Uganda sees ‘parallel’ diplomacy from president’s son

Ugandan Commander of Land Forces, Lt Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba. PHOTO | FILE 

What you need to know:

  • Muhoozi’s assignments have gone beyond Rwanda. He has visited Kenya, twice, and Somalia, where he spoke with Ugandan troops under the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom).

By day, Uganda’s Lt Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba is commander of land forces and senior adviser on special operations to President Yoweri Museveni.

By night, he is supposed to be the President’s son who sometimes gets in high spirits about life.

These days, he has taken on the role of special envoy too, flying to Kenya for a chat with President Uhuru Kenyatta and then hopping on a plane to Kigali for talks with President Paul Kagame.

On Saturday, he visited Kigali, where he had a chat with President Kagame and lunch. The mood may have been made light, but the background is that the two countries haven’t opened their land border for over two years, accusing one another of roiling each side’s national security.

The presidency in Kigali described the meeting as “cordial, productive and forward looking discussions about Rwanda’s concerns and practical steps needed to restore the relationship between Rwanda and Uganda”.

Both countries are led by army veterans: one who stopped a deadly ethnic cleansing formally known as the Rwandan Genocide against the Tutsi in 1994, and another who stormed to power after defeating Milton Obote and his Uganda National Liberation Army in 1986.

But while they have a connection from those war years, their relations have been lukewarm, affecting road transport and trade between them. Though their capitals are just 500km apart, people travelling between the two sides now have to fly as the border crossings are closed.

Yet Muhoozi’s travel to Kigali was partly because he could use the old connections to incite friendly feelings.

“I have been alive long enough to know that Uganda and Rwanda are one country,” he said, referring to the fact that the countries have close cultural ties too and that the wars brought them closer.

“In exile in the 1980s me and my family (sic) were also called 'Rwandans'. Only enemies would fight our unity. Let us resolve these small problems quickly and move forward together as always!”

Those small problems, though, have touched one leader’s ego. A number of Rwandans are in detention in Uganda for alleged involvement in spying. Some Ugandans who ‘strayed’ into Rwanda have also ended up detained.

On his return home, Muhoozi came with Special Forces Command Private Ronald Arinda, who had been detained in Rwanda for entering “without permission”.

Back in Kampala, President Museveni made changes to his military intelligence, replacing Maj Gen Abel Kandiho as the head of military intelligence. Maj-Gen Kandiho, who will now head to a lowly military attaché post in South Sudan, had been the face of torture in the eyes of Rwandans.

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Accused of kidnapping and torturing suspects, some of whom were Rwandans, the US last year imposed sanctions on him and his immediate family, barring him from setting foot in the US.

The incidents have not been linked yet, at least officially. But that Muhoozi travelled when Uganda had just sent in a new high commissioner to Kigali has got some commentators debating whether this was parallel diplomacy. Some say he was suitable because he had no fear of losing the job yet.

“I know of no one in Uganda who could be the best envoy to President Paul Kagame and meaningfully discuss the issues between Kigali and Kampala other than my brother (Muhoozi.”),” argued Andrew Mwenda, a Ugandan commentator and publisher.

“First, he believes this relationship is of great strategic value for both countries and for Africa.”

“Muhoozi is the best suited envoy to Kigali (because) he also believes President Kagame does not necessarily have malign intentions against Uganda. So he knows he can talk to him and find a solution to the tensions that have been tearing our countries apart.”

By looking up to Kagame as a mentor and hero, it could build optimism that may end the tension, Mwenda said on his Twitter page.

Muhoozi’s assignments have gone beyond Rwanda. He has visited Kenya, twice, and Somalia, where he spoke with Ugandan troops under the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom).

Seen as an heir apparent to President Museveni’s political estate in Uganda, some of the trips could benefit him.

Earlier this month, President Kenyatta and Gen Kainerugaba visited the Naivasha Inland Container Depot, the Kisumu shipyard and the new Mbita bridge, projects that could in future affect relations between the two sides.

President Kenyatta wants to see a link between the Standard Gauge Railway and the Metre Gauge Railway to help transport cargo to the Malaba border crossing. If this works, it could ease the flow of goods between the two countries.

For Muhoozi, perhaps it is learning from those ahead of him even when he speaks in terms of bilateral relations.

“I thank my great big brother, President Uhuru Kenyatta, for inviting me to my second home Kenya, to join him in the inauguration of the Inland Container Depot in Naivasha,” Lt-Gen Kainerugaba commented on his Twitter page, his latest favourite channel of communication.

“A strong East Africa is the only way to go.”

He was rarely outspoken, but has recently been vocal about regional politics in what could be seen as trying to pull out of his father’s shadow. In October, he reflected on his “hero”, President Kenyatta.

“I was honoured to visit my elder, my big brother and my hero recently in Nairobi,” he wrote on Twitter on Wednesday, in the caption of a photo of him with the Kenyan President. Both wore camping shoes, jeans and checked shirts and relaxed by a coffee table with water.

“President Uhuru is an inspiration to many of us across East Africa and Africa,” Muhoozi added in the tweet.

Lt-Gen Kainerugaba has not yet announced his political ambitions, and his father has not indicated he will retire yet.

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