Letters exchanged by Rwanda President Paul Kagame and his counterpart Yoweri Museveni that might point to how the tension between them possibly escalated have emerged.
Most importantly, the contents of the letters shed light on what might have led to the escalation and how complicated resolving these tensions might be.
It is also important that details of these letters are emerging at a time when, analysts understands, there are intense regional diplomatic efforts towards resolution.
In the latest, Uganda and Rwanda are said to have armies on standby following the high watermark of Rwanda’s closure of its border with Uganda at Gatuna in late February.
Rwanda has denied it closed the border and traffic to and fro continues. But most of it is transit traffic through not originating from Uganda. The Foreign Minister of Uganda, Sam Kutesa, has said Rwanda has imposed a trade embargo and ordered a raft of high cost and non-tariff barriers. Faced with this situation, regional leaders are scrambling a response. The most open has been a visit by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta to both Kigali and Kampala on March 11 to meet with Kagame and Museveni respectively.
The border incident is clearly a high stakes move by Kagame. It is not clear, however, if the incident was pre-planned or forced on him.
Part of the confusion is about the timing – when President Kagame has just assumed the chair of the East African Community.
If the border incident was preplanned, it means Kagame must have a strategy on how to use it to his advantage.
If the incident was a result of knee-jerk reaction to a situation, then it sends a missed signal about Kagame who has been the model advocate of free movement of goods and services.
Under him, Rwanda has consistently scored highly on the Ease of Doing Business index of the World Bank. In 2014 he led moves that abolished visa and work permit requirements in Kigali for East Africans.
And last year, on March 21, President Kagame also hosted the signing of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which was signed on by 44 of Africa’s 55 states and requires members to remove tariffs from 90% of goods, and allow free movement of commodities, goods, and services across the continent.
With all this weighing on his shoulders, just what could have led to the recent decisions and statements by Kigali? The letters Kagame exchanged with Museveni offer some clues.
President Kagame was the first to write to President Museveni late last year. His letter arrived in October and President Museveni replied a month later.
In his letter, President Kagame raised six points of concern for the Rwandan government. His first concern was that Rwanda had requested Uganda to grant Rwandan Airways rights to pick passengers from Entebbe to several destinations, including London. While the Civil Aviation Authority pledged to respond to it, they did not. Yet Uganda and Rwanda had a bilateral agreement on the same matter.
The other concern was that Ugandan migration officers were harassing Ugandan Rwandans trying to go through migration. Apparently, the migration officers were in the habit of confiscating passports of Ugandan Rwandans claiming that they had obtained the same illegally and were Rwandans purporting to be Ugandans. He also raised the issue of alleged arrest of Rwandans in Uganda and their torture by CMI.
Another concern was that Uganda continued to host people sponsoring terrorism activities against Rwanda. In particular, President Kagame pointed out businessman Tribert Rujugiro.
Kagame said Rujugiro was financing the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), which he said was allied to FDLR, an outfit responsible for terrorism in Rwanda.
Also, Kagame wrote, there were people who had been recruited in Uganda to join anti-Rwandan activities in DR Congo. They were arrested on their way from Uganda to Tanzania, where they intended to cross to Burundi and then into DR Congo. They found that the person who was trying to smuggle them was from Uganda’s Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI). Ugandan police arrested them and they were taken to court and charged with terrorism but later released.
He also noted that there was a son of the former Justice Patrick Tabaro, and another man called Ruvuma, who are involved in activities of helping people linked to Kayumba Nyamwasa’s RNC recruit from Uganda. He also raised an issue that there was another man called Rwigyema and another called Mukombozi who are also key points people for Kayumba Nyamwasa’s people in recruiting rebels to go to DR Congo.
More than anything, accusations that Kampala is supporting elements seeking to cause regime change in Kigali and vice versa have been at the centre of the tensions between the two countries.
In his reply, Museveni responded issue by issue. On the issue of Rwanda Airways, Museveni said that Kagame should have raised this issue with him. He reminded him that he had earlier on told him that he should have raised this with him.
Museveni added that when Kagame raised this concern at a meeting in Addis Ababa, he promised to get back to him after consulting with the officials at the Uganda Civil Aviation authority (CAA). Museveni explained that when he talked to the CAA people, they said that since Uganda was in the process of starting its own airline granting Rwanda these rights would disadvantage Uganda.
The better option for us, Museveni noted, is discussing how we can cooperate with Rwanda Air or merging Rwanda Air and Uganda Airlines or since East Africa is very small, we should start East African Airways.
On electricity, Museveni said there was no attempt to sabotage Rwanda. The problem, he said, was stemming from compensation issues. To further make his point, he said many projects have been delayed or stalled by these compensation issues. These were now being resolved and the line would be extended to Rwanda.
On the issue of Ugandan Rwandans, Museveni said that as a Pan Africanist, he did not think that Rwandan Ugandans should be disturbed. If Ugandan immigration officers were doing it, Museveni added, that is a wrong thing. However, he asked, if the people harassed are Ugandan and not Rwandan citizens, why was Kagame bothered? This, he said, was a sovereign matter of Uganda.
On Rujugiro, Museveni said he did not know Rujugiro when Kagame told him about him. However, Museveni added that he later remembered that Rujugiro had come to Rwakitura and talked to him at the time RPF was involved in the struggle to capture power.
First of all, Museveni added, he had told Kagame that it was not good to mix politics with business. If he disagreed with a person politically, he should not attack his businesses. But if he is involved in financing terrorism, give us the evidence and we reconsider our position, Museveni wrote.
However, Museveni added that he had personally invited Rujugiro and told him about the situation. Museveni explained that when he told him, first, Rujugiro denied being involved in financing terrorism. Rujugiro also denied being in contact with either Kayumba or Theogene Rudasingwa of RNC.
However, Museveni added that Rujugiro admitted that his only friend was David Himbara; a former presidential principal private secretary turned critic of Kagame. Rujugiro said he would never abandon his friend simply because Kagame disapproves.
On the issue of Burundi, Museveni said that while at their meeting in Addis, he had offered to help mediate issues between Rwanda and Burundi but Kagame had refused. He said he was proposing again that Kagame accepts his request and he mediates the issues between Rwanda and Burundi.
On the issue of Rwandans who are arrested in Uganda, Museveni said these would be produced in court. He said that these were spying for Rwanda. He said that Rwandan intelligence was trying to infiltrate Uganda without coordinating with Ugandan intelligence.
He said that if Rwanda felt any security threat, they should be willing to coordinate with Uganda and Uganda helps if there are elements trying to fight Rwanda. But for the Rwandan government to send elements to conduct private intelligence missions in Uganda was a big problem, Museveni wrote.
Museveni wrote this in September. Kagame had not replied by the time tensions started escalating.
The climax of this escalation appeared on Feb.28 when Ugandan customs officials raised concerns that Rwanda had closed the Katuna border.
Rwandan Foreign Affairs Minister, Richard Sezibera called a presser and insisted that Rwanda had not closed the border. Instead, he said, the border was under renovation. But Ugandan authorities insisted Rwanda had closed the border, halting trade between the two countries.
Uhuru Kenyatta intervenes
This escalation, insiders say, is what forced President Uhuru Kenyatta to embark on what many see as diplomatic efforts to normalcy between the two countries or at least prevent them from going to war.
The East African Community secretariat appears paralysed and unable to arbitrate; partly because its chairman; Kagame, is a disputant. The EAC Secretary General Libérat Mfumukeko has not taken any initiative partly because, some say, his home country, Tanzania, might fear to antagonise Rwanda and Uganda for business reasons.
But, insiders say, while in Rwanda Uhuru told his counterpart that even if Rwanda has troubled dealings with Kampala, closing the border was an extreme measure.
Earlier, Kagame had been on a two-day visit to Tanzania to meet President John Magufuli. Apparently, Magufuli relayed the same message.
Following Kenyatta’s visit, the central question is whether this or any diplomatic effort can resolve the border incident. The main act now appears to be Kagame acting tough versus Museveni acting indifferent.
Museveni is consistently acting indifferent, some insiders claim. But days before Uhuru’s mediation effort, Museveni in what some saw as a veiled salvo at Kigali told business people in Mbalala Mukono where he was commissioning factories that Uganda is stable and anyone attempting to destabilise would be shown its capacity.
“It is big,” Museveni said, “once we mobilise, you cannot survive if you are a trouble-maker.”
Kagame responded almost immediately.
“When I hear somebody say ‘no one can destabilise our country’, I agree. No one should actually be destabilising that country, but that country should also not be destabilising others. I think it is fair deal, isn’t?”
President Paul Kagame has responded with shuttle diplomacy. He has traveled to Tanzania and met Magufuli. Insider sources also understands that when President Kagame left Tanzania Magufuli talked to President Museveni and the issue of the border came up. What they spoke about remains tightly guarded.
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