Kampala. At the time of writing this story on Wednesday there were unconfirmed reports of military operations by Uganda and Rwanda along the poorly-governed border areas of eastern DR of Congo.
The breakdown of relations that manifested in the border closure at the end of February, this year, is a war that had been going on by other means less public. Today’s battles themselves are a continuation of a well-established rift between the current leaders of Uganda and Rwanda.
The current wave has so far famously claimed the career of longest-serving and highest-ranked police officer in Uganda’s history, Gen Kale Kayihura, and the lives of other Rwandan dissidents farther afield – going by what has been reported. The Kale affair was just one of those events where, working with the same set of facts, Uganda and Rwanda managed to arrive at different conclusions.
It typifies a pattern of misreading of each other’s intentions. On the face of it, a close security relationship between the two allowed Rwanda to conduct renditions of citizens it considered a threat to its national security. However, the latitude it enjoyed in conducting these operations while embedded within the Uganda Police Force (and with official sanction) simultaneously, meant it had penetrated deep into Kampala’s security establishment.
The relationship flourished for a while, but other internal security issues in Uganda, which have little to do with Rwanda’s core goal, worked to undo this relationship. They included embarrassingly high levels of violent crime that shamed the police establishment and was politically dangerous to President Museveni as well as Uganda’s own fragile transitional politics that made Gen Kayihura’s status as a centre piece of security decision-making untenable. Moreover, the arrest and illegal repatriations of wanted Rwandan citizens themselves played badly for Uganda’s own post-2016 foreign policy goals. As the country recovered from a disastrous military campaign alongside the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), it had few allies abroad to speak of.
The war in Sudan had, however, caused a massive refugee problem. This, coupled with Uganda’s progressive refugee policy, had brought new, potentially influential allies to Uganda such as United Nations Secretary General Antonio Gueterres. These new diplomatic assets were threatened by Rwanda’s rendition programme.
It must also be understood that at this point, Uganda had few other diplomatic assets to leverage in a fast-changing region in which western allies were increasingly looking inward. The Ugandan military’s campaign against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), together with the involvement of the United States Special Forces, had ended and there was pressure on the UPDF in Somalia, a centrepiece of the Uganda- West relationship.
In Mogadishu, troop drawdowns were being pushed by the European Union, which was picking the bills, while the US had adopted a less personal approach - going it alone against al-Shabaab with increased drone strikes. In some cases, it shared intelligence to aid the African Union Peacekeeping Mission in Somalia (Amisom) to which Uganda was the first, and remains to-date the largest troop contributor.
As a purely Ugandan question, the timing of the subsequent reorganisation of the police, the wider military intelligence sector was perfectly understandable even if it were targeted at helping re-balance the foreign policy position and take control of spiraling violent crimes.
But this calculus seen from the Rwandan angle was an act of war in the context of the high stakes of its own national security. As we understand it now, it implied, from their point of view, that the door was being shut to Kigali’s legitimate interests and matters deteriorated from there because Uganda rejected a zero-sum interpretation of its own freedom to reorganise its affairs.
Now every day, stories of the difficult adjustment by civilians, businesses, and families with ties across the border continue to trickle in.
Rwanda and Uganda have been here many times. The failure of a foreign policy solution, of separate but equal, to take effect at such difficult times, at least as far as I can see, is complicated by bitter personal histories, blood spilled in multiple wars and a negative culture of competition where cooperation would be the most meaningful path.
In some ways, the separation reminds one of the 38th parallel; the demarcation that has long represented this kind of rigid division between people who have a common background and even ancestry, speak similar languages and share customs, but have to live apart because of the contemporary political choices of their leaders.
The division of the Korean Peninsula was the result of major global conflict. In the case of Uganda and Rwanda – friction between comrades turned violent in the late 90s inside the then Zaire, now renamed DRC, in the now infamous Kisangani clashes.
It is this arena of Africa’s so-called “World War” in the DRC that is the setting of a deep inquiry into the recurrent violence between the two sides done by the academic and NRM intellectual, Mr Stephen Twebaze Hippo, for his master’s thesis in 2011.
Mr Twebaze’s unpublished monograph offers thorough historical evidence and some decent access some insights into the bloodlust that haunts the Uganda-Rwanda relations. I don’t agree with some of the theoretical framing of his analysis, but his conclusions are solid. Essentially, Mr Twebaze concludes that the Ugandan leadership has long held a different view about state building hewn from the National Resistance Movement (NRM)’s experience in the bush war.
Elements of this include a protracted “peoples war” and upon victory, an inclusive post-war political process of inclusion (working with former enemies) described as a “broad base”. Uganda’s “ideological” commitment to these forms of managed “democracy” that is salutary to bringing fighting groups together is something Mr Twebaze finds the Rwandan establishment resented as a basis for their partnership and then violently rejected in Kisangani.
In the dissertation, he shows that just weeks after the Rwandan Patriotic Army/Front (RPA/F) invasion in 1990, it was clear that the army, led by former Ugandan soldiers of Rwandan extraction such as Paul Kagame, turned President, would take a different direction. RPA had a different vision on how to conduct the war not consistent with the strategy encouraged by Uganda; of winning ‘hearts and minds’, but rather based on unilateralism, superior organisation, internal ethics and discipline of its forces.
This unilateral devotion would clash constantly with Uganda’s own vision of accommodating politics, especially since the two armies were working as tactical and strategic partners. The highlight was when the two armies became involved in DR Congo and fought on several occasions in the Congolese town of Kisangani.
Later this very gene of disagreement over “direct rule” versus “accommodation” would transfer to how Rwanda’s new leaders sought to govern themselves and how Uganda, its benefactor, continued to insist it “open up”.
In Kisangani–Rwanda’s laser, focus on eliminating the conditions under which former Hutu nationalist forces were operating, came into violent competition with attempts by Uganda, under President Museveni’s own personal commitment, to export that formula of NRA revolution.
In operational terms, Uganda’s approach included organising an inclusive military vanguard of Congolese forces into a coherent political force which as far as Rwanda was concerned, was an unwelcome distraction to its own military programmme, did not prioritise the focus on genocidaires and was an imposition by Uganda.
Here lies the red-line in understanding the present hostilities.
Rwanda’s position continues to be that those elements, internal or external, who would like to diverge from the way things are run — especially to disrupt the new post-war nationalism of a single Rwandan identity — constitute not just a clear and present danger, but an existential threat.
Seen this way, those individuals or groups who wish to seek reconciliation or democratic participation including the Rwanda National Congress (whose members Kigali says are welcome in Kampala) are viewed as hostile and destabilising forces. However, for Uganda, internal politics is always about bargaining and different political actors co-mingle every day in a manner that undergirds the legitimacy of the political system itself. This position is almost doctrinaire in Uganda and as one official involved with the Rwanda crisis put it, Kigali cannot, or rather would not, be allowed to dictate Uganda’s friends or enemies.
These are radically different political systems and Mr Twebaze does a good job of showing how they deviated even if during the bush war it was President Museveni, who was the leader of both streams. It is also a very personal history for those involved, full of emotional resentment and almost Freudian animus. I learnt through Twebaze, for example, that while Rwandan soldiers were an essential – if not critical fighting force within the NRA – they were never truly accepted.
So, even if the leader of their invasion force was Fred Rwigyema, one-time army commander in Uganda and also a minister of state for Defence, he had been treated as a usurper in Uganda despite his close relationship with Museveni and his brother Caleb Akadwanaho, better known by the nom de guerra Salim Saleh.
The personal relationships were further complicated by tribal and clan grudges. Some recruits within the NRA in the bush, Mr Twebaze reports, considered themselves as natural-born leaders because of their royal birth. These elements were present among the Ugandan contingent and within members of the Rwanda National Alliance; the self-organising group of Banyarwanda officers.
For example, officers like “Tadeo Kanyankole, Pecos Kutesa, David Tinyefuza and Julius Chihanda” apparently never accepted Rwigyema and undermined him at every turn, causing fury in the NRA.
The division between “loyalists and royalists” is worth a small digression because it appears of grave importance to both President Museveni and later his Rwandan counterpart Kagame.
Royalist upstarts such as senior NRA commander Sam Magara, one of the first NRA commander, whose claim to high status was because of his links to the Bahinda dynasty of the Bahima ruling elite, made various unsuccessful attempts to undermine the authority of Mr Museveni, whom they considered to have come from a lower “caste”.
According to Mr Twebaze, the royalist insurgents pushed Mr Museveni towards Banywarwanda officers and the Bahororo sub-ethnicity of officers such as Jim Muhwezi and Kizza Besigye. These officers became his confidants who he relied on for his security and were later promoted to key positions in the post-liberation army and government.
However, this relationship would later be fraught with tension. The post-war consensus was rife with charges about the NRA being dominated by ‘foreigners’, among the rebels were senior officers, including some royalists such as Tinyefuza (now David Sejusa).
Mr Twebaze quotes, for example, that the then Col Pecos Kutesa in 1988 had said “he felt like vomiting” when he saluted Rwigyema while Tinyefuza declined to do so because “army regulations” did not permit saluting a foreigner.
These sentiments may have contributed to the plans already underway by Rwandan officers to independently pursue a political and military goal of bringing changes to Rwanda. Discrimination within the Uganda body polity and military appears to have had a stronger impact on the “royalists” amongst the Banyarwanda officers.
Their leaders such as Peter Baingana and Chris Bunyenyenzi pushed the RPA to invade Rwanda, creating a rift between Mr Museveni and Fred Rwigyema – a loyalist. The late Rwigyema died in the initial wave of the invasion. His death, Mr Twebaze argues, is likely an assassination by the royalists; Baingana and Bunyenyenzi (both of who died soon afterwards).
Rwigyema was not only close to Mr Museveni and his brother Saleh, but was considered the model political cadre who would have likely pursued a different military and political strategy in Rwanda more in keeping with Museveni’s vision of popular military movements. In his absence, Mr Kagame, a more complex character, would take and retain centre stage. He would also bring through his force of personality; a radical dedication to independent decision-making.
Mr Kagame’s self-reliance and conviction above tactics would come to characterise the notion within the RPA that the stakes were highest only for themselves. The experience in Uganda would colour two views traded often between Rwandan and Ugandan military elite about their relations.
On the one hand, some Rwandan officers viewed their time in Uganda as instrumental in bringing President Museveni to power. These feel they have paid their debt in full and should be left alone to pursue their own path. On the other hand, there are Ugandan officers who see the involvement of Uganda in Rwanda as responsible for its overall survival and view this as a debt that can be called upon.
Obviously, these ties are only a sliver of the complex layers of events that led to the border closure, even when they represent the emotional and personal baggage that charges the relationship between the two countries and their ruling establishment.
Problems of coordination
One finds that in the history of Rwanda-Uganda “misunderstandings”, the same animus contributes in no small way to problems of coordination, where formal channels for resolving problems are abandoned, institutional mechanisms are shunted aside and foreign policy of nominal nation-states is reduced to the emotional fever of few elites operating in only one reality – that of their never-ending feud.
Take one simple example that was relayed to me by a government official. At one point, the Rwandan establishment was convinced that a state-to-state deal for the purchase of electricity from Uganda was being frustrated by the politics of hostility in Kampala.
President Kagame apparently raised this issue at a highest level and there was a brewing cold current on other aspects of the Uganda-Rwanda relationship. When President Museveni, however, inquired from the energy authorities why power lines across Mirama Hills were delaying, he was informed that the cause was a land acquisition hiccup.
He was also informed that even if the Ugandan transmission lines were ready at that particular moment, Rwanda would not be ready to take the same power. Perplexed, Mr Museveni relayed what he had been told to President Kagame including the fact that despite the pressure Uganda was facing, Rwanda had not built the sub-stations to take the power.
It happens (as Mr Kagame found out) that the Rwandan presidency itself had not been told his side was not ready and what was a brittle political situation was no more than the normal inertia of energy projects.
It was a coordination problem which, like the other grave errors in judgment, inflamed passions of “separate but equal” for the neighbours.
National interest in border feud unclear
Unlike the maritime dispute between Somalia and Kenya, neighbours with a long and troubled history, the interests playing out at the border feud between Uganda and Rwanda will not be clear to many outsiders. Sure, there are shared resources, mostly in trade, and deep social, historical, military and political linkages dating back a few decades. But unlike Kenya/Somalia row, where the arm wrestling at present is about potential oil resources on the common seaboard, one cannot say immediately why it is that Uganda and Rwanda should be teetering on the brink of hostilities.
This is part of the problem, of course, that we require on such grave occasions when lives are at stake that decisions should conform to some accessible rationality or better a greater public cause.
Instead what we find is that the reality of state relations is mostly built on mistakes and bad judgement. Finding a void where commonsense should have prevailed, most of us then fly out like bats out of a dark cave into the blinding light of oblivion, fluttering here and there and offering our own interpretation of what should have been.
There are nearly 60 million people potentially affected by what is now not so silent war. A troop buildup on both sides of the border, hostile rhetoric and propaganda have taken their place on the border hill tops like restless sentinels summoned from the bloody history in these parts where lives tend to be extinguished so easily in the pursuit of bad ideas.
The entrenched animosity of the two sides also cannot wish away structural factors around which none has any real control because the future is not a set of predictable facts.
In an alternate history, the NRA/M war in which a huge part of the fighting force was Rwandan would have failed to succeed and who knows – those forces may have been displaced inside Rwanda and succeeded there instead of in a “protracted” struggle.
It would be useful for the outside observer to keep this in mind that the “the ghost of” wars, past and the localised and personal stories that bridge today’s tensions, are partly responsible for the willful blindfolds that leaders on both sides wear in trying to gauge each other’s commitment to win this round of conflict.
It is not uncommon for outsiders to undermine the urgency of such currents as subjective nuances that are less important than the “objective” realities found in the exercise of actual power and the behaviour of institutions. In fact, the social fibre of political conflict is ever present in the alliances between various societies.
This is evident in the pact between the nascent Rwandan fighting force in the Ugandan bush war and their hosts within the western tribes that together were the vanguard of the push back against state violence.
Mr Twebaze signals to the closeness of these groups, but also their friction.
These native formations are primary building blocks and probably informed Mr Museveni’s “broad base” philosophy that sought (borrowed expression) an ideology of “pragmatic inclusion” of other tribes and elites.