It is July 13, 1998, the late DR Congo President Laurent Desire Kabila fires James Kabarebe as his army chief of staff. The Rwandan commander had led the military operations that brought Kabila to power after chasing away longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
Two weeks later, Kabila ordered “all Rwandan troops” out of the country. This sudden change of heart by Kabila against an army that essentially had done his fighting, would lay the ground for a new conflict; Rwanda against Uganda fighting on Congolese territory.
A now controversial new book “Do Not Disturb – The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad” by British journalist Michela Wrong, gives some rare insight into the build up to the Rwanda-Uganda fighting in the city of Kisangani, key river city. Since then, Kigali and Kampala have been in a virtual state of war.
Wrong was in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. She would go on to maintain contact with key Rwandan officials who were part of the RPF rebel force that stopped the genocide, and eventually exiled. Her book, uses the story of the death of Col Patrick Karegeya, once Rwanda’s head of external intelligence, in South Africa, to paint current President of Rwanda Paul Kagame with all sorts of descriptions.
The 576-page book covered plenty of subjects; the Rwanda-Uganda battles in Kisangani being one of them. It was a major episode because Uganda actually wrote to the UK government at the time, which was and remains major donor for both, branding Rwanda as “enemy state” in confidential letter which leaked.
While removing Mobutu, Kigali and Kampala were allies in a regional alliance going as far as Eritrea and Ethiopia. The devil however, appeared in the detail, as the two countries approached the war differently.
The stack differences became clearer and more visible after they turned their guns on each other. They backed different rebel groups, and formed new ones.
In August 1999, Associated Press reporter Hranjski Hrvoje was in a taxi driving away from Kisangani’s Bangoka Airport, where the Ugandans controlled one side of the runway and the Rwandans the other, when the mounting tensions between Ugandan brigadier James Kazini and Rwandan commander Patrick Nyamvumba finally exploded. “Suddenly all the artillery opened up,” Hranjski told Wrong for her book. “The ground literally shook beneath our feet, so much was being fired off. It was incredible.” That night he crouched indoors as stray bullets bounced off the corrugated iron roof of his lodging. “If you closed your eyes it sounded like raindrops.”
Gen Kazini would go on to become Uganda’s army chief, and so did Gen Nyamvumba as Rwanda military chief. Kazini would later be murdered. Nyamvumba is unemployed in Rwanda.
The book clearly shows how the Rwandan army out-wit the Ugandan army on all fronts and ways. It got so bad for the Ugandans that the two top commanders found themselves in the hands of the Rwandans, with many dead. Wrong writes that the two men were only allowed to make “humiliating escape” after a temporary ceasefire was worked out.
Those men in question were Uganda’s head of military intelligence Noble Mayombo and Gen Kahinda Otafiire, who found themselves pinned down by Rwandan fire in a Kisangani textile factory. Today, Mayombo is deceased, while Otafiire is Uganda’s minister for East African Community Affairs.
Perhaps telling about the whole Ugandan army, from the book, is the suggestion that each of the individual soldiers viewed the war as opportunity to enrich themselves. The difference in rationale for presence of each side was “was night and day”.
One of the many sources on the issue told Wrong: “With Ugandans, it was all catch-as-catch-can, there was a happy-go-lucky element. They could give a damn if it filled Uganda’s coffers; they were in it for themselves.”
With Rwanda, things were different; individual enrichment was never the point. Whatever minerals or other natural resources that was available to the Rwandan army, was instead transported to Rwanda to benefit the country as whole. Though the book deliberately attempts to give impression that Rwanda was there for the natural resources, Kigali has over the years vehemently denied ever illegally exploiting Congo’s minerals.
Another stack contrast between the Ugandans and Rwandans was how they behaved on the battle front. One of Wrong’s sources, a Red Cross (ICRC) representative, Alexandre Liebeskind summed it up: “On one side you had a group of officers who had won a war from an incredibly weak position, against the odds, sitting sipping milk. On the other you had an army whose commanders broke open the whisky at 10 a.m., mourning its losses.”
Once the guns had gone quiet, writes Wrong, the ICRC official Liebeskind went to meet Lieutenant General Karenzi Karake, known as “KK,” who had assumed command of the Rwandan troops from Nyamvumba. He found the General, “carton of milk in hand—matter-of-factly contemplating his triumph with his colleagues”.