Kampala. On November 9, 2017, a senior official from a diplomatic post of neighbouring country lured a Rwandan refugee with cash into the hands of operatives from Uganda’s now disbanded police Flying Squad.
After realising that they were under surveillance, the abductors who had allegedly readied to illegally transport the refugee to Rwanda instead dumped him at the Central Police Station in Kampala.
The diplomat mobilised five men suspected to be foreign agents to remove the refugee, but lost the contest following a scuffle. Police detained the quintet.
Officials familiar with the matter, but who asked not to be named due to sensitivity of the matter, say this incarceration prompted the diplomat to seek freedom of the agents through a top official of the now disbanded Flying Squad.
The Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) last June took the senior police officer into custody and he, alongside other colleagues, are being prosecuted for, among other things, alleged kidnap and illegal repatriation of Rwandan refugees.
This November 2017 incident, although outwardly isolated, mirrored the cumulative problems highlighted in various intelligence briefs to President Museveni about alleged infiltration of Uganda’s security and intelligence services by the neighboring country and its agents.
Tensions are currently high between the two countries, with Rwanda accusing Uganda of harbouring its dissident elements while Kampala has publicly only said, without elaborating, that the matters will be resolved.
Source of trouble
Two highly-placed sources briefed on the matter said also penetrated was the Cabinet and media, and the officials spoke of wiretapping of the communication of top Ugandan officials at highest levels of government.
Gen Elly Tumwine, the Security minister, told this newspaper yesterday that the claim of communication breach was not supported by evidence. He did not elaborate. “Uganda needs Rwanda and Rwanda needs Uganda,” he said cryptically.
Ugandans, he said, will know the cause of the current rift between the two countries with time.
One minister separately said overseas telephone calls they receive for unexplained reason flashes on the screen of their mobile handsets as originating from Rwanda, based on the country code +250.
Uganda Police then under Gen Kale Kayihura, intelligence chiefs told the President, was the leakiest of government institutions.
Some of its officers such as Joel Aguma, then Police crime intelligence chief, coordinated the November 2013 arrest and illegal repatriation to Kigali of Lt Joel Mutabazi, a former bodyguard to President Paul Kagame.
Mr Aguma was fresh from a senior officer’s course at Rwanda National Police Academy.
His stewardship of an impugned operation to grab Lt Mutabazi, which kicked off diplomatic nightmare for Uganda, raised suspicion in other security circles. The result: infighting, bad-mouthing and retailing of sensitive security information by operatives.
Inundated by complaints of infiltration and espionage that insiders said threatened collapse of the government, if not the Ugandan state, President Museveni in February 2018 warned rogue security chiefs of jail if they did not reform.
“Security organs are supposed to serve the interests of Ugandans, not any individual. It’s going to be sorted out,” he said, shortly before ordering a purge.
Top Uganda police officials previously spoke of --- but never shared --- a memorandum of understanding between the institution and Rwandan counterparts to deport criminals hiding in either country.
That document, which in practice commits the Ugandan state, was never evaluated or cleared by the Solicitor General as required by law and there are questions as to whether it existed in the first place.
This laissez-fair manner of conducting official business during good Kampala-Kigali relations, one diplomat noted, is a problem that has birthed the current rift based on unresolved issues arising from the 1999 and 2000 clashes in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, between Uganda and Rwandan troops.
Rwanda on February 28 stopped cargo trucks from Uganda from entering through Katuna-Gatuna border, citing ongoing construction works. It followed the blockade with a travel ban on its citizens to Uganda.
In an interview with the government-run The New Times newspaper, Rwanda’s Foreign Minister Richard Sezibera summarised his country’s grievances as: Uganda harbouring armed groups to attack Rwanda; arrest, imprisonment, harassment and or deportation of Rwandan nationals; and, restrictions on conveyance of Rwandan goods across Ugandan territory.
Rwanda had previously raised objections with authorities in Kampala that its citizen Tribert Ayabatwa Rujugir, who owns Leaf Tobacco Company, should not be allowed to invest in Uganda.
Intelligence services, however, advised President Museveni that there was no evidence of the businessman’s financing of subversive activities against Kigali and that there were not many entrepreneurs with the region to inject millions of dollars in Uganda’s economy.
Mr Sam Kutesa, Uganda’s Foreign minister, in a rejoinder yesterday shot down the Rwandan latest claims point-by-point, saying Uganda is a champion of regional integration and Rwanda knew its allegations “very well” to be false.
“Therefore, anyone, including Rwandans, visiting Uganda have nothing to fear if they are law-abiding.”
A senior Ugandan security source said Rwanda’s action may likely be to deflect attention from domestic political pressure, but Uganda will not answer with a confrontation.
President Museveni, according to one minister, told a Cabinet meeting on Monday that security agencies will look into issues flagged by Kigali and, without expounding, said the matters will be resolved.
According to another high-level Ugandan official, Kigali was caught off-guard when a Ugandan it assumed to be cooperating, and who in turn gained unfettered access to its sensitive information and installations, bounced to Uganda’s service to direct targeted arrests of Rwandan nationals.
Minister Sezibera was unavailable last evening to comment on these claims in spite of our efforts to reach him by telephone. He on Monday claimed to be unaware of Uganda’s complaint against his country.
Mr Theogene Rudasingwa, Rwanda’s ex-ambassador to the United States-turned-dissident, who handled the post-Kinshasa classes shuttle diplomacy, published an opinion on March 4 in which he attributed the fallout to what he said was ego and belief in revenge by President Museveni and his Rwandan counterpart.
This, he said, has been fuelled by unresolved historical contestations.
The current crop of Rwandan leaders, including President Kagame, lived as refugees in Uganda before fighting a guerrilla war that brought President Museveni to power in 1986.
Four years later, they broke away to launch a successful war in Rwanda powered by Uganda’s largesse and military.
That resulted in individuals calling the shots in either country being friends or relatives and this state of affairs tempted many to conduct official state business in an informal manner.
The risk, as it manifested in the 1999-2000 clashes, was that diplomatic and bilateral relations between Kigali and Kampala became a victim of mood swings of leaders in either capital.
To stem the problem, diplomats who restored relations Uganda-Rwanda relations after the Kisangani clashes, and under former UK International Development minister Clare Short’s tutelage, developed various memoranda of understanding that officials on both sides signed to regularise conduct of inter-state business.
The documents covered an array of issues; from defence and security to health and commerce. It remains unclear if the MoUs have been implemented. At the time, fugitives from either country were relocated to Sweden and the United States to help build confidence. But the suspicions and mistrust persisted.
“I think the cause of the current tension is unresolved conflicts between Gen Museveni and Gen Kagame and the state of Rwanda and the state of Uganda,” said Gerald Karyeija, a professor of Public Administration at Uganda Management Institute.
Rwanda’s public outcry against Uganda when the two leaders are understood to be friends, he said, shows “a breakdown in communication as well as diplomatic and bilateral relations”.
Kigali’s actions and economic blockade is to trigger a discussion on its grievances, he said. “The silence of Uganda in terms of specifics [on the row] might be construed as playing a bid daddy role, which may discomfort Rwanda,” Prof Karyeija said.
Comparing the countries' economies
Uganda already earns multiple times more in exports to Rwanda, which is its third largest East African trading partner after Kenya and South Sudan, than the forex earning Kigali picks from Kampala.
In normal times, 300 to 400 vehicles ply to Rwanda via Katuna/Gatuna border, carrying household items, food, minerals, beverages, construction materials, and other manufactured goods.
Uganda last year raked in $197m from exports to Rwanda, lower than the $254m peak earning three years ago, but still twelve-fold higher than $20m worth of Rwandan exports to Uganda. Kabale Resident District Commissioner, Mr Darius Nandinda, on Monday said Rwanda’s economic blockade would backfire because thousands of its citizens depend substantially on Uganda for food, manufactured good and employment.