The relationship between President Paul Kagame and Ugandan counterpart Tibuhaburwa Yoweri Museveni appears to be over unless Rwanda’s neighbour to the north does something spectacular. That’s the message one gets from the words and body language of Kagame at a television engagement with journalists and selected citizens today.
For the first time, Kagame also addressed a controversial book released in March this year titled: “Do Not Disturb; The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad” by British journalist Michela Wrong.
Comments by Kagame on relations with Uganda this Sunday are the latest clearest indication that there is no relationship left. In a highly choreographed appearance on state broadcaster RBA, at first Kagame seemed hesitant to speak about Rwanda-Uganda relations as he has been in the past.
First, the question was asked in English. In a brief response, Kagame said his government had done everything in its power to resolve the problems but that no progress had taken place because the other side had no interest, before adding, “It takes two to tangle”.
Then the TV appearance moved into other issues. The question on Uganda came back, this time in Kinyarwanda by a caller from rural Rwanda. This time, Kagame spoke at length about the problem with the explanation taking twelve minutes in Kinyarwanda.
What was noticeable as Kagame spoke in both instances when the Uganda question arose, he appeared to go cold. He spoke slowly with, at times, his hands wrapped around his chest. It was clear the subject is tough and painful, which he himself actually mentioned.
The difference in how Kagame conducts himself on subjects that are comfortable, is that he usually speaks while gesturing with his hands and smiling. That was also on display today especially when he was talking about his Premier League team, Arsenal. The Uganda issue was also marked by pauses between words and sentences, another sign the subject has weighed heavily on him.
For more than two years now, since March 2019, Kigali and Kampala are in a cold-war. President Kagame has personally and publicly accused Uganda’s Museveni of trying to organise regime change in Rwanda. Kigali also says Kampala had for years been sabotaging Rwanda’s economy by confiscating Rwandan exports going through its territory.
For his part, Museveni has ignored speaking about Rwanda altogether. At the beginning, he only said there was no fundamental problem between the two countries. He also ordered all officials not to comment on Uganda-Rwanda issue. Instead, using obscure websites, Ugandan intelligence regularly accuses the Rwandan government of spying and orchestrating regime change in Kampala.
President Kagame said today that the number of Rwandans who have been arrested in Uganda has gone up “from hundreds to thousands”.
While Kigali says those arrested are innocent women, men, the young, elderly and children, Kampala calls them spies working for the Kigali government. Many have been left at the border by Uganda security agents with severe injuries from alleged torture. The Ugandans have not denied the torture allegations.
The conflict has also affected the media in both countries. Either side has blocked news sites from the other. Even The Chronicles isn’t accessible in Uganda, except via VPN or proxy sites.
Rwanda closed it’s border and said it had “advised” Rwandans not to cross because it couldn’t guarantee their safety. Today, Rwandans can only go to Uganda via air, or travelling through a third country.
Apart from cargo transiting through, very little is imported from Uganda. More than 80% of Rwanda’s imports, probably even much higher today, come via Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
President Kagame and Museveni met at different times in Ethiopia, Angola, DR Congo, Uganda and Rwanda trying to resolve their differences. A rapprochement introduced by Angola has only yielded communiqués.
Speaking today, Kagame said relations with others neighbors specifically naming DR Congo and Tanzania, were good. On Burundi, with which Kigali has been at loggerheads since 2015, Kagame said the “difficult issues” with the Gitega-based government were improving and in the process of being solved.
“It is in the interest of both Rwanda and Burundi” to have good relations, said Kagame, and that there was commitment on both sides.
Burundi wants Rwanda to hand over alleged leaders of the May 13, 2015 failed coup which it says are being protected by Kigali. President Kagame’s government has said previously that it can only hand them to a third country.
As a response, since 2016, Burundi has imposed an export ban on Rwanda, blocking much needed Burundian fish and fruits from going north. Burundi has also created a situation whereby Rwandans never go to there.
Kagame said today that Uganda was the only neighbor with whom his country has poor relations. He added that as solution, Rwanda had settled on three policy actions: not abuse Ugandans in Rwanda, reinforce its security capabilities, and keep engaging Kampala whenever possible.
Kagame accused Uganda of engaging in sabotage by for example coming up with plans of infrastructure like roads aimed at bypassing Rwanda to Burundi. He is referring to the road which Ugandan leader Museveni wants to build linking with Burundi via Tanzania. The other project are roads linking Ugandan to eastern DRC, without going through Rwanda.
Kagame also said that Uganda continues to back armed groups and exiled political opposition.
President Kagame pointed out that Rwandans were still being arrested in Uganda. “In fact the number of those who have been arrested had gone from hundreds to thousands,” he said.
He said Uganda had caused the separation of families, with close families currently unable to visit their loved ones for fear of being arrested and abused.
Kagame said Ugandan leaders were not interested in solving the impasse. He didn’t mention the name of the Ugandan President.
“It has become a trend for [Uganda] to blame Rwanda for anything, even for things that are totally unrelated. As you have seen, when the COVID-19 situation gets worse, they blame Rwanda,” said Kagame.
As further indication of how bad Kigali-Kampala relations had become, President Kagame for the first time spoke about the Michela Wrong book which has been reviewed in nearly all the major international media. He said Wrong had been funded by a country in the region and from afar. Though he didn’t name it, various media outlets in Rwanda have in the past reported using unanimous sources that the book was funded by President Museveni’s intelligence services.
The President said his government knew about the book two years earlier before it was published. He also repeated information that has appeared in Rwandan media that assassinated ex-Rwandan spy chief Col Patrick Karegeya, the figure on whom the book is based, was actually a personal friend of Wrong. Kagame actually said she “loved” him, and had instead turned a personal loss into a much bigger issue without substantive facts.
In his wide ranging television appearance, Kagame also spoke about Rwandan troops in Mozambique which he said were fully funded by government – dispelling reports that the operations had been bankrolled by France or oil giant Total.
Kagame also addressed at length allegations that his government had procured Israeli spyware Pegasus to monitor phones of opponents and foreign leaders. “It is a big NO, in capital letters,” that government ever owned the system, he said.
Kagame said the Pegasus issue came to public prominence as part of deliberate campaign to undermine the country and his person. He noted that the revelation of alleged spying on South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s phone was aimed at stopping improving relations with SA, which Kigali accuses of providing a safe haven to Rwandan dissidents.
Kagame also spoke about the COVID-19 pandemic in the country, his Twitter comments on English football team Arsenal, African Union reforms which he spearheaded, conflict in Ethiopia and the political situation in Kenya.