DRC-Rwanda: US to dispatch Blinken to calm tensions

By Julian Pecquet, Romain Gras
Posted on Wednesday, 27 July 2022 18:43, updated on Wednesday, 31 August 2022 19:53

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a visit to the Office of Director of National Intelligence in McLean
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a visit to the Office of Director of National Intelligence in McLean, Virginia, July 18, 2022. Saul Loeb/Pool via REUTERS

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to visit the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda next month to try to tamp down escalating tensions between the two countries, The Africa Report has learned. On the agenda: the M23 rebellion, elections, and mining contracts.

The decision to dispatch America’s top diplomat to the region despite a rash of geopolitical crises starting with the war in Ukraine is a telling sign of the Joe Biden administration’s deep concern that the crisis in eastern Congo could spiral out of control. This will only be Blinken’s third trip to the continent, following his visit to Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal in November and to Algeria and Morocco in March.

US and Congolese sources tell The Africa Report that Blinken is expected to fly to Africa in the first half of August. The State Department and Rwandan authorities did not respond to requests for comment.

Under discussion for several weeks, the preparation of this visit to the DRC accelerated two months ago, during the visit to the United States of the Congolese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Christophe Lutundula. The latter met with his American counterpart on 1 June.

President Félix Tshisekedi has considerably strengthened ties between the DRC and the United States in his three and a half years in power. The special representative of the Congolese president, Serge Tshibangu — a key cog in the Tshisekedi system for relations with the United States and in the sub-region — is co-ordinating the organisation of this trip.

M23, Rusesabagina

If the exact programme of the visit is still subject to final adjustments, the trip takes place in a tense security and sub-regional context.

The diplomatic crisis linked to the resurgence of the M23 will be on the agenda. Kinshasa has accused Rwanda for several months of supporting the rebels who have been fighting the Congolese army since November 2021.

To support its case, the DRC has lobbied Washington to obtain a condemnation of the alleged support of Rwanda. This issue had already been put on the table during Lutundula’s last visit to the United States. A few days later, on 14 June, the US embassy in the DRC said it was “extremely concerned” about the “reported presence” of Rwandan troops on Congolese territory.

Since then, the US Congress has also hardened its tone toward Kigali. On 20 July, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey, wrote to Blinken to express his concerns “about the Rwandan government’s continuing disregard for democratic and human rights, and the need for a more effective US policy.”

Congress has been increasingly critical of Rwanda following the 2020 arrest of Paul Rusesabagina, who is a US permanent resident from Texas and recipient of the prestigious US Presidential Medal of Freedom. In May the State Department officially determined that the humanitarian hotelier turned opposition politician was being “wrongfully detained.” The determination means that the US special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, Roger Carstens, is now tracking the case.

US cash for Rwanda held back

Noting accusations that Rwanda is targeting dissidents abroad as well as allegations of support for Congolese rebels, Menendez announced that he would be putting a hold on all security assistance to Kigali, starting with several million dollars in support for Rwandan peacekeepers to avoid the perception that the US “tacitly supports” rebel attacks on civilians, Congolese troops and UN peacekeepers. The US is Rwanda’s largest bilateral donor, with $145m in proposed aid for Fiscal Year 2023.

“The United States cannot support Rwandan contributions to peacekeeping in some parts of Africa while looking the other way as Rwanda foments rebellion and violence in other parts of the continent,” Menendez wrote. “I look forward to working with you to ensure U.S. policy reflects the values of the United States and of the Biden Administration.”

Loss of momentum

Regarding the timing of the visit, US sources say it comes amid a diplomatic vacuum in the region that has Washington worried that the eastern Congo crisis could spiral out of control this summer.

Kenya and Angola are playing a mediation role between the DRC and Rwanda, but both countries have elections next month that are monopolizing most of their attention.

The US is also stretched thin on the ground. The State Department has been without a special envoy for the Great Lakes region of Africa since the Donald Trump administration and the end of J. Peter Pham’s mandate, while the last US ambassador to Rwanda departed Kigali in late January.

Meanwhile the last US ambassador to the DRC, Mike Hammer, stepped down in June to take over as special envoy for the Horn of Africa. Hammer’s proposed replacement, Lucy Tamlyn, currently the Chargé d’Affaires in Sudan, has yet to receive a confirmation hearing in the Senate.

Mines

Security will not be the only issue on Blinken’s agenda in the region. In the DRC, the American diplomat, who is fluent in French, will also come to talk about the mining sector and the Mineral Security Partnership project. Announced in June by Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment Jose W. Fernandez, this initiative aims, according to the US State Department, to channel “government and private sector investment into strategic opportunities that meet the highest environmental, social and governance standards”. Several countries have joined the project, including Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Sweden and the UK. The DRC is one of the countries involved in this initiative.

Although the Congolese mining sector is still largely dominated by the influence of China, the United States has, since the arrival in power of Tshisekedi, pushed for a redistribution of the cards in the sector. In May 2021, the Congolese president called for a review of the contracts signed under his predecessor, Joseph Kabila, and supported the idea of a major review of the mining sector. This initiative, supported by Washington, resulted in a vitriolic report by the General Inspectorate of Finance on the past 10 years of Gécamines’ management.

In parallel, the Biden and Tshisekedi administrations also experienced tensions at the beginning of the year in the mining sector because of the signing, last February, of an agreement between the Congolese government and the Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler, accused of corruption by Washington and under sanction by the US Treasury since 2017. This agreement, which still contains several grey areas, provides for the return by the tycoon of various mining and oil assets in exchange, in particular, for the abandonment of an arbitration procedure and a commitment, without guarantee of success, by Kinshasa to plead for the lifting of the sanctions to which Gertler is subject. Washington has been reluctant to see this settlement finalised, a copy of which they have regularly requested from the Congolese authorities.

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