As scheduled, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda delivered his “State of the Nation Address” to parliament last Thursday, June 6. The address is a yearly constitutional requirement.
As a student of relations between nations─particularly relations between East African Community (EAC) member states, I watched the exhaustingly three-hour address on live television hoping to learn where the deteriorating relations between Uganda and Rwanda might be headed next.
To my surprise, Kaguta’s son didn’t say a word on the matter! Nor did he say much on the internal security situation in his country─marked by sustained police crackdown on the ‘defiant’ opposition and unexplained murders of civilians in urban centers.
Under the headline: “Museveni skips Rwanda question, urban crime”, the Daily Monitor newspaper reported on June 7 that the president “…avoided the Rwandan question which has led to increasing tension between the two neighbouring countries…”
Unlike in past addresses where Museveni would give security the lion’s share of his speech, this time, his address was almost 95% about the economy.
This anomaly in the Museveni speech caught many, including opposition politicians by surprise. As The Independent Magazine reported on June 7, MP Betty Aol Ochan, who is also Leader of the Opposition in Parliament said she “needed to hear about the progress made on the dialogue between Uganda and Rwanda” and “…omitting the issue…made the address inadequate”.
On her part, Kasese female MP Winnifred Kiiza is cited as saying: “the president did not talk confidently about the country’s security and tactfully avoided mentioning the conflict between Uganda and Rwanda that are bothering Ugandans”.
Normally, it’s during the state of the nation address─where it exists─that citizens and the world at large get to hear not only how the economy is doing but the health of the whole body-politic of the nation; with emphasis on the state of security and order.
Intriguingly, while Museveni mentioned by name some of the individuals who died since his such address last year, he didn’t name or mention the Ugandan who died as a result of “security incidents” on the common border with Rwanda that left the police and foreign ministries of both countries trading accusations and counter accusations last month.
Yet, in the same address, and crediting his pan-African credentials, Museveni told his audience that he had been tasked, “under the chairmanship of President Kagame” to oversee the process of establishing the East African Community Political Federation.
To Museveni, the political federation is the natural next step for the EAC and even AU. To his credit, he has been, rhetorically, consistent with this message for years.
And East Africans like myself have, for years, been praying to the gods to intercede on our behalf to realize this dream of a United East Africa under a single Political Union and leadership.
In practice however, Museveni’s actions don’t match his words. And some accuse him of doing certain things that not only directly undermine even the common market that has thus far been established─at least on paper, but also the very political federation he craves.
And that’s the paradox of Museveni’s love for an East-African Political federation! While his words pray for a political federation, some of his deeds derail it.
There are a number of actions or inactions to illustrate where Museveni’s Pan-East-African rhetoric is in direct conflict with his deeds.
The first is how he handled and still handles the Burundi political crisis as the mediator.
When the Burundi crisis broke out in 2015 over President Pierre Nkurunziza’s quest to prolong his stay in power, a lot of people, including Burundi’s political protagonists had trust in the EAC to solve the crisis and many observers noted then that the community’s leaders could “easily” solve the standoff if they so wished.
This optimism was based on what the Community had already achieved in economic integration but also the role of its leaders─including President Museveni in mediating the Burundi conflict through the Arusha Peace process that brought its 10-year conflict to an end in 2005; a process that brought Nkurunziza to power.
As the elder statesman who had contributed to the Arusha Peace process, Museveni was chosen to mediate and was well received by all parties to the conflict.
Instead of being proactively working to find consensus, Museveni, after selecting former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa to “facilitate” talks, sat back and did little to get protagonists to talk peace.
As Mkapa later noted after talks stalled, regional leaders didn’t give him the support he needed to cause conflict parties to agree. These leaders, of course, include Museveni.
It’s now largely believed that in the Burundi conflict, Museveni decided to side with Nkurunziza’s point of view─that his third term was legitimate and, in the long term, hope the opposition will give up.
Some have since argued that Museveni lacked the moral authority to mediate where disagreements over the third term is concerned─since he is the architecture of “third term politics in East Africa”.
Others have posited that Museveni’s calculation is based on a belief that if a Hutu is in power in Burundi, there can’t be illegitimate rule while some regional players believe that the Burundi conflict was deliberately kept alive as a check on Rwanda’s ascendance as a regional power.
Whatever the cause however, many observers agree that the Burundi conflict is postponed violence to explode in future─especially that its root-cause weren’t resolved and the country still has significant numbers of political refugees.
If Museveni’s interest in an East African political federation was stronger than his interest in being the geopolitical kingmaker, he would have, proactively done everything in his power to ensure that Burundi protagonists settled for peace, and the odds were high at the time since Nkurunziza was weak.
There is no way a political federation can be secured when some member states are still internally violently divided.
Secondly, Museveni’s silence on his conflict with Rwanda neither takes away the problem nor mitigates it or advances his interest in a political federation. Instead, it raises uncertainty and increases speculation. This isn’t how the political federation is advanced.
It’s proper to remind here that while President Paul Kagame has publicly stated that he not only provided Museveni with evidence of the three “outstanding issues” against his country but also “begged” him to resolve the problem.
These ‘Outstanding issues” are: aiding Rwandan dissidents and rebel groups; abuse of Rwandans in Uganda and economic sabotage.
That Museveni’s response to such direct accusation has been to either say “there is no fundamental problem” or that he met some individuals fighting Rwanda by “accident” isn’t to contribute to furthering a political federation.
My point here isn’t that President Museveni is the sole causer of all EAC problems nor that he, alone, can resolve them. My point is that, if he sued for their resolution in a more proactive and public manner, they would be resolved.
The larger point is that a political federation Museveni claims to be pursuing isn’t possible where leaders are still aiding violence or playing Machiavellian political games against each other.
For the EAC to succeed─both as a market and a future political entity, it must be based not only on equality and solidarity of all participating nations and peoples but also on unity─not division or on the probability of war.
Specifically though, why is Museveni silent on the conflict with Rwanda and why has he gone silent on Burundi conflict when he is the mediator?
Some of Museveni’s supporters claim that he is silent because he genuinely doesn’t take the conflict serious as he doesn’t support Rwandan dissidents. Others claim he takes himself as the regional statesman who takes time to act and therefore will speak in good time.
Analytically though, it’s probable that Museveni has acted the way he has towards both Rwanda and Burundi because he treats regional problems and players the same way he treats his political opponents and problems at home.
In other words, we could say that Museveni’s strategy on how he deals with his political opponents at home is the same strategy he uses to handle regional problems and opponents or perceived enemies.
From my reading, that strategy, where silence is part of the game, is made up of four tactics. First, I would say that Museveni has a high sense of self-righteousness and tends to take a long view on issues and that enables him to deal with his enemies in bits-and-pieces in the hope of bringing them to their knees in the long term.
Secondly, this long view, in local politics includes buying off opponents and dividing the opposition.
Thirdly, those he can’t buy, he seeks to impoverish. And finally, those he fails to impoverish or buy─like Col. Kizza Besigye, he deploys goons to harass, beat and keep in endlessly court battles on trumped up charges.
So even in the Rwanda-Uganda conflict as well as in the Burundi crisis, Museveni is playing the long game in the hope that, eventually, his way will prevail and those who disagree with him will capitulate.
The problem is, in Rwanda’s case, Museveni hasn’t stated what he wants, except deny supporting the country’s enemies─that his counterpart accuse him of.
The actual words Rwandan officials use is that Museveni is funding elements bent on “destabilizing” the country. But to what end? In reality, if true, its purpose would be regime change. You can trust that Kigali will fight back with everything it has.
And that’s EAC’s conundrum today!
In that sense, while Museveni might genuinely be interested in an EAC political federation, he doesn’t know how to get it; for he can’t achieve it while supporting or perceived to aid armed violence against neighbours.