Once staunch brothers-in-arms, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame seem to have fallen out with each other. What is the reason behind the current chilly atmosphere? Jermiah Kagwa digs into the background to find an answer.
Rwanda, Uganda fight a cold war
They shared the common dream of becoming presidents of their countries. They pursued that dream from the barrel of the gun to its desired end. First, it was Yoweri Museveni who stormed to power in Uganda in 1986 after a five-year bush war which Rwandan refugees living in his country helped him fight.
The war in Uganda’s central region’s ‘Luweero Triangle’ is remembrance for several people. The guerilla forces relied heavily on the Rwandan refugees, shaped by the years of suffering and statelessness into tough fighters. They were subsequently absorbed en masse into the Uganda national army, the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF), where they gained the experience for the imminent armed struggle to return to Rwanda.
It is not surprising that when Museveni came to power in 1986, the bulk of the UPDF’s senior army officers were Rwandans. They included deputy army commander Maj.-Gen. Fred Rwigyema, Paul Kagame, who headed military intelligence, Maj. Dr Peter Baingana, who headed the army’s directorate of medical services, Col. Chris Bunyenyezi, who was a field commander, and Maj. Frank Munyaneza, a mobile brigade commander. There were thousands more Rwandans recruited into the lower ranks of the UPDF.
Paul Kagame and his fellow refugees in the UPDF pursued their dream of capturing power in Kigali when they invaded Rwanda in October 1990. The disagreement between the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) rebel top commanders over strategy overshadowed the power struggle, which led to the assassination of rebel commander Maj.-Gen. Rwigyema on the first day of the invasion. He was killed by a sniper and his body secretly buried on the Uganda-Rwanda border.
Maj.-Gen. Rwigyema had wanted a guerilla war, similar to that launched by Museveni in Uganda in 1981. Commanders who opposed Rwigyema underestimated the Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana’s strength and preferred outright confrontation, a strategy that cost them their lives. All senior officers including Baingana, Bunyenyezi, Munyaneza perished in an ambush in the first month of the invasion. The rebel force, without commanders, had to retreat to Uganda.
At the time, Major Paul Kagame was on a course in the US, where he had been sent by the UPDF. It is understood that he supported Rwigyema’s guerilla strategy. Indeed, after the demise of all the other senior RPF officers, Kagame had to abandon his course and return to re-organise the guerilla army, which eventually toppled President Habyarimana’s regime in Kigali in 1994.
An estimated 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred following the death of Habyarimana in a plane crash, while returning from peace talks in neighbouring Tanzania. It was believed then, as some allege today, that the missile which hit the plane was shot by Kagame’s rebel forces. The orgy of the massacre targeting ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus galvanised international support for Kagame’s rebel forces, with Uganda committing its troops – albeit clandestinely – to help Kagame take power.
It is a harsh irony that after realising their dreams, Museveni and Kagame, the two erstwhile bedfellows, have since drifted apart. Their relationship has been characterised by the trading of accusations and counter- accusations.
The allegations made by one country against the other range from economic sabotage to interference in political and security matters. At one time, the armies of the two countries fought a proxy war in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.
The fighting broke out after the two armies invaded DRC’s eastern region, where different rebel factions opposed to Rwanda and Uganda were based.
Both countries had justification in sending troops to the eastern part of the DRC. While Rwanda was pursuing rebels comprising remnants of Habyarimana’s Hutu Interahamwe militia, Uganda was hunting for the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an Islamist extremist group that was vowing to overthrow the government of Uganda and replace it with an Islamic regime governed by sharia law.
Rwanda and Uganda backed different factions of the Congolese Rally for Democracy, a rebel force fighting to oust Laurent Kabila. Both countries fought for control of DRC’s third largest city, Kisangani, as a base for military operations. The bigger picture, though, is that Kisangani had the necessary facilities, such as an airport, through which mineral wealth, such as gold, coltan and diamonds looted by both armies could be airlifted out of the country.
Almost a decade after the conflict in DRC, the acrimony between Kampala and Kigali has not ended. Although the two countries have full diplomatic ties, the accusations against each other often come to light outside diplomatic channels.
In late 2017, the media in Rwanda was awash with accusations that Uganda was backing renegade forces opposed to the Kagame regime. When a local daily, The Red Pepper, a maverick Kampala newspaper, published what was clearly stale news, its journalists and managers were locked up in Nalufenya police station in the eastern industrial town of Jinja, where high-profile persons are often detained.
The Red Pepper reporters and managers were subsequently paraded before the courts of law to face treason charges for publishing the story concerned, which the then minister for foreign affairs, Henry Oryem Okello, claimed threatened “the good relations between the two countries”.
The trial of the journalists was suddenly halted when President Museveni hosted the accused at a luncheon held in his country home in Rwakitura, in the west, where he announced his decision to forgive them. Insider sources in the Office of the President had it that the President’s intervention was meant to avoid a possible embarrassment to the government if the journalists were to lay facts of the story before the courts during the trial.
For many Ugandans, Rwandans are part and parcel of the Ugandan community. For Rwandese, on the other hand, Uganda is home. Like their parents, many Rwandans, both at home and in Uganda, were born in Uganda.
“There is nothing like poor relations between Ugandans and Rwandans. The problem is between Museveni and Kagame’s egos,” says a veteran journalist who preferred to remain anonymous.
While Museveni sees himself as the political bull in the region, Kagame wants Museveni to acknowledge that he is President of an independent sovereign state. He also wants Museveni to show gratitude to the Rwandans who died to bring him to power and to stop insinuating that without his help, Rwanda would not be what is today.
Jealous of One’s success
Lately though, Rwanda’s success has been seen as a well-organised, corruption-free nation has made Museveni jealous, says a political scholar at Rwanda’s Butare University. .
There is no doubt that the two countries’ rivalry has taken on a global dimension. The West has for long considered Museveni a dependable and strong ally in the fight against terrorism and Islamic extremism in this region of Africa. Uganda has the strongest army in the region. The US, Britain and Western Europe have over past decades looked the other way from Museveni’s autocracy, which has seen him clamp down on the opposition to stay in power.
They have also looked on as he manipulated the country’s constitution to stay in power for life. “The US has a history of supporting dictators who serve its interests. It did so with DRC’s Mobutu Sese Seko in the former Zaire, today’s DRC, and is doing so today with Egypt’s Al-Sisi,” says a Makerere University political science lecturer, who preferred anonymity.
Museveni has sent the largest contingent of peace-keeping troops to Somalia, a country where US troops were humiliated. Museveni is also considered vital in bringing peace to South Sudan and Burundi, where he is leading the peace efforts. He has also sent troops to the Central African Republic, where he appears to have flushed out renegade forces of Joseph Kony with the assistance of US Special Forces. Museveni has also been involved in bringing peace to Darfur in Sudan.
The rising profile of Kagame in the region, observers say, is worrying Museveni. “Kagame is emerging as a strong leader in the region and being younger than Museveni, he is seen by the West as a possible replacement for Museveni.”
The current tense relations between the two countries are likely to continue as long the two leaders stay in power. However, members of the East African Community say, their bilateral disagreements will be overshadowed by the regional protocols. And with the planned East African political federation, differences between Uganda and Rwanda or between other member states, namely Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi and South Sudan, will be of little or no significance.