blinken last month called for a comprehensive review of U.S. policy toward Rwanda and noted his concern that Washington’s support for Rwanda, widely described by human right groups as authoritarian and repressive, is not in line with U.S. values.
According to the State Department, Blinken will raise democracy and human rights concerns in Rwanda, including transnational repression and limited space for the opposition.
Paul Rusesabagina, a permanent resident of the United States who is currently imprisoned in Rwanda following his conviction on terror-related charges last year, is also on the agenda. Rusesabagina was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her role in the film “Hotel Rwanda” in sheltering ethnic Tutsis during the genocide.
Rwanda’s government said in a statement ahead of Blinken’s visit that it “looks forward to a robust exchange of views on governance and human rights, as has always been the case in the Rwanda-US bilateral relationship.” It acknowledged that the situation in Rusesabagina would be discussed.
Blinken on this trip also visited South Africa, where he described a strategy “rooted in the recognition that sub-Saharan Africa is a major geopolitical force.”