February 19, 2019

What is the Root-Cause of Rwanda-Uganda Recurrent Tensions?

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In his interview with The East African newspaper last week, President Paul Kagame addressed a number of issues ─ ranging from his achievements at the African Union, his agenda as the new chairperson of the East African Community to relations with S. Africa and Burundi, to the never-ending tensions with Uganda.

Asked whether historical ties with Uganda shouldn’t be solidifying relations, Kagame said: “Yes, there is a good foundation from which we should be building a very good relationship…Therefore, it is very intriguing to find that even with that history and a good foundation, we have something like this [conflict] going on”.

He added: “All I can say is that it’s a matter that can be resolved. That must be resolved. Because the alternative is not something that we should even be thinking about, or entertaining, that we can stand in the way of our progress or the progress of all East Africans

Indeed, Rwanda and Uganda have deep historical links going back decades with citizens on either side of the border sharing family ties, friendships; comradeship and business ventures that should be consolidating, not undermining ties.

And as many analysts have argued, it’s in the national interest of both nations to cooperate since, economically, the relationship is profitable and politically advantageous to the fortunes of the ruling party in each country – with doing otherwise leading to an unknown dark place.

So, to think of “the alternative” other than peaceful resolution to the conflict would not only be to engineer probable self-destruction on a scale probably never seen but would also be ruinous to East Africa integration.

If cultivating good relations is in the basic interests of both, what’s the cause of the recurrent tensions that has, at different times─like in Kisangani in August 1999 and May 2000. cost them dearly?

As most conflicts tend to be, the tension between these, at times best of comrades that give each other medals and at other times enemies, has immediate as well as root-causes.

The immediate spark has been accusations and counter-accusations that each is involved in activities that undermine the other’s stability. 

First, for some time now, Rwanda has been publicly accusing Uganda of arresting its citizens; holding them incommunicado and deporting some besides harboring elements that are investing in destabilizing or overthrowing the government.

In his interview with The East African, Kagame did acknowledge, without mentioning names that indeed, the bad blood with Uganda is fuelled by Rwandan dissidents in S. Africa who give certain information to them in order to drive a wedge between them for their own advantage.

He stated: “Some of the things that are said [and] believed by Uganda about us are coming from these individuals living in South Africa…these individuals in South Africa [are] plotting all kinds of things against us are the ones giving information to Uganda in a way to solicit support from Uganda against us…the information is designed to create that problem from which they benefit if Uganda believes in some of these things”

The “individuals” Kagame didn’t name include Kayumba Nyamwasa who is the head of the outside-based Rwanda National Congress and, according to a December 2018 UN Group of Expert Report is also the leader of “P5”─a new rebel group based in the DRC allegedly with an active international network recruiting combatants.

From media reports, Rwanda’s other problem include suspected economic sabotage ─ for example refusing to grant national carrier Rwandair landing rights to drop and carry passengers via Entebbe airport to London, delaying the standard gauge railway southwards to Gatuna and preferring to go north to South Sudan, etc.  

On Uganda’s part, there are two storylines to the conflict: while President Yoweri Museveni has stated that there is “no fundamental problem” between the two countries, some of his officials have accused Rwanda of having designs to destabilize it. 

After a meeting with Kagame in Entebbe on March 25, 2018, Museveni told journalists that “There is no fundamental problem between Uganda and Rwanda. We don’t even have a border problem like with Kenya on issues related to Migingo Island, with Rwanda there is nothing really”.

However, some Ugandan officials have accused Rwanda of abducting some Rwandan refugees in the country, killing some and deploying spies to destabilize state order in Uganda.

On June 21, 2018, Uganda’s Minister of Refuges, Relief and Disaster Preparedness Hilary Onek accused the Ugandan police of “secretly” helping 11 suspected Rwandan spies disguising as refugees to escape justice.

Onek told journalists: “We are very upset about the decision by the police to send them (suspected spies) to Rwanda without our approval. So, we missed out on prosecuting them”

In June 2018, eight Ugandan officer were arrested and are currently facing military court martial prosecution in what military prosecutors called “abducting and repatriating Rwandan asylum seekers from Uganda without authorization”

In fact, media reports that even former Inspector General of Police, Gen Kale Kayihuru was removed from his post and arraigned before court martial for allegedly working with Rwanda.

Recently, Maj-Gen Don Nabasa, the commander of the Special Forces Command that protects Museveni claimed that “External forces are looking and they don’t want us to develop. We have the oil here, beauty of the country, stability, development and above all a precious leader. They think maybe if they get the precious leader out there will be disorganization”

Without clarifying who these “external forces” are, he added: “They won’t come physically, but if they come here, it will be the best because we are very ready for them. Unfortunately, they will not come. They will send money and people, like the ones of late being deported, to mobilize the youth because they have the manpower here and the youth are very easy to convince”.

Observers linked the “deported” to mean some high ranking MTN officials, including a Rwandan and others.

Of course, Rwanda has denied all these allegations and as Andrew Mwenda, a self-confessed “unpaid advisor” to Presidents Kagame and Museveni reported in his lengthy article titled: Kayihura, Kagame, Museveni on September 2018, while Rwanda has formally complained, Uganda hasn’t.

So, why does Museveni deny the existence of any “fundamental problem” yet his government continue to arrest Rwandans while his officials accuse Rwanda of harboring sinister motives?

Writing on relations between the two countries in the aforementioned article, Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda concluded that: “…if our relationships with Kigali has to collapse, this must be based on something fundamental ─ actions of the Rwandan state that threaten our national security or economic wellbeing. In my encounters with Ugandan officials, I have not heard any strong reason for this”

If Uganda doesn’t have any “strong reason” to believe Rwanda is undermining its security and Museveni says there is “no fundamental problem” and Kagame says there is a conflict that “Must be resolved”, why do the tensions persist?

In his interview with the East African last week Kagame identified “ego”─perhaps of his Ugandan counterpart as the culprit.

And you can trust that Kagame isn’t a pusher over either in situations where egos MUST tangle!

On his part, the Ugandan opposition politician, Norbert Mao thinks the problem is who should be the “sheriff” in the Great Lakes region!

In article in the Daily Monitor he writes: “Perhaps due to his patronage of the RPF luminaries, Museveni had assumed that Kagame and Rwanda would play second fiddle. He was wrong. Kisangani became a defining moment. It was a curtain raiser for fierce rivalry”.

In that sense then, the recurrent conflict is really a clash of personalities and the struggle for supremacy in the region; a conflict about who is superior and inferior in a relationship that was forged in the battles of Luwero Triangle in early 1980s.

To understand the root of the problem then isn’t only to comprehend the comradeship forged in combat when Museveni and Kagame spent five years fighting President Milton Obote to liberate Uganda, but also the 1990-94 RPA war in which Museveni repaid his debt but failed to realize that after helping them to regain state power, men once under him in Luwero had become of age and were now sovereign, leading a sovereign nation!

That failure led to the separate wars in Kisangani in 1999 and 2000 and as the Daily Monitor of August 8, 2017 reminded us, after the clashes in Kisangani in 1999 and 2000, “…only the battle, not the war was over”.

That said, the endless standoff also speaks to the enduring culture of war in the two countries – where every disagreement has to be resolved by bullets or the threat thereof!

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