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To be a force for good in Congo, the U.S must come clean about the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda

The Americans, like the French before them, are involved in blackmail to achieve geostrategic interests
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This week, on April 3, President Joseph Biden announced that a U.S delegation will attend the 30th Commemoration of the Genocide against the Tutsi. As the delegation descends on Kigali, it is worth reflecting on the U.S legacy on genocide in our region, especially as a civil war wreaks havoc in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). As was the case in Rwanda in 1994, the U.S government is deliberately choosing to dismiss warnings – including that of the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide Alice Wairimu Nderitu – about a genocidal threat hanging over the Congolese Tutsi community. Washington’s willful blindness to this genocidal threat and its diplomatic support for Kinshasa attest to its failure to depart from the very policies that enabled a foreseeable genocide in Rwanda 30 years ago.

Mimicking France, supporting Habyarimana’s ideological heir

Those who are familiar with politics in the Great Lakes region and its historical conflicts won’t fail to notice the similarities between the US’s attitude in the DRC and the attitude of France in Rwanda in the 1990s on the one hand, and the Habyarimana regime and the Tshisekedi regime on the other. Like France, the U.S is providing diplomatic support to a government whose discriminatory policies and promotion of hate speech mirror what happened in Rwanda in the 1990s. Indeed, just like the Habyarimana regime, the Tshisekedi government:

  1. has refused to repatriate hundreds of thousands of its citizens who have been languishing in refugee camps in neighboring countries for more than two decades,
  2. refuses to recognize the rebels who say they are fighting for their rights as citizens of the country,
  3. labels Tutsi citizens inside the country as foreign infiltrators and de facto supporters of the insurgents, thereby inciting persecution, murder and ethnic cleansing against real or perceived members of this group.
  4. has integrated militias in the state’s repression machinery and rallied them against an enemy defined along ethnic lines.

 

As if these similarities were not glaring enough, the DRC government has integrated into the Congolese army the infamous FDLR genocidal outfit – which was formed by perpetrators of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Kinshasa has also adopted the FDLR’s genocide ideology and the talking points of unrepentant genocide fugitives and their supporters who continue to deny or justify the genocide and engage in revisionism. Echoing the words of an FDLR commander who was interviewed by the Guardian’s Chris McGreal in 2008, the common objective of this alliance is to “kill Tutsi wherever they are”.

Clearly, Kinshasa has created the conditions for (the recurrence of) genocide in the Great Lakes region, but Washington, like Paris 30 years ago, is unshaken.

Rather than heed the warning of the UN special advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, the U.S government has instead chosen to bury alive the victims of this genocidal project and to antagonize one of their very few potential allies in the region: first, by condemning the M23 rebels’ military campaign without providing for any alternative protection for the victims of the DRC government’s murderous coalition; and, second, by calling on Rwanda to withdraw troops from the DRC territory without regard to why they would be there, if indeed they are. Unsurprisingly, Washington’s declarations have emboldened extremists and warmongers in Congo. They feel vindicated and justified in their past and present criminal actions, be it the daily abuses and killings targeting Congolese Tutsi, the repeated incursions into Rwanda and shelling of Rwandan territory by the FARDC and FDLR, or Kinshasa’s publicly-aired threats to overthrow the government of Rwanda. Essentially, they agree with Washington’s seeming view that their actions and threats should have no repercussions and should remain unpunished.

It is therefore no wonder that the U.S’s behavior has raised eyebrows in the region, particularly in Rwanda.

A continuation of U.S decades-long misguided and inhumane policies

For three decades, Rwandans have been contemplating the U.S audacity which allows it to claim moral authority over those faced with an existential threat when it has never given explanations for its conduct before, during, and after the genocide in 1994. Washington chose to ignore the CIA warnings over an impending genocide, refused to call the killings genocide, played a decisive role at the UN as the decision was made to withdraw peacekeepers, and provided sanctuary to killers in the U.S, among other shocking decisions.

Today, Rwandans also wonder if the U.S continues to consider the hate rhetoric and calls to kill in Congo as part of protected speech like it did when the Clinton administration refused to jam the RTLM radio in 1994 in the midst of genocide. The RTLM was then an integral part of the genocidal campaign, telling people who to kill and how, as the then commander of the UNAMIR General Romeo Dallaire explained in his pleas to Western governments to intervene. Instead of acting on Dallaire’s pleas, the US not only invoked concerns about freedom of speech but also argued that jamming RTLM airwaves would be financially too costly. Now as then, Washington’s petty, pecuniary preoccupations, as the U.S moves to secure mineral deals in Congo and catch up with China’s green transition, leave simply no room for humanitarian considerations and the principles of the responsibility to protect. By all indications, if publicly denouncing Kinshasa’s conduct means that the U.S might jeopardize these deals, then the victims be damned!

One could be cynical and consider that the U.S owes nothing to these victims, but in that case, Washington should have at least the humility to not lay claim to the moral high ground as it pretends to contribute to peace efforts when in fact U.S officials have done everything to torpedo the Luanda and Nairobi processes. They have done this by issuing unwarranted statements, aimed at preempting, influencing, or invalidating decisions, before or after each important African meeting that was meant to de-escalate tensions and end the conflict. Their statements, which called for the complete withdrawal of the M23 rebels from territories they occupy and the dismantling of Rwanda’s defensive mechanisms, have encouraged Kinshasa to harden its position, either by setting unrealistic preconditions for peace talks which are contrary to the decisions of African heads of state or by terminating the mandate of EAC forces which had successfully imposed a ceasefire, thereby providing a needed reprieve for traumatised civilian populations.

The latest instance of persistent efforts by the U.S to undermine African-led attempts at mediation came against the backdrop of meetings at the ministerial level between Rwanda’s and Congo’s delegations in Luanda (Angola). The meeting determined that Congo will provide a plan for the neutralization of the FDLR, following the implementation of which, Rwanda will then review its defense mechanisms. Surprisingly, the U.S, through its representatives at the U.N, went out of its way to impose its illogical, upside-down view of what order these agreed-upon de-escalating steps must follow. Going by the U.S’s intervention at the UN Security Council, Rwanda’s review of its defensive posture must precede the elaboration of the DRC’s neutralization plans for dismantling the FDLR, which the Tshisekedi government promised to provide. In other words, the U.S’s lobbying activities at the UN and its public statements are once again inciting Kinshasa to renege on commitments it made before African mediators.

The U.S’s behavior appears totally illogical considering that its silence (if it had the humility not to interfere) would achieve the same results in Congo as far as its economic interests are concerned. After all, it is not as if the DRC government has any leverage to force Washington to provide cover for a genocidal project. So, if U.S. officials provide diplomatic support for a government attempting to execute genocide, it is because they choose to do so. To understand their behavior, one has to analyse it in connection with the U.S’s overall foreign policy in the Great Lakes region since the period of independence and how it has informed its relationship with Rwanda ever since.

Subcontracting Belgium and France and embracing racist Hamitic theories

For much of the post-independence period, the U.S has acted as the invisible hand moving chess pieces on its African geostrategic board. The traditional approach was to let former colonial powers (Britain, France, Belgium, etc.) take the lead in managing former colonies so long as America’s interests were preserved.

In the Great Lakes region for instance, the U.S could provide direct support if needed, as was the case in the assassination of Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in January 1961. Circumstantial evidence suggests that Belgium had already started the job of thwarting nationalist independence movements in its former colonies when Rwanda’s King Rudahigwa died in suspicious circumstances in July 1959 after a meeting with Belgian colonial authorities who were based in Burundi’s capital Bujumbura. Credible evidence of Belgium’s hand in the assassination of Burundi’s independence hero, Prince Louis Rwagasore in October 1961, is also starting to emerge.

At any rate, so long as Belgium’s choke hold on its former colonies prevented these countries from siding with the communist bloc in the context of the cold war, the U.S was content with letting Belgium call the shots in pursuit of its own interests. But something more sinister was taking place in Rwanda and Burundi.

A hate ideology promoted by Belgian colonial agents and resting on the Hamitic teachings of colonial missionaries was pitting Hutu against Tutsi in both countries. From that point until today, Belgium’s re-engineering of Rwanda’s and Burundi’s politics along these virtual ethnic identities – which were used to manipulate the post-independeance elites – would inform Washington’s foreign policy in both countries and the Great Lakes region at large. This misguided approach to Rwanda’s and Burundi’s histories and politics was evident in 1972, following a failed incursion of Hutu rebels. The rebels slaughtered thousands of Tutsi, mainly in the south of the country, thereby providing a pretext for the government to carry out a planned, massive genocidal campaign targeting Hutu populations. Even then, in a U.S State Department memo to President Nixon, Henry Kissinger argued that “Reconciliation between Hutu and Tutsi seems impossible, and it’s hard to imagine a stable situation before the majority Hutu prevail, as they have in neighboring Rwanda.”

Kissinger was wrong, of course. Rwanda was not stable at the time; it was an apartheid racist state conducting Tutsi pogroms on a regular basis under various pretexts. It had produced hundreds of thousands of Tutsi refugees who would go on to launch an armed struggle for their right to exist as citizens in their own country in October 1990. Yet, the U.S’s impulse to impose a Hutu majority rule in Burundi and Rwanda remained intact; it was visible through Washington’s interference in Burundi’s peace negotiations in the late 1990s. This approach led to the institution of ethnic quotas in the 2000 Arusha Accords and brought to power the CNDD-FDD. Contrary to Kissinger’s belief, however, Burundi did not go on to become a stable country. As the 2015 crisis proved, it is still bedeviled by ethnic tensions and economic hardships.

This approach was also France’s alibi in its self-righteous belief before and during the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, that it was defending an “inherent” right of the Hutu to rule, while in fact it was enabling the proponents of a racist ideology to plan, organize and execute genocide.

Despite all these lessons of history, the U.S policy in the Great Lakes region continues to be influenced by tribal politics. Currently, Washington is supporting a Congolese government that is replicating the very policies that led to genocide in Rwanda. The U.S also supports Hutu Power figures, such as Paul Rusesabagina, who have made it their life mission to reinstitute ethnic politics under the guise of promoting genuine democracy in Rwanda. The U.S also remains the leading voice in promoting genocide denial; it is indeed the only country in the world that refuses to adopt the legal terminology of what happened in 1994 in Rwanda: the genocide against the Tutsi. If history is any indicator, Washington is not driven by benevolence.

Attempts to turn Rwanda into a U.S puppet

In a recent interview, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame reflected on the possible reasons why the FDLR issue remains unaddressed despite the fact that the international community, especially the U.S, has spent billions of dollars on a UN peacekeeping mission which was ostensibly set up to address this issue among others. Kagame hinted at the possibility that the FDLR was perceived by some as a tool for ultimately bringing Rwanda under their control. Available facts tend to validate this thesis.

There is no denying that the FDLR’s creation was facilitated by France at a time when its main objective was to reclaim its lost sphere of influence in Rwanda. The RPF’s determination to exclude France’s allies, Hutu Power figures, from Rwanda’s post-genocide political system was an obstacle to France’s ambition. To overcome the RPF’s resistance, France organised the supply of arms and ammunitions to the defeated genocidal forces that had retreated to former Zaire. For years, the two countries remained on a collision course as French politicians waged a military and judicial war against Rwanda’s new leaders. Eventually, they lost. That, throughout its presence in Congo, a UN peacekeeping mission funded mainly by Western countries consistently refused to combat the FDLR while never failing to show eagerness to fight only the M23, a group that is portrayed as exclusively Tutsi, should not come as a surprise.

Meanwhile, while the U.S seemed uninterested in the confrontation between France and Rwanda, it failed short of condemning France’s obsessive and criminal pursuits. After all, whatever France did, there was no immediate threat of Rwanda becoming a member of a nonexistent bloc run by a peer competitor to the U.S. The Soviet Union had collapsed.

Today, things are different. In an emerging multipolar world, where the collective West worries about its waning influence, the U.S is engaged in what Professor John Mearsheimer describes as a “security competition” against China and Russia. In that zero-sum game, “you are either with us or against us,” is the prevailing logic amongst the elites of the warring parties. The most coveted prizes in that security competition for those who will prevail, are raw materials (including Congolese minerals) and African militaries. This is where Rwanda comes in.

Rwanda’s refusal to take sides in that security competition comes at a price: the hostility of the U.S government. At a time when Western armies are being shown the door in the Sahel region, and possibly required to deploy on other fronts in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, private security companies and African armies are expected to protect the interests of Western powers on the continent. For Western governments, both private security companies and African militaries offer the advantage of plausible deniability of involvement whenever things go wrong. Some ECOWAS members (Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria) have already shown their eagerness to meet this expectation in Niger, where France has just lost its privileged access to uranium deposits.

Rwanda is different. While its decision to partner with Mozambique to restore state authority in Cabo Delgado may be viewed by some as primarily driven by the need to secure French Total investments, its decision in 2020 to thwart a French-sponsored rebellion in the Central African Republic on the other hand demonstrated that Rwanda was an African country that puts African interests and intra-African collaboration first. Wise partners would appreciate and respect that attitude, but not the U.S which demands total subservience. To secure control over much-coveted resources and Rwanda’s highly professional army, the U.S is prepared to go to great lengths, including rehabilitating France’s creation: the FDLR.

U.S’s cognitive dissonance

In a recent discussion, an American University professor shared enlightening insights on the frenemic Rwanda-US relationship. He explained that while most officials at the U.S Department of Defense (DoD) admired the Rwandan army’s professionalism and wanted the U.S to strengthen ties with the country, those running the U.S State Department on the other hand were mostly liberal democracy crusaders who cannot tolerate Rwanda’s determination to chart its own political path and define democracy on its own terms. These two competing views within the U.S administration explain why Washington’s bipolar behavior towards Rwanda is confusing for most observers.

Suffice it to say that while both the DoD and the State Department seek the collaboration of Rwanda’s army for various good or bad reasons, the means to achieve that objective differ. The realists want a partnership that takes into account both countries’ interests and the liberal crusaders intend to remove from power what they view as an unruly commander-in-chief and replace him with a subservient leader ready to compromise their country’s interests and prioritize those of the US.

The U.S strategy follows the footprints of France’s strategy from 1990 to 2022. It has several components to it.

One is delegitimizing Rwanda’s leadership in the court of public opinion. This is no easy task since Rwanda’s current trajectory, even on development indices alone, vindicates the leadership’s political choices. It requires rewriting Rwanda’s history by engaging in genocide denial, revisionism, justification, turning RPF heroes into villains, and supporting Hutu Power figures such as Paul Rusesabagina. It also requires turning Congolese victims of genocide ideology into perpetrators by vilifying the M23 and its alleged backers as well as ascribing to Rwanda the very greed for minerals that informs the U.S response to Congo’s crisis.

The other is to attack the army’s integrity and cohesion by threatening to review Rwanda’s participation in U.N peacekeeping missions. The objective of this empty threat is obvious: turning the army against the leadership. One may wonder why a strategy that failed in Burundi in the heat of the 2015 crisis and with a polarized army is given any consideration in the case of Rwanda. (Western powers threatened to remove Burundi from peacekeeping operations, Nkurunziza called their bluff, and they backed off ). But anyway, when did our friends in Western capitals value lessons of history?

The third component of the US’s strategy is to rehabilitate the FDLR as a rebel force with legitimate grievances. Suddenly, the US has developed a sort of amnesia about this genocidal outfit founded by genocide fugitives. Despite being a U.S- sanctioned terrorist group since 2001 and after the 1999 Bwindi attack which claimed the lives of nine tourists, including two Americans, U.S official communications no longer refer to it as such. On this note, it is quite astonishing that Rwanda’s collaboration efforts which led to the transfer of three individuals involved in the attack to the U.S were never reciprocated. The U.S simply refused to share information on the trial and whereabouts of these individuals. At any rate, the FDLR has become useful given that Rwandans are not fleeing their supposedly dictatorial regime to join the ranks of those the U.S considers “opposition” leaders. The U.S, like any government that is interested in destabilizing Rwanda, is left with no choice but to try and rely on remnants of the genocidal government that was defeated in 1994.

As noted before, the Americans, like the French before them, are involved in blackmail to achieve geostrategic interests. Perhaps Africans were too hopeful to expect the very governments that refused to acknowledge that the tragic events of 1994 in Rwanda constituted genocide would suddenly take a principled stance on the threat posed by genocide ideology in Congo and genocide denial with regard to Rwanda. More often than not, threats that our countries face are leveraged to advance Western geopolitical and economic interests, even if they are as serious as the resurgence of the Hutu Power Movement targeting a country where Hutu extremism led to a cataclysm only 30 years ago.

In their political games, shaking hands with genocidaires is not off limits.

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