Washington’s top diplomat will start his tour on 7 August in South Africa, where he will unveil a long-delayed new US strategy for sub-Saharan Africa that National Security Council special adviser Judd Devermont has been working on since last year. Then he is off to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda to help calm rising tensions between the two neighbours in eastern Congo, as The Africa Report first revealed on 27 July.
This is only Blinken’s third trip to Africa following his visit to Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal in November and Algeria and Morocco in March. In addition to assistant secretary of state for African affairs Molly Phee, he will be accompanied by undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment Jose Fernandez, US Trade and Development Association director Enoh Ebong and the new head of the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), former Africa CDC director John Nkengasong.
The trip comes amid a flurry of African visits by both US rivals and allies, with Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov denouncing America’s alleged desire to return to “colonial times” in a visit to Congo-Brazzaville, Egypt, Uganda, and Ethiopia.
Meanwhile French President Emmanuel Macron denounced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in a visit to Cameroon, Benin and Guinea-Bissau.
In recent days, the administration of President Joe Biden has responded by dispatching high-level officials:
- State Department counsellor Derek Chollet went to Senegal and Mauritania;
- US Agency for International Development administrator Samantha Power travelled to East Africa, which is hard hit by a food crisis that has been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine.
- US ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield will travel to Ghana and Uganda next week.
According to the State Department, the new strategy ”reinforces the US view that African countries are geostrategic players and critical partners on the most pressing issues of our day, from promoting an open and stable international system, to tackling the effects of climate change, food insecurity and global pandemics, to shaping our technological and economic futures.”
The last US-Africa strategy was unveiled by then-national security adviser John Bolton at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank. The Brookings Institution panned it for demanding that Africa “choose the United States over China and Russia for their commercial, security and political relationships”.
In South Africa, Blinken will also lead the delegation to the US-South Africa Strategic Dialogue to “reinforce and deepen our commitment to bilateral cooperation on global issues as well as a wide range of shared priorities, including health, infrastructure, trade and investment, and climate”.
Then it is on to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where the United States government is worried about escalating violence in a country that is a key source of minerals powering everything from computer chips to batteries for electric cars. Blinken is expected to support regional African efforts, notably by Kenya and Angola, to advance peace in eastern DRC and the broader Great Lakes region.
“I know that secretary Blinken hopes to contribute to these conversations, and see what the United States can do to reinforce these regional diplomatic efforts,” Phee said in a call with reporters previewing the trip. “And to see how we can help calm the situation.”
The diplomatic push includes the secretary’s first meeting with Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, whom the DRC has accused of supporting the Mouvement du 23 Mars rebels in eastern Congo. The visit will “focus on the role the government of Rwanda can play in reducing tensions and ongoing violence in eastern DRC,” according to the State Department.
“In both the DRC and Rwanda, the secretary will highlight the need for respect for territorial integrity and explore how the United States can support efforts to reduce tensions,” Phee said.
Blinken will also meet with senior DRC government officials and members of civil society to push for “free, inclusive and fair elections” scheduled for next year and promote “respect for human rights and protecting fundamental freedoms”. He will also focus on combating corruption, supporting trade and investment, addressing the climate crisis and building agricultural resilience.
Rusesabagina and Rwanda
In Rwanda, Blinken is also expected to bring up “democracy and human rights concerns, including transnational repression, limiting space for dissent and political opposition” and press for the release of humanitarian-hotelier-turned-politician Paul Rusesabagina. A permanent resident of Texas and recipient of the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom, Rusesabagina was abducted and sent to Rwanda in 2020, where he was tried and jailed for supporting terrorism.
This year, the State Department determined that Rusesabagina was being “wrongfully detained”. And congress has been increasingly vocal, with senate foreign relations committee chairman Robert Menendez announcing a hold on security assistance to Kigali in a letter to Blinken last week while the house intelligence committee today hosted Rusesabagina’s daughter, Carine Kanimba, at a hearing on the national security threats of foreign commercial spyware.
She told the committee that Kagame’s government may have spent millions of dollars to acquire the Israeli-made Pegasus spyware used to keep tabs on Rusesabagina and help organise his kidnapping in Dubai.
“All of you, members of Congress, and American taxpayers themselves deserve to know that the government of Rwanda is spending humanitarian aid to finance the kidnapping of a democracy activist from US soil and using modern technology to surveil his 29-year-old daughter working to secure his release,” she wrote in prepared written remarks to the committee.
“I think there are openings on both the house side and the senate side to push for a total reevaluation of aid to Rwanda,” Kitty Kurth, the communications adviser for the campaign to release Rusesabagina, told The Africa Report. “And, from my experience with Kagame over the past 15 years, between the bad press and them threatening to take away the money, all of the pieces may finally be falling in place to realise that it’s not good for them to hold Paul [Rusesabagina] anymore.”
Pressed on possible sanctions against Rwandan officials, Phee declined to comment ahead of the trip.
“We’ve been very clear with the government of Rwanda about our concerns about his case, his trial and his conviction, particularly the lack of fair-trial guarantees in his case,” she said. “And I am looking forward to the opportunity for the for this issue to be discussed at a senior level.”
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