Antony Blinken: Nothing is as it seems in the African Great Lakes region

By Marc Hoogsteyns
On 6 August 2022 at 07:35

Next week, the American Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit Rwanda and Congo. As the tensions in the region are verry high with an ongoing war in the Kivu’s between the M-23 rebels and the Congolese army, with the UN-force MONUSCO in the defensive for not being efficient enough to deal with all these problems and with all these problems and the growing criticism against Rwanda for having lured the Hollywood hero Paul Rusesebagina in a trap and having him condemned to 25 years behind bars this visit comes at a crucial moment.

Two days ago, members of a UN research group talked to colleagues of Reuters and they showed them so called facts that the Rwandan army was directly involved with the M-23 rebellion north of Goma. This news was preceded by a Human Rights Watch paper in which Rwanda was also accused to support the M-23. A lot of Congo watchers think that you’ll be travelling to this region to tap Rwanda on its fingers. This might help to solve the situation for a couple of months but it would not solve the problem on the longer run. Nobody owns the truth in this matter but we have the impression that the US and especially the US government is not well enough informed about this very complex crisis.

Looking at it through sunglasses that were purchased on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard, taking the findings of a UN research group and an organization such as HRW for granted and mainly listening to the small army of foreign diplomats and military attaches who are based in Kinshasa is not going to help either. Because your government might issue statements it might regret later on. Rwanda is an important and one of the most reliable allies of the US in this region and the country is involved in the struggle against Muslim extremism in other African countries, in other countries on this continent they provide counter balance against the growing Russian (Wagner) influence on this continent.

On top of that their arguments about what is really happening in Rwanda and in the DRC might also have their own validity. You’ll be walking on eggs when you visit this region, Mister Blinken. And we’ll try to give you the list of the most important obstacles you’ll have to pass to make it back to the States without holes in your pants.

  • Your government calls the arrest and the trial of Paul Rusesebagina unjust and not fair. It seems to have a problem with the way the Hollywood hero was lured into a trap, flown back to Rwanda with his glass full of champagne and arrested upon arrival. Earlier on he had expressed himself openly on the social media that he was heading the FLN, the so called ‘National Liberation Front’ of Rwanda that wanted to chase president Kagame from power via an armed struggle. This group was formed in collaboration with other groups such as the FDLR and the so called P5 (other opposition groups). The FDLR is an official terrorist organization and this was even acknowledged by your own administration. Rusesebagina was running this operation out of Texas, on American soil. The Belgian police had passed on evidence to the Rwandan authorities to back up most of these facts. Your security and intel services were also fully informed but let this all happen. In the meanwhile, Rusesebagina’s FLN started killing innocent people in the south of Rwanda and it became clear that his group played a key role in a lobby that wanted a regime change in Kigali. It is difficult to compare Rusesebagina’s actions with those of Osama Bin Laden but the Rwandan authorities decided to cut off the grass in front of his feet to prevent further damage. They trapped him and he was sentenced with more than 20 of his collaborators for his crimes.
Paul Rusesabagina was handed 25-year jail term last year.
  • The Rwandan government already issued a statement that Rusesebagina will stay where he is after you leave Rwanda. Others think that you should also first talk to his victims before you issue a new statement about this issue. If you want to punish the country for this (for not showing grace to Rusesebagina) the Rwandans will accept this but they will not change their decision. Treating Rwanda simply as a bad and disobedient pupil in the class room for the way they handle the Rusesebagina issue would be unwise: especially when the headmaster of the school is also engaged in even more dubious tactics to neutralize its opponents. But that seems to be normal because he’s the boss!
  • Another hot issue Blinken will have to tackle during his visit is the situation in North-Kivu where the M-23 is currently engaged in an open war with the Congolese army and gaining ground every day. Several sources such as the UN, HRW and the Congolese government itself are accusing Rwanda to have a hand in this rebellion. In fact, more than 100 other rebel groups are present in this part of the DRC and the Muslim ADF-Nalu and another group that calls itself CODECO are the most violent of them. Another destabilizing factor is the presence of the FARDC (Congolese army) itself as it has been proven numerous times that most of the weaponry used by all these militias comes from that source and most of the human rights abuses have to be noted on their CV. A recent report even showed that the M-23 even was amongst the less violent kids on the block in this area. But they are getting all the attention.
  • The region witnessed two other Tutsi led rebellions in the past: the first one was led by Laurent Nkunda and the second one by another former officer of the Rwandan army, Sultani Makenga. Both of them are Congolese Tutsi’s and they took up arms to protect their families and their possessions after they came under treat from the Rwandan Hutu extremists that were used by the politicians and the presidents in Kinshasa to do their fighting. In each case the government of Paul Kagame in Rwanda was accused by the local authorities to support these rebellions. And it is true that at that time Kigali was closely involved. The biggest reason why Kigali did this was to prevent the FDLR to infiltrate Rwanda. Under immense international pressure Kigali put an end to its support to Makenga en Nkunda. In 2013 Makenga withdrew to Uganda where he and his men ended up in refugee camps. They had signed deals with the Congolese government to be reintegrated into the FARDC, with the guarantee that their relatives who were all staying in refugee camps in Rwanda could go back to their villages in eastern Congo. But these deals were never respected. So, at the end the M-23 returned to Congo where they took up positions on the slope of a very difficult to attack volcano. From there they started to stage a small-scale guerrilla war to remind the central government about their previous promises. But that also failed: Kinshasa now started to brand them as a terrorist organization and refused to talk to them.
  • The relationship between the M-23 and the Rwandan government is very easy to explain but sometimes also very difficult to understand for outsiders. Both are very much Tutsi orientated and many Congolese Tutsi’s have relatives in Rwanda. Others obtained Rwandan citizenship over the years but still feel Congolese. Many officers within the M-23 started their careers in the Rwandan army, fought other wars in Congo for other organizations and had finally ended up in the rebel group of Laurent Nkunda and/or Sultani Makenga. New recruits were easily found in the refugee camps in Rwanda and in Uganda. The fact that the M-23 was able to regain strength came hand in hand with the fact that the Ugandans, who were engaged in a political standoff with the Rwandan government started to re-equip the FDLR in Congo. When Rwanda and Uganda settled their differences, this support stopped but the M-23 and the other remaining Tutsis in Congo were forced to defend themselves. They raided FARDC weapon stocks and were able to stage more attacks. To describe this whole story in detail would be very complex and nearly un-understandable for many outsiders. But the whole situation evolved in what we see today: the FARDC was no match for the better motivated M-23 who received moral support from the whole Tutsi community in Congo, Rwanda and in Burundi. Some Congolese Tutsi families had sons under arms in the RDF (Rwandan army) and others in the M-23. Others were demobilized after a 5-year long tour of duty in the RDF and went straight to the M-23 to fight the FARDC and the FDLR. Being Congolese Tutsis, this was a natural thing for them to do.
  • What the international community also fails to understand is the fact that Rwanda remained under treat from the beginning in 1994 until now. A lot of prominent genocidaires escaped to Congo and to Europe and started to reorganize themselves. But the contacts with the Hutu extremists in the DRC and in Burundi were also kept warm. The idea behind this was to lure Rwanda into a bigger and open war again in the DRC or in Burundi. Paul Rusesebagina’s FLN was to play a leading role into all this. As he was very famous, he seemed well fit for his role but he was also very weak. For the people who manipulated him into the conviction that he could become the new leader of Rwanda he is now more useful as a martyr in jail. Add to that the ongoing distrust between Uganda and Rwanda, the fact that Rwanda is developing economically at a steady pace and that this is provoking a lot of jealousy. The fact that the new Rwandan model also became an example for other African countries who started to call upon Kagame to stabilize their own countries was not always well greeted by the bigger foreign nations. On top of that Kagame was also known to tell these bigger countries to take a hike when they were trying to impose things on him he didn’t like. Rwanda cannot be described as a classic example of an African democracy that bends over to the superpowers to jump back in line if needed. The human rights situation in Rwanda is much better than the ones in the surrounding countries. But the country keeps being bashed by organizations such as HRW and opposition groups abroad who were able to burry their genocidaire past and who are no hiding behind, for them, new principles such as democracy and respect for human rights. In the same time, they were the ones who taught the Congolese how to accuse the Tutsi community of all the mishaps and disasters in their country. Very often to cover up their own crimes, their corruption and their incapacity to solve the problems themselves. Congolese politicians master the art of political and hypochondriac warfare better than anyone else. Instigating hatred and manipulating the audience is part of this strategy. Kinshasa is on the other side of the African continent and very few diplomats in that city understand the true nature of the events in the Kivu’s.
  • What we can say about a possible military involvement of the RDF in North-Kivu is the fact that the Rwandan army largely stayed out of the country. As the FDLR and other extremist Hutu groups continue to be risk for the stability of Rwanda we think that it is not more than normal that the RDF is keeping a couple of fingers on the Congolese pulse. Especially now that the same FDLR has become a part of the Congolese army and that nobody is contesting this in a decent way. The RDF is present in big numbers on the Rwandan side of the border and could stop the ongoing war in Congo in a couple of days if they would be allowed to intervene but they didn’t really do that. That’s the reason why it would be interesting to see the evidence the UN based its recent statements on. It is also a fact that the image of the UN recently took a big blow during the anti-UN riots in the province. Was this the reason why these statements were released now? Politicians in Kinshasa were frotting their hands with these new elements. In the same statements the UN staff confirmed that it was the attacks of the M-23 that instigated all the problems that followed. A bit of extra nuance and explanations might also have been useful in this case. It is clear that the organization wanted to throw this on the table before the arrival of Blinken. For now, it only looks like a clever move to shovel the responsibility of this mess entirely back into the boots of the Rwandans.
  • The region of the African Great Lakes is clearly not a priority any longer for the US. It took the Biden administration more than one year to have a new ambassador in place in Kigali and some insiders openly doubt that this person lacks the diplomatic weight to grasp the complexity of the situation. President Obama had a very intelligent guy like Thomas Periello roam the region nearly full time to mediate and to talk with all the protagonists on the spot. President Trump probably never heard of Rwanda or the Congolese Kivu’s. Joe Biden only seems to listen to the Hollywood lobby that is trying to get Rusesebagina out of jail and only sends a man like Blinken to the region to try to counter recent Russian charm offensives. Before making controversial statements about the fact that the Hollywood hero will remain in jail for his crimes and before putting more oil on the fire of those who are trying to put the responsibility of the plagues that keep on hitting Congo the American government might better think twice. Rwanda has the only army in this part of the world that is worthy that name, it has always been on the side of the US but that attitude might change. With a guy as Donald Trump still in the spotlights to run for a new presidency, with a war in Ukraine still raging on that is of lesser interest for most of the Africans than Washington thinks Blinken might make a big mistake for being too outspoken. The credibility of the American foreign policy in this region is at stake and only by studying and judging these problems correctly that can be maintained. If the Americans are not willing to do this it might be better for them to shut up! In case Rwanda will come under attack from different sides it will react like Israel and fight back. Rwandans are reasonable people and they are always open for valuable arguments but if you tell them that they don’t have to right to protect themselves they’ll block. The same goes for the Tutsi community in the DRC: 25 years ago, there were more than 120.000 of them living in that part of the country. Today that number has dwindled to not even 10.000 souls who are constantly at risk. The Congolese refugees want to go back home and reclaim their lands and their houses and this time the M-23 will not leave before putting up a serious fight. And if they lose that war they’ll be back in a couple of years.

In a firefight it is always advisable to look first for cover, to try to know where the bullets come from, who’s shooting at you and to determine the kind of ammo they are using and base your counter attack on that info. In this case the recce done on the spot by Blinken’s collaborators is very bad. He should take this into consideration before he acts.

US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken is expected to visit Rwanda next week.

Marc Hoogsteyns is a free-lance journalist who lived and worked most of his life in the African Great Lakes Region. He covers Countries especially DRCongo, Rwanda and Burundi. He runs Kivu Press Agency.

The views expressed in this article are of the writer.