US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to pressure Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, for the release of imprisoned dissident Paul Rusesabagina during his visit to the capital Kigali.
Blinken is in Kigali on the latest leg of a tour of sub-Saharan Africa that aims to regain the diplomatic initiative across a continent that has received little attention under the Trump administration.
Rusesabagina, a permanent US resident who was portrayed in the film Hotel Rwanda saving the lives of hundreds of ethnic Tutsis during the 1994 genocide, has been in jail in Rwanda since being trapped on a private plane from Dubai in 2021. He is serving a 25-year sentence for terrorism offences.
The issue is tricky for the United States, which is seeking to strengthen its relationship with Kagame amid growing regional instability and competition for influence from other powers across the continent. Rwandan officials insist that Rusesabagina was convicted in a fair trial and that any foreign interference will not be welcome.
Carine Rusesabagina, a daughter, said the 68-year-old’s family were very grateful that Blinken, who arrived in Rwanda on Wednesday evening from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is seeking a solution to the detention of their father.
“Our father was unjustly detained, tortured… He is ill, he was beaten several times. I know geopolitical factors are important, but this is a human rights issue that requires humanitarian attention separate from the political issues at stake. We are past politics now,” she said. .
“I know my father will be home before it’s too late. We understand that diplomacy can take time. We do our best to stay strong and brave as a family.
The US State Department said Blinken would raise democracy and human rights issues with Rwandan officials, including transnational repression and limited space for the opposition.
In a statement ahead of Blinken’s visit, the Rwandan government said it looked forward to a “vigorous exchange of views on governance and human rights, as has always been the case in bilateral relations between the Rwanda and the United States”. He acknowledged that the talks would include the Rusesabagina situation.
The United States determined that Rusesabagina had been “wrongfully detained”.
During an interview earlier this week in South Africa, the first leg of his tour, Blinken opened up about Rusesabagina’s case.
“Alas, in quite a number of countries around the world, there are American citizens and American residents who are unjustly detained. For me, it is a priority, wherever it is, to try to work for their return to the United States,” Blinken told Radio France Internationale.
Blinken travels to Rwanda at a particularly difficult time for Africa’s Great Lakes region, with rising instability in eastern DRC that Kinshasa blames on Kigali’s support for rebel groups.
Blinken called “credible” a new report by UN experts indicating that the Rwandan armed forces were carrying out operations in eastern DRC in support of a rebel group known as M23 which has been blamed for many many recent violence.
The Rwandan authorities in turn accuse the DRC of having given refuge to combatants of the Hutu ethnic group accused by Kigali of the Rwandan genocide. Both countries deny accusations of supporting rebel groups.
A third player is Uganda, which has long vied with Rwanda for influence in the region. Although once close to the United States, the relationship has deteriorated in recent years due to the crushing of political dissent and Western pressure to recognize LGBTQ+ rights. Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986 and recipient of huge Western aid, accused the West of interference in internal affairs.
Last month, Russia’s foreign minister visited Uganda and three other African countries to rally support for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
There are no signs that Kagame is reconsidering his pro-Western stance, but the crackdown in Rwanda is complicating relations with Washington, analysts said.
The chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a letter to Blinken last month, called for a full review of US policy toward Rwanda and expressed concern that the American support for Rwanda, widely described by human rights groups as authoritarian and repressive, was not appropriate. consistent with the values of the country.
During his tour, Blinken described Washington’s new strategy to engage with sub-Saharan African countries as “equal partners.”
In a speech in South Africa that sought to counter Russian and Chinese accusations that the United States was a “neo-imperialist power” that wanted to dictate to African countries, Blinken repeatedly stressed that Washington wanted to act in consultation with leaders and local communities, strengthening existing African initiatives.
“It’s not our demand or our insistence on democracy, it’s what people in Africa want, it’s been clear in poll after poll, they want openness, they want it on an individual basis, as communities, and choose their own path [as nations]Blinken said in Pretoria.
In December, the United States will host a summit meeting of African leaders, an Obama administration initiative that expired during Donald Trump’s tenure. Russia will host a rival summit in mid-2023.