Uganda’s foreign policy in the 1990s

President Museveni arrives at Santiago Airport in Cuba in 1988. During the first four years of the NRM regime, Uganda maintained friendly relations with Libya, the Soviet Union, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), and Cuba. COURTESY PHOTO

What you need to know:

Museveni is said to have told then Rwanda president Habyarimana in 1988 to be careful with Tutsi NRA officer, Fred Rwigyema, saying he would cause him trouble.


Around Christmas, in December 1987, Uganda and Kenya nearly went to war. The details have since become foggy, but Kenya’s conservative political and business establishment had remained uncomfortable with the new Marxist revolutionary leaders in Kampala since 1986.

Uganda’s new government accused Kenya of harbouring rebels opposed to President Yoweri Museveni. Kenya’s government under President Daniel arap Moi, for its part, was concerned that Uganda was trying to stir up unrest among Kenya’s already restive tribes. There was brief shooting near the border. Just when the situation appeared about to deteriorate further, Moi and Museveni held a summit at Malaba and tensions eased.

This was the same Kenyan government that had not only played host to NRM officials fighting the Milton Obote government in 1981, hosted and mediated the peace talks between the Tito Okello government and the NRA rebels in late 1985, but also shielded Museveni’s wife, Janet, and his children in 1981. And yet a year after taking power, Museveni was already demonstrating that to him, friendship and loyalty to those who did him favours meant very little.

Knowing Museveni
Those in the 1960s, who had attended Ntare School in Mbarara and the University College of East Africa at Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, had already seen a side of Museveni that did not surprise them. He was a man with few inhibitions about what he could do. Museveni was a nihilist at heart.
In 1969, he had written a now famous pamphlet that he titled Fanon’s theory on violence: Its verification in liberated Mozambique. He gave his byline as “By Yoweri T. Museveni.” (The author has since never explained how the “T.” initial in his name became “K.”)

In this thesis, the young Museveni wholeheartedly defended the political views advanced by the Martinique-born Black Algerian revolutionary Frantz (also written as Franz) Omar Fanon.
Fanon (1925-1961), a social philosopher and psychoanalyst, was like most Black people appalled by the racism and colonial control of the Third World by the rich West and expressed these views in his 1952 book, Black Skin, White Masks.

Increasingly bitter with the West as time went by, it was in The Wretched of the Earth (1961) in which Fanon advocated violence of the most gruesome kind against Whites. Fanon’s belief was that Black people felt an inferiority complex toward Whites mainly because of the Whites’ superior weaponry and military planning.

But if Blacks were to kill Whites and, as his pupil Museveni added, cut off their heads and show these skulls dripping with blood to the African villagers, in time these Africans would realise that Whites are human and mortal like any other people and so, argued Fanon and Museveni, Blacks would become confident in themselves.

These gory descriptions of death, mutilation and skulls appear to have resonated with something in Museveni’s personality. He seemed to have a particular proclivity for and fascination with brute force.

Even as president of Uganda in the 1980s, State House officials at Entebbe and Nakasero used to borrow video cassette films from the Ripples Videotheque at Uganda House in Kampala, owned by the Kenyan businessman Alphonse Odindo.

The only titles Museveni would borrow from Ripples were strictly war and military films.
His late mother, Esteri Kokundeka, concerned with her son’s increasing fascination with violence (he had already been a ring leader in student strikes at Ntare School and Dar es Salaam University) tried to dissuade him from joining the army when he expressed interest in enlisting.

Grip on power
The start of the 1990s decade saw Museveni finally starting to get a full grip on power, after several years of trying to suppress the insurgencies that had broken out in northern and northeastern Uganda.

The breathing space created by the stabilising military situation in Uganda gave Museveni time to turn to what had always been his area of primary interest --- pan-Africanism --- and not just of the academic and philosophical kind, but a pan-Africanism of a kind bent on transforming Africa by the use of armed struggle and revolution.

In addition, now as head of state and with a national army and the financial resources of a state to put into practice his Fanon-influenced theories, all this accompanied by brutal violence, Museveni set out on his historic mission.

The tensions with Kenya in December 1987 were the first indication of the aggressive foreign and military adventures that Museveni would embark in the 1990s. Central Africa was about to witness violence on a scale never before seen.

1990: the RPF invades Rwanda
In 1979, Rwandan Tutsis in Uganda formed a body that they called the Rwandaise Alliance Nationale de Unite (RANU). These refugees had started pouring and settling in Uganda in 1959 after the overthrow of the Tutsi monarchy by Hutu officers.

In late 1987, the Rwandans in Uganda’s NRA had become the dominant members of RANU by virtue of their officer ranks in the Ugandan army. They influenced the change of RANU to the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The RPF was formed out of several groups, such as one by a Dr Rudasingwa, based in South Africa.

The first fully-fledged RPF meeting was held in Kampala in 1989. It was an acrimonious one. The delegates almost got into fist fights, as they exchanged bitter words.

Meanwhile, the Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana had taken note of the developments in Uganda in 1986, in which the NRA took state power and many Tutsi officers played a leading role in the 1981-1986 guerrilla war that brought Musveni to power. He expressed willingness to deal with the Tutsi in Uganda and invited them to visit their relatives who had stayed in Rwanda all through the 1960s until the 1980s. Exiled Tutsis from Uganda then started visiting Rwanda.

In 1988 at a ceremony in which the NRA, until then not formally constituted into an army in the conventional western staff college sense, finally gave western-type ranks to its officers. Museveni was given the rank of Lieutenant-General. Elly Tumwiine, the NRA commander, and Salim Saleh, Museveni’s brother, both became Major-Generals.

The guest of honour at this ceremony was President Habyarimana. In one of those ironies of history, it was given to Habyarimana to decorate the Deputy Minister of Defence and one of the senior Tutsi NRA officers, Fred Rwigyema, who was given the rank of Major-General.

In his usual tactless way, Museveni told Habyarimana to be careful with Rwigyema, casually quipping that “This man can cause you problems”, as Rwigyema, a long-time aide and one of the closest people to Museveni, cringed with embarrassment.

Meanwhile, in late 1989, strangers started appearing in Rwandan villages and towns toward the border with Uganda. These were RPF agents and scouts from Uganda. What were these Tutsi RPF intelligence officers and informers looking for in Rwanda in 1989?