Rwanda, Uganda armies turn Kisangani into a powder keg  

Uganda People’s Defence Forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo | File

What you need to know:

  • In the latest instalment of the series on the Second Congo War, Emmanuel Mutaizibwa revisits how an uneasy ceasefire after Kisangani I did not last that long. Both the Ugandan and Rwandan armies dug trenches to fight in senseless Kisangani II and III standoffs largely driven by bruised egos. 

As the stench of death permeated the flashpoint city of Kisangani, which was partitioned into two sectors under the control of the Uganda and Rwanda armies after the first clashes, there was a glimmer of hope that a truce would be reached and peace would return to the capital of Tshopo Province. The commanders on both sides in their neck of the woods, however, continued to ramp up their military arsenal and dig trenches.

The next clashes between Uganda and Rwanda that broke out in May and June 2000 were deadlier than the first clashes of August 1999 and resulted in the death of 1,000 civilians, with thousands others injured.

Two months after the first clashes broke out between Rwanda and Uganda in August 1999, Maj Reuben Ikondere, the second-in-command to James Kazini during the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) ‘Operation Safe Haven’ mission, was on November 14, 1999, killed by Mai Mai militias in Beni, North Kivu, which lies on the west of Virunga National Parks and Mountain Rwenzori.

At about 4.15am, the marauding militias, acting on a tipoff, raided a hotel where Ikondere was staying with his bodyguards. Outnumbered and outgunned, his bodyguards returned fire with their assault rifles, but were all killed. Why did Ikondere stay outside the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) stations where he was buttressed by scores of troops?

Ikondore joined the Luweero Bush War in 1982 and after the National Resistance Army (NRA) shot to power, in 1986, he was appointed to the position of deputy commander of the Second Division. In 1991, he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col) and sent to Rwanda by then External Security Organisation (ESO) director, Col Kahinda Otafiire “without the permission of then army commander, Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu.” Upon return, he was arrested, demoted, tried and jailed. He was later rehabilitated and sent to the DRC.

Maj Noble Mayombo, then deputy director of Chieftancy of Military Intelligence (CMI), revealed that at the time of his death, Ikondere had been promoted to the rank of Lt Col “due to his exemplary performance in the [DRC].”

In March 2000, UPDF reshuffled its commanders in the DRC as Military Police Commander John Chagga Mugume was moved to Lisala, Mongala Province in eastern DRC, and Col Edson Muzoora was sent to the frontline town near Kinshasa. 

In January 2000, the French scholar and Great Lakes historian, Prof Gerard Prunier, ominously warned that Uganda and Rwanda would clash again while delivering a public lecture at Sheraton Hotel titled, “Uganda at the Crossroads.”

This came at the time Rwanda Speaker Joseph Sebarenzi Kabuye, who had just resigned, fled to Uganda. Facing accusations of subversion by Kigali, Sebarenzi claimed that he feared for his life. Barely after crossing to Uganda, he was briefly detained by Local Defence Units (LDUs) at Mirama Hills, an intersection in Ntungamo District that lies across Rwanda and Tanzania’s border, before he was freed and later travelled to the United States, where he lives today.

Trading accusations

With the resentment between the two armies escalating in March 2000, the AFP reported that the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD) rebels in Kisangani warned of fresh confrontation between Uganda and Rwanda. Prof Etienne Ngagura Kasole, the rebel movement publicist, claimed “Uganda was engaged in a troop build-up around Kisangani in a manner reminiscent of what preceded the fighting of August 1999 between UPDF and RPA.”

As the red mist engulfed the commanders, Kazini continued to trade barbs with his Rwandan counterparts. With the United Nations sanctions hovering over the heads of Uganda and Rwanda leaders, these officers were ordered out of the DRC.

Shortly after the first clashes, the Mweya truce issued a directive which required that Rwandan and Ugandan troops withdraw from the airport as a joint team was formed to manage the airport.

“Both Uganda and Rwanda selected teams. Capt Mugisha was selected as Intelligence Officer from the Ugandan side, and Sgt Robert Kiiza became the security officer. There was peace and harmony, soldiers even started going on leave. They would even go to the same bars. One of the rules was that both countries should not reinforce or bring in weapons without either party knowing,” recalls a UPDF officer who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The officer added: “According to some Ugandan soldiers who were there, Rwanda would bring weapons covered in sacks of beans and soldiers disguised as businessmen. The plane would bring in 10 to 20 soldiers and the Rwandan officials at the airport would say those were businessmen coming to Kisangani.”

Our source, who was at the frontline during the Kisangani clashes, told us that the trigger “was when an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade) in a bag of beans was detected by the Ugandan soldiers at the airport. They quietly took a photo of the RPG and took it to Gen Kazini.”

Gen Kazini confronted the Rwandans for violating the joint-team regulations. The disagreements resumed. Our source revealed that “after the disagreements, the Rwandan soldiers who were at the airport all withdrew from the airport at night without telling Ugandans.”

Kisangani II clashes break out

Seven months after the first Kisangani clashes, on May 5, 2000, fighting once again broke out between RPA and UPDF bands.

The former Speaker and then National Political Commissar, James Wapakhabulo, who chaired the joint committee, which was set up after troops of the two countries clashed in August 1999, said: “We are at a loss. Why is this happening now? Ask the Rwandans, they shot first. The Rwandans fired on Uganda positions at 4:05am. They fired at our training camp at Kapalata where we train Ugandan NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers).”

Rwanda responded by accusing Uganda of attacking their forces first, a version, which was backed by a UN official. Maj Emmanuel Ndahiro, then RPA spokesperson, said: “Ugandan units began attacking Rwandan positions with mortar and anti-craft fire at about 3:30am.”

On May 5, 2000, the United States blamed Uganda for starting the fight. Rwanda then claimed that it had destroyed three Russian-built T55 tanks during the fighting. Maj Gen Jeje Odongo said he was not aware of the destroyed tanks. “Even if they destroyed the tanks, it would not be surprising. You stab someone in the back and boast about that? These people just attacked our forces at the airport without any provocation,” he said.

An army officer, who spoke to Sunday Monitor on condition of anonymity, said: “Gen Kazini got reports that the RPA under [Col Emmanuel] Ruvusha was building trenches and preparing to fight. In order to launch a surprise attack, Gen Kazini ordered the shelling of Rwandan positions. But the shelling did not do much damage because they heavily built their defensive positions. The following day, a coy was ordered to attack the Rwandans but they fell in a Rwandan ambush and 30 UPDF soldiers were killed, including Lt Kawene Lugemwa.”


There was a strange twist of events when the UN ordered the UPDF to withdraw from Kisangani after the second clashes.

“There was a feeling Rwandan had quietly influenced the decision, which they saw as betrayal. UPDF withdrew and went to Kapalata, but maintained a few soldiers at the airport, who were part of the joint team. Rwanda was now in full control of Kisangani City, including the airport,” our source recalls.

Maj Gen Jeje Odongo, then Uganda’s army commander, later held talks with Rwandan President Paul Kagame in a bid to resolve the conflict.

On May 11, 2000, Kazini issued a 48-hour ultimatum to his RPA counterpart Kayumba Nyamwasa to leave Kisangani, but Jeje Odongo revealed that “further developments have taken place and ameliorated the situation.”

Kazini accused the RPA of violating the Lusaka peace agreement by occupying some areas of the UPDF. Nyamwasa responded by accusing Kazini of attempting to patronise the RPA, claiming there are those “who think they must control the RPA. RPA is another army. It is not a battalion of the UPDF.”

Rwanda had earlier on expelled Col Patrick Nyanvumba and Col James Kabareebe, who was part of the Mweya Safari Lodge truce reached by Museveni and Kagame as fighting raged in Kisangani during the first clashes in August 1999.

It had also been agreed that Kazini would return home from the war front, but this had not yet been enforced.

Gen Kazini was eventually briefly withdrawn and replaced by Col Edson Muzoora.

“When Muzoora came, he told Rwandans that Gen Kazini was the problem and said he was there to create harmony. But many commanders did not like what Col Muzoora was doing. They were saying it was hard to fully trust the RDF. There was reconciliation and even RDF would freely come to Laforestiere, the tactical headquarters of the UPDF,” our source disclosed.

A spin master?

During his speech to Parliament on May 24, 2000, Museveni defended Kazini and accused Kigali of relying on spin in its effort to portray Uganda as the aggressor.

“Uganda is not good at propaganda and this is why there is a belief that Uganda was the aggressor during the August 19, 1999 and May 5, 2000 clashes,” the President said.

Museveni said the UN, which first blamed UPDF for firing the first shots during the Kisangani II clashes, “discovered that they were wrong and that he had a report, which they issued showing that Ugandan forces didn’t first attack”.

He also revealed that during the build-up, shortly before the second clashes, Gen Jeje Odongo tried to get in touch with his counterpart, Maj Gen Nyamwasa but each time he was told “afande ana woga, afande ana lala (Swahili for the officer is bathing, the officer is sleeping).”

Museveni attempted to dispel the Kigali theory that the clashes were sparked as a result of the calibrated message by Ugandan leaders who despise Rwanda as a small, vassal state of Uganda.

“I hear the Rwandese even call me senile, but so what… leaders who are frivolous, egoistic and sensitive will not help us,” Museveni shot back.

In a riposte, President Kagame told Monitor journalist Ogen Kevin Aliro during an interview at the officers’ mess in Kigali that Museveni was telling lies to Ugandans.

“Take it or leave it, Ugandans have been told a lot of lies… [Uganda] has been training Hutus to go and overthrow Kagame and today there was evidence on BBC [radio] when [UPDF Chief of Staff] Brig Kazini’s ADC Sgt Kenneth Ayebare said UPDF was training Hutus to go and overthrow Kagame,” he said.

Kagame further revealed that “Rwanda has no obligation to listen to Museveni or anybody”, and accused Kazini of being “a pawn” of his puppet-masters who were giving him instructions to attack the RPA.

Otafiire, one of the most loathed figures in Kigali during the clashes, told Sunday Vision on May 21, 2000 that had Museveni not restrained the UPDF, the Ugandan army would have inflicted more damage on the RPA.

“Some of the restraint we have been forced to exercise by the President has been irritating. There are a number of things we could have done, but he literally tied our hands,” Otafiire revealed before the army suggested that he would be probed for his comments.

In response, Rwanda’s spokesperson then, Joseph Bideri, said UPDF commanders were acting like hooligans who continued to shoot at RPA positions after a ceasefire was brokered by the US, UN and the OAU.

Deadly Kisangani III

Towards the end of May 30, 2000, both the RPA and UPDF began to pull out of Kisangani City as part of the UN plan to demilitarise the city. Five days later, though, the deadliest attacks between Rwanda and Uganda broke out. The UPDF claims the RPA attacked first at 10am when a Toyota Land Cruiser, which was travelling from Bangoka Airport, was ambushed by the RPA, a claim rejected by their rivals.

This came at the time Kazini returned to the frontline in Kisangani as Col Muzoora was sent to Basankusu, Equateur Province.

“Upon his return, Kazini said it was risky for Ugandan soldiers to remain at the airport when it was in the hands of the Rwandans. But as the Ugandan soldiers were withdrawing in the convoy of the UN team, they were attacked by suspected Rwandans and the vehicles burnt. Even the UN vehicles were hit.  The reports that Ugandan soldiers had burnt on their way to Kapalata caused anger among the UPDF soldiers,” a soldier, who was at the frontline and spoke to Sunday Monitor recently, revealed.

Lt Col Phinehas Katirima told this newspaper on June 6, 2000 thus: “The RPA first attacked with light fire and later shelled the vehicle with heavy artillery, destroying it completely.”

Katirima said the MONUC vehicle escorting the UPDF was also fired at and the UPDF returned fire after crossing Tshopo bridge and from the Sottexki junction after losing a soldier. After a midday lull, fighting resumed and spread across the city.

Wapakhabulo, the chairperson of the committee to pacify DRC, claimed that the Rwanda army had besieged some UPDF officers in the embattled Kisangani and the RPA had attacked the UPDF 12 times, claims Kigali described as “a pack of lies.”

Like drunkards…

With the fighting spreading towards the outskirts of the city, artillery fire roared across the hills of Kisangani as both armies ignored an UN-brokered truce on June 8, 2000. During his Heroes Day address at Nakasongola District on June 9, 2000, Museveni likened Rwandan troops to “a drunkard who does things out of the influence of alcohol.”

Museveni added: “Do not get scared of the Rwandese—the situation is annoying since we helped to groom these Rwandese, but it is their leaders who mislead them. Let us look at the Rwandan crisis as a drunkard who can easily become sober.”

As 5,000 shells fell on the city, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said at least 100 soldiers had been killed and 700 civilians injured. The UN announced that its forces would take over Kisangani after six days of fierce fighting to halt the loss of civilian lives and the destruction of property in the city.

On June 10, 2000, Kagame met Zambia’s President Fredrick Chiluba, who tried to find a truce to bring to an end the fighting between the forces. During a joint news conference held at Kigali International Airport, Kagame accused Museveni of posturing. “I have been reading The Monitor and I have seen Museveni has been speaking to his Parliament and abusing Rwandans. There is an attitude that Rwandans are only supposed to listen to others and we can’t deal with our own problems. In a recent speech, Museveni referred to the Rwandan government as ‘those boys’.”


Two days later, the UPDF commanding officer of the 75th battalion, Maj Patrick Kiyingi, Maj Baguma of the artillery regiment and Capt David Kanyerezi were among the officers killed during an ambush in what UPDF claimed was “an act of treachery” when they were seeking to reach their counterparts to hammer out a ceasefire. But Kigali claimed they had died in combat.

On June 14, 2000, then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan asked the UN to impose sanctions on the two countries if they did not pull out of Kisangani in line with the Lusaka Peace accord. Four days later,  the UPDF began to leave Tshopo bridge as ordered by the UN and a day after, the ICRC claimed that about 500 people had died in the fighting, including 398 civilians and 120 soldiers.

During a CBS radio talk-show, Museveni partly blamed the third Kisangani clashes on the 75th battalion of the UPDF, which attacked an RPA unit without orders.

“Rwanda is not an enemy, so we can’t either be pleased or interested in talking about the Rwandese soldiers we have killed or injured,” Museveni said, adding, “I know much about wars and it does not help for Uganda to talk about RPA soldiers we have killed. It is people who know less about wars that talk.”

In the next part of the series, we reconstruct the murky details of how President Laurent Kabila, paranoid, isolated and dejected by the shortcomings at the frontline, was assassinated in a plot hatched by his former allies—the Kadogos in the neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville.