One of the primary points of discussion between Antony Blinken and Rwandan president Paul Kagame in the US secretary of state’s upcoming visit to Kigali will be the renewed tensions between Rwanda and its neighbours, particularly the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
According to a US state department statement, Blinken’s visit will focus on the role the government of Rwanda can play in reducing tensions and the ongoing violence in eastern DRC.
Tensions between Rwanda and the DRC are running high. The DRC has accused Rwanda of openly supporting the Mouvement du 23 Mars (March 23 Movement, M23) in eastern Congo. Rwanda has dismissed these accusations. It has instead claimed that the Congolese government is spurring violence against the minority Banyamulenge population, and working with the rebel group called the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, which holds pro-Hutu genocide ideology.
Regional actors, such as Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, have tried to reduce these tensions. But there has been little progress.
The issue is of importance to the US based on its historical relationship with Rwanda and its past alleged interference in eastern DRC by supporting antagonist forces, such as the M23. The charge was laid by the UN Group of Experts.
It’s unclear if Blinken’s mediation efforts will be successful.
Relations between the US and Rwanda have had their high and low periods. One of the lowest points came in 2012, during Barack Obama’s tenure as US president. He cut military aid to Rwanda over Kagame’s human rights record, as well as Kigali’s role in supporting the M23 rebel group. The US cut $200,000 from a $200 million programme, a symbolic gesture from one of Rwanda’s staunchest defenders.
Since then, Rwandan-US relations have continued to grow, with a notable increase of American tourists and officials visiting the East African nation prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ups and downs
Before the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi in 1994, the country fell within France’s sphere of influence. Washington did not view Rwanda as a strategic partner.
But the US’s relations with Rwanda changed after the genocide, based on a desire to help support the new post-genocide government. The result was the forging of close diplomatic relations, a process described by Robert Gribbin, a former American ambassador to Rwanda (1996-1999), in his book, In the Aftermath of Genocide: The US Role in Rwanda.
Gribbin sets out how the US developed close relations with the post-genocide government and the victorious Rwanda Patriotic Front. This included providing military training for soldiers and commanders, which still continues.
Thanks to the efforts of former assistant secretary of state for African affairs Susan Rice (1997-2001) under the Clinton administration, the US became a close ally of Rwanda.
This relationship held despite turbulent times under the Obama administration (2009-2017), which led to a reduction in military aid and harsher critiques of Rwanda’s democratic and human rights record.
While there was some optimism about the Trump administration, disagreements on trade led to anger among Rwandan officials.
Nevertheless, Rwandan-US relations have remained relatively strong.
Kagame as a pull factor
Possibly the reason for America’s continued close relations with Rwanda stems from the stability of Kagame. First appointed as president in 2000, he presents a stable ally who knows the pro-western language of development and security.
Kagame, however, has come in for a great deal of criticism for his domestic human rights and political record. Blinken, according to the US State Department, will be raising concerns about this record during his visit.
Blinken will particularly focus on Kagame’s “transnational repression, limiting space for dissent and political opposition, and the wrongful detention of US Lawful Permanent Resident Paul Rusesabagina”. Rwanda sentenced Rusesabagina to 25 years in prison for his connection to terrorist attacks in 2021 that killed nine Rwandans.
For the most part, however, American officials have chosen to overlook concerns about Kagame’s human rights record. They are much more inclined to view Kagame’s support as instrumental to promoting American policies and interests in Africa. These include promoting a business environment that is favourable for US foreign investment, his soft power influence in African relations and Kigali’s peacekeeping contributions.
America’s willingness to send its military into peacekeeping missions was greatly hindered by the 1993 failed peacekeeping mission in Somalia. The US was seen to have been humiliated after 19 American soldiers died in the Battle of Mogadishu.
These events fostered great political backlash in the US. Many Americans failed to see the purpose of sending US military personnel in non-strategic military operations.
America’s reluctance to be involved in peacekeeping opened the door for Washington to offer nations political, diplomatic and military support in return for their participation in missions. In this way the US could meet its commitment to peacekeeping without sending its own soldiers.
There is no doubt that Blinken will seek Rwanda’s continued commitment to contributing military and police personnel.
This is a particularly tricky issue in the region at the moment. Over the past two weeks, the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC has come under attack. In two separate incidents, at least 20 people have been killed. Among them were three peacekeepers. Additionally, Rwandan authorities have previously threatened to remove their soldiers from peacekeeping missions after receiving international criticism.
Even though Rwanda is a small country – it is a low-income economy with a population of just over 13 million – it is still an important destination for American multinational corporations seeking to invest in East Africa.
Rwandan officials, in particular Kagame, have developed close relations with international leaders of companies like Starbucks, Volkswagen, Costco, Macy’s, Visa, and Marriott International Inc.
These companies have either opened factories, such as Volkswagen, bought commodities, such as Starbucks, or as with Visa, invested in financial growth services in the region.
The current tensions between the DRC and Rwanda, as well as the holding of Rusesabagina, will not be solved by Blinken’s quick visit. But these issues are unlikely to cause any long-term damage to Rwanda-US foreign relations.
Jonathan Beloff is a Postdoctoral research associate, at King’s College London