Escalating border war in Africa tests Biden administration

The Biden administration is plunged into one of sub-Saharan Africa’s most complicated conflicts: Escalating violence along the Congo-Rwanda border, echoed in the wars, genocides and rapes that have plagued the region in recent decades.

On a five-day sweep through the region which ended on Friday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken held several rounds of talks with heads of state and government from both countries. He called for restraint, diplomacy and respect for national sovereignty, but made little progress.
“Each country in the region must respect the territorial integrity of the others,” Blinken said after meeting Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

“We have seen where disregard for these principles can lead to the untold consequences,” he said, “in the untold consequences” of decades of conflict that have killed, maimed and displaced millions of African civilians.

Blinken’s increased engagement is part of what the administration has described as a “new chapter” in US-Africa relations to counter growing regional influence from China and Russia, which are funding huge infrastructure projects or offering non-binding arms shipments. But the government was bitterly disappointed by the refusal of most African nations to support US-led Western efforts 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 up a ramp

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

(Andrew Harnik / pool photo)

The Biden administration is also hoping to find a better spirit of cooperation after some African leaders saw it as neglect – and even contempt – on the part of the US under former President Trump.

The initiative comes at an urgent time. More than 100 armed militias operate in eastern part of the DRC and parts of western Rwanda, with military forces from each country reportedly involved in cross-border attacks.

Most alarming among the groups is the M23 militia, a notoriously abusive rebel faction fighting Congolese troops in eastern Congo, according to US officials. Named after a March 23, 2009, Under the treaty, the militia was largely inactive after the military defeat by Congo in 2013, but has resurfaced over the past year with widespread summary executions of civilians, including youth, human rights organizations say.

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

The United Nations also warned that the group’s firepower threatened to overwhelm peacekeeping forces stationed in the area protecting civilians.

Behind the violence are failing democratic practices and unresolved grievances for all parties: combatants who agreed to demobilization years ago but remain unhappy, and civilians who still seek justice. And an illegal and super-lucrative mining industry steeped in corruption has also fostered instability and strife.

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

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

Despite peace-oriented efforts to resolve the conflict, both Rwanda and Congo appear determined to blame the other for inciting violence — with little room for compromise.

In addition to “credible” reports that Rwanda is supporting the M23 against and within Congo, US and UN officials said, there is similar evidence that the Congolese military is supporting anti-Rwanda militias that Rwanda is linked to the genocide from 1994.

Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta highlighted the activities of these groups when asked if his government would agree to demands from the US and other international states to end support for the M23. His comments appeared to be an attempt to justify support for M23.

“Whatever the government of Rwanda could do in the DRC or in our region would be to protect our people and protect the territorial integrity of our country and its sovereignty,” Biruta said at a joint news conference with Blinken. “It’s not about supporting M23. If we want a lasting solution to the problems in eastern DRC in our region, all we have to do is deal with the root causes of the problem…that is the genocide they are spreading in our region.”

Despite the complexity of the conflict and potential US reluctance 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 African-led mediation effort in support of the Biden government, despite Nairobi and Luanda mired in their own civil unrest. Kenya even once raised the idea of ​​sending an armed African peacekeeping force to eastern Congo.

“That’s front and center,” Blinken said.

The “big focus,” he added, “is to ensure that the United States does everything in its power to support the very important African-led mediation efforts, particularly processes led by Kenya and Angola, to… To bring peace, security and stability to eastern Congo… Not only are we following this very closely and closely, we are committed to it.”

Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi and Rwanda’s Kagame also reached an agreement, according to US Asst. for the first time direct negotiations between their two governments. Secretary of State for Africa Molly Phee, who accompanied Blinken on his trip.

Still, US involvement will be limited and more behind-the-scenes than in other conflicts.

Numerous senior US officials alongside Blinken, including US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield and US Agency for International Development director Samantha Power, have criss-crossed the continent in recent weeks, but the diplomatic envoy post dedicated to the Great Lakes Region, which includes the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda, remains vacant.

Meanwhile, pressure is mounting in Congress. Sen. Robert Menendez (DN.J.), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, asked Blinken to reconsider the State Department’s approach to the conflict in eastern Congo. In a letter to the minister last month, Menendez accused Rwanda of increasing violence through its alleged support of the M23 group and threatened to use Congressional power to halt US aid to the Rwandan military.

“I am concerned that any US support for the Rwandan military while it is stationed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and is supporting rebels responsible for attacks on civilians, Congolese troops and UN peacekeepers is a worrying one sends out a signal that the US tacitly condones these actions,” Menendez wrote.

Menendez also attacked Rwanda’s human rights record and treatment of dissidents. Blinken has said he brings up all of these issues with the Kagame government. The US provided about $150 million in aid to Rwanda last year, including military training.

In the Congolese capital of Kinshasa, Blinken met with a group of activists from the country’s bloody east to hear their demands and ideas.

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

Another member of the group, Fred Bauma, a prominent civil rights and peace activist, said afterwards that he appreciated the “US willingness to do something” but added “that’s not enough”.

He called for stronger US measures to condemn and stop Rwanda’s support for the M23 and other armed groups, such as economic sanctions or arms embargoes, while calling for concrete steps to protect and bring justice to civilian victims, particularly victims of sexual violence.

https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2022-08-16/border-war-in-africa-tests-biden-administration Escalating border war in Africa tests Biden administration

Alley Einstein

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