Escalating border war in Africa tests a Biden administration already weighed down by global crises

KIGALI, Rwanda — 

The Biden administration is wading into one of the most complicated conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa: escalating violence along the border between Congo and Rwanda that has echoed in the wars, genocide and rapes that stalked the region in recent decades.

On a five-day swing through the region that ended Friday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken held several rounds of talks with leaders from both countries. He urged restraint, diplomacy and respect for national sovereignty, but came away with little progress to report.
“Every country in the region must respect the territorial integrity of the others,” Blinken said after meeting with Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

“We’ve seen where the failure to respect these principles can lead in the immeasurable consequences” of decades of conflict that killed, maimed and displaced millions of African civilians, he said.

Blinken’s stepped-up engagement is part of what the administration has billed as a “new chapter” in U.S. relations with Africa, designed to counter the growing regional influence of China and Russia, who are financing huge infrastructure projects or offering no-strings-attached weapons deliveries. But the administration was bitterly disappointed at the refusal of most African nations to support the U.S.-led Western effort to punish Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and a group of men, all in dark suits and ties, walk on a ramp

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken visits the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda, on Aug. 11.

(Andrew Harnik / Pool Photo)

The Biden administration also hopes to find a better spirit of cooperation after what some African leaders felt was neglect — and even contempt — from the U.S. under former President Trump.

The initiative comes at an urgent time. More than 100 armed militias are operating in an eastern swath of the Democratic Republic of Congo and in parts of western Rwanda, with military forces from each country reportedly involved in cross-border attacks.

Most alarming of the groups, according to U.S. officials, is the M23 militia, a notoriously abusive rebel faction fighting Congolese troops in eastern Congo. Named for a March 23, 2009, treaty, the militia had been largely inactive after military defeat by Congo in 2013, but reemerged last year with widespread summary execution of civilians, including youths, human rights organizations say.

The United Nations recently concluded that Rwanda is clandestinely supporting M23, which Rwandan officials privately and pointedly do not deny. Like government leaders in Rwanda, most of the M23 rebels are ethnic Tutsis, who comprised the largest number of victims in the 1994 Rwanda genocide, when Hutu extremists slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

The U.N. also warned that the firepower of the group threatened to overwhelm peacekeepers deployed in the region to protect civilians.

Behind the violence are failing democratic practices and unresolved grievances for all parties: fighters who conditionally agreed to demobilize years ago but remain dissatisfied and civilians still looking for justice. And an illicit and super-lucrative mining industry steeped in corruption has also promoted instability and strife.

As a result, the M23 rebels are committing “the same kind of horrific abuses against civilians that we’ve documented in the past,” Thomas Fessy, senior researcher on Congo for Human Rights Watch, said in a report.

“The government’s failure to hold M23 commanders accountable for war crimes committed years ago is enabling them and their new recruits to commit abuses today,” he said.

Despite peace-seeking efforts to ease the conflict, both Rwanda and Congo seem resolute in blaming the other for fomenting violence — with little ground for compromise.

In addition to “credible” reports that Rwanda is supporting the M23 against Congo and inside Congo, U.S. and U.N. officials said, there is similar evidence that the Congolese military is backing anti-Rwanda militias that Rwanda links back to the 1994 genocide.

Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta pointed to the activity of those groups when asked if his government would agree to U.S. and other international demands that it halt support for the M23. His remarks appeared to be an attempt to justify the support for M23.

“Whatever the government of Rwanda could do in the DRC, or in our region, would be about protecting our people and protecting the territorial integrity of our country and its sovereignty,” Biruta said at a joint news conference with Blinken. “It is not about supporting M23. If we want a lasting solution for the problems in eastern DRC, in our region, we just need to deal with the root causes of the problem … which is the genocide they acknowledge being spread in our region.”

Despite the complexities of the conflict and what may be reluctance by the U.S. to take on another global challenge, Blinken said officials in Washington and African capitals must act. Aware of how quickly bloodshed can spread, Kenya and Angola launched an Africa-led mediation effort that the Biden administration is supporting, even though Nairobi and Luanda are enmeshed in their own domestic turmoil. Kenya at one point even floated the idea of deploying an armed African peacekeeping force to eastern Congo.

“This is front and center,” Blinken said.

The “big focus,” he added, “is to make sure the United States is doing everything it can to support the very important African-led mediation efforts, particularly processes that are being led by Kenya and Angola, to bring peace, security and stability to the eastern Congo…. We are not only following this very closely and carefully, we’re engaged on it.”

Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi and Kagame of Rwanda also agreed to direct negotiations between their two governments for the first time, according to the U.S. Asst. Secretary of State for Africa Molly Phee, who accompanied Blinken on his trip.

Still, U.S. engagement will be limited and more behind-the-scenes than in other conflicts.

Numerous senior U.S. officials in addition to Blinken, including the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Samantha Power, have been crisscrossing the continent in recent weeks, but the diplomatic envoy post dedicated to the Great Lakes region, which includes the DRC and Rwanda, remains vacant.

Meanwhile, pressure is growing in Congress. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, petitioned Blinken to reconsider the State Department’s approach to the eastern Congo conflict. In a letter to the secretary last month, Menendez blamed Rwanda for increasing the violence through its alleged support of the M23 group, and threatened to use congressional power to cut off U.S. aid to the Rwandan military.

“I am concerned that any U.S. support for the Rwandan military while it is deployed to DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) and is backing rebels responsible for attacking civilians, Congolese troops, and U.N. peacekeepers sends a troubling signal that the U.S. tacitly approves of such actions,” Menendez wrote.

Menendez also attacked Rwanda’s human rights record and treatment of dissidents. Blinken has said he was raising all such issues with the Kagame government. The U.S. allocated about $150 million in aid to Rwanda last year, including military training.

In the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, Blinken met with a group of activists from the bloodied eastern part of the country to hear their demands and ideas.

One of the group, Julienne Lusenge, who works with rape survivors, said they told Blinken about orphans left by massacres, sexual violence as a weapon of war and the hundreds of thousands of people forced to flee from their homes.

Another member of the group, Fred Bauma, a prominent civil rights and peace activist, said afterward that he appreciated a U.S. “willingness to do something” but added, “it is not enough.”

He called for more forceful U.S. actions condemning and stopping Rwandan support for M23 and other armed groups, such as economic sanctions or arms embargoes, while urging concrete steps to protect and find justice for civilian victims, especially the victims of sexual violence.