Uganda-Rwanda ties: A tale of tensions far from over

Left to right: Presidents Paul Kagame of Rwanda, João Lourenço of Angola and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda at Katuna border on Friday.

What you need to know:

  • Tensions. While meeting in Kigali last week, the ad hoc commission formed in Angola last year to de-escalate tension between Uganda and Rwanda recommended that Rwanda reopens its border. However, Rwanda’s insistence during the Friday summit that its preconditions be met first before normalisation of activities shows that the tensions are far from over, writes Timothy Kalyegira.
  • The Valentine’s Day preconditions by the Kigali government to Kampala have the sweet scent of roses but as is well known, the stems of roses have thorns.
    All this – mediation by Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the appearance of an olive branch reopening of the border, the Rwandan preconditions for peace – has the air of the calm before a deadly storm.

On Friday, February 21, the heads of state of Uganda and Rwanda as well as the heads of state of Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) met at the main border crossing of Katuna (Gatuna in Rwanda) for the 4th quadripartite heads of state summit.

The summit came almost a year after Rwanda closed the border point with Uganda and more or less barred Rwandan citizens from traveling to Uganda.

Much was expected of this symbolic summit, with many hoping for the re-opening of the border as a sign that at last the tensions between the Rwanda and Uganda had been resolved.

Those with a slightly longer view of things might not be too sure of that. To the contrary, this might be a precursor to a new and potentially more serious phase of the bilateral tensions.

The way power is constructed in NRM Uganda and RPF Rwanda is at the heart of why the re-opening of the border will not herald a new, warm bilateral relationship.

Most commentators over the last year have noted that the issue between Rwanda and Uganda is not between the two governments collectively or their populations, but rather something personal between President Yoweri Museveni and President Paul Kagame.

The average observer might wonder why personal tensions between the two heads of state should cause a breakdown in relations between the two countries.
Those who know the way power is constructed in Kampala and Kigali would hardly be surprised.

There might be a semblance of state institutions such as parliament, a judiciary and the police, but final, executive power rests entirely with the person of the president in both countries.

The president of Rwanda is not simply the head of state. He is a towering presence in the country, the final decision maker in every critical matter, the decisive force in almost everything.

It was not by coincidence that in the early 2000s, Rwanda sponsored the East and Central Africa football championships and the trophy came to be called the Kagame Cup.

President Kagame is an ardent football fan and so the trophy was sponsored in his name by his country. When Rwanda entered into a marketing arrangement with the English Premier League team Arsenal, apart from Arsenal being one of the world’s best-known sporting teams, it also happens to be a favourite of President Kagame.
In Uganda too, effective and symbolic power is now vested in the person and not the office of President Museveni.

From boda boda riders to musicians, Members of Parliament to the civil service, from sports to fundraising for church building works, foreign investors to disputes over land, everybody in Uganda now looks to the president to intervene, direct and advise.

To take another superficial but revealing example, in Europe or the United States, the public figures with the largest social media following tend to be sports, film or music stars.

In both Rwanda and Uganda, the head of state has the single largest following on the social media platform Twitter.

That the president has the largest number of Twitter followers reflects his status in Uganda and Rwanda as the be-all-and-end-all in power, social status, decision-making and name recognition.
So if the tensions between the two countries arise out of something very personal between them, then those tensions will not go away until one or both presidents has left office.

Just as the 20-year tension between Eritrea and Ethiopia was said to involve in many ways a personal tension between the two heads of government and former guerrilla leaders Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, so it is with Uganda and Rwanda.
Only after the death in 2012 of Meles Zenawi did the ground start to be laid for a change in mood between the two countries and the restoration of diplomatic relations in 2018.

That Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo are the main public mediators in the Uganda-Rwanda tension itself indicates how intractable the problem is.
Ordinarily, countries such as Tanzania and Kenya should have been at the forefront of the mediation efforts.

The problem is that while President Museveni has a special respect for and attachment to Tanzania, at best relations between Tanzania and Rwanda are mildly tense.
Kenya initially attempted to mediate between Rwanda and Uganda but the situation proved too complicated for President Uhuru Kenyatta to understand and therefore help resolve.

To understand the Uganda-Rwanda tension requires mediators from countries with a history of guerrilla warfare, military coups and large-scale displacement of populations, something that is well beyond the experience of a country like Kenya.
Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo are more suited than Kenya or Tanzania but that has its own complications.

Rwanda and Uganda twice invaded the DR Congo in 1996 and 1998, both times seeking to cause a change of regime in Kinshasa, they succeeded in 1996, and only failed in 1998 when Angola as well as Namibia and Zimbabwe deployed troops on behalf of the Congolese government.

It is unlikely that Uganda and Rwanda (or in this instance, their heads of state) view Congo as a serious mediator given their feeling of military superiority over Kinshasa.

Angola, with its military that is superior to both Rwanda and Uganda, is more likely to be taken seriously by Kampala and Kigali since it can back up its words with effective military force.

However, with a new president in Angola, this is not the same situation as when Angola was headed by the veteran independence activist José Eduardo dos Santos.

Kigali and Kampala might be inclined to view the new Angolan regime the way they view Kinshasa’s government and the only reason they have trice agreed to take part in Angolan- and Congolese-mediated talks and processes was for international public relations.

Finally, there is a recent ominous development.
In a bilateral meeting in Kigali on February 14, as part of the Luanda protocol and also attended by Angolan officials, the Rwandan government listed a number of preconditions for relations between the two countries to improve.

Among these, Rwanda demanded that Uganda sack several high-ranking political and security officials and Uganda disband the Rwandan opposition group, the Rwanda National Congress (RNC).

By the time the heads of state met at the border on Friday, none of the Ugandan officials had been dismissed and Uganda had not disbanded the RNC.
This goes to show just how high tensions will remain even after the border is re-opened, and there is every chance that the border will in the near future be closed again by Rwanda, citing the fact that none of its preconditions have been met by Uganda.

Those who know Ugandan history from the mid-1980s, of which the current heads of state of Rwanda and Uganda were key players, would know why this is an ominous development.

After the Ugandan government of Milton Obote was overthrown in July 1985, the following month the Kenyan government led by President Daniel arap Moi undertook the act as a mediator between the new military junta in Kampala led by Gen Tito Okello and the main armed rebel group, the NRA, led by Yoweri Museveni.

The NRA, whose military position was dramatically and unexpectedly strengthened by the July coup, started presenting preconditions to the Okello government for its participation in any peace talks.

The first was the sacking of Paulo Muwanga, the new Executive Prime Minister and immediate former Vice President in the 1980-1985 UPC government.

Okello’s government dropped Muwanga, only for the NRA to continue drawing up other preconditions, preconditions the NRA knew the Okello junta could not meet.
All these preconditions, it turned out, were simply a buying of time by the NRA and a pretext to seize more Ugandan towns and in late January 1986, to march onto Kampala and seize state power.

The recent preconditions by Kigali are of a kind that would at the very least humiliate the Museveni government if it gave in to them, such as sacking senior Ugandan security officials.

The fact that Kampala did not respond to Kigali’s preconditions to sack the Ugandan security officials, shows Kampala knows this is a condition it cannot meet and Kigali probably knows that.

Certainly, it would be next to impossible for the Uganda government to disband the RNC, a political and military group that has its own grievances with Kigali and whose leaders are scattered across parts of Africa and in Western Europe and North America.
The crucial question, then, is over the motive for that list of preconditions that Kigali very well knows the Museveni government will not meet.

The Valentine’s Day preconditions by the Kigali government to Kampala have the sweet scent of roses but as is well known, the stems of roses have thorns.
All this – mediation by Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the appearance of an olive branch reopening of the border, the Rwandan preconditions for peace – has the air of the calm before a deadly storm.

Luanda agreement

The Luanda agreement calls for the resumption of cross-border activities, including the movement of persons and goods, which is expected to be the main focus of today’s discussions.

The agreement also calls on the two countries to refrain from spying, financing and training of rival armed groups, respect each other’s sovereignty and stop arresting nationals living in either country.

About Rwanda demands

lThe verification of operations and fundraising activities of Rwanda National Congress (RNC) leadership in Uganda through Self-Worth Initiative, a non-government organisation.

lThe verification of Ms Charlotte Mukankuusi’s travel history to Uganda, especially during January 2020 and the withdrawal of her Ugandan passport No. A000199979.
lVerification of the presence of RUD-Urunana terrorism suspects who were involved in the October 2019 Kinigi attacks.