Uganda, Rwanda troops lock horns in Kisangani

Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) soldiers and their Rwandan counterparts in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo/File

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  • From being a band of brothers in the crucible of the NRA rebellion in the Luweero triangle to creating a bloodbath in Kisangani, few relationships, Emmanuel Mutaizibwa writes, have disintegrated as the one between the Uganda and Rwanda armies. 

Inside the spartan ruin of Kisangani—Tshopo Province, the Uganda People’s Defence Forces’ (UPDF) Chief of Staff, Brig James Kazini’s influence spread across the Congo River on the outskirts towards the heartland of the diamond-rich city. 

Across this large expanse, Rwanda troops under the command of Col Patrick Nyamvumba, had dug in and camped at the strategic Bangoka Airport, 19km east of the city. 

This aggressive posture came at the time fault lines between Uganda and Rwanda began to emerge when Kampala helped to create the rebel group, Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) under Jean-Pierre Bemba, as Rwanda backed the rival group, Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD). With sleight of hand, Uganda had reached out to one of the leaders of RCD, the bookish Prof Wamba dia Wamba, who relocated from the rebel’s bastion in Goma to Kisangani where he received protection from Kazini, an officer with a storied career in asymmetrical warfare. 

As the rancour spread across the misty woodlands of Kisangani, both Rwanda and Uganda armies hastily dug trenches in preparation for war. It was only a matter of time before Uganda and Rwanda, erstwhile allies whose bond was built in the crucible of the NRA rebellion in the Luweero triangle, clashed in a shooting war that led to the death of hundreds. 

What was only missing was the spark to ignite this tinderbox as various sources, including soldiers who fought at the frontline and spoke on condition of anonymity, told Sunday Monitor newspaper.

On August 7, 1999, heavy clashes broke out between the UPDF and Congolese rebels under the Kigali allied RDC-faction. Kazini and Lt Col Reuben Ikondere, the second in command, who was later killed by Mai-Mai militias in Beni-North Kivu Province, led the attack, which led to casualties on both sides.

On August 9, UPDF dislodged an RCD Goma faction led by Emile Ilunga from the heart of Kisangani City, with commander Jean-Pierre Ondekane making the announcement on Radio Liberty in Kisangani.

Kazini later took over Congo Palace, Wagenia Hotel, Kisangani Mosque, Prof Wamba dia Wamba’s residence and the Central Bank.

“The High Command of the Ugandan Army informs the population of Kisangani that the progressive forces have taken control of the city,” came the announcement.

In response, Ondekane said: “The announcement this morning at Kisangani from the High Command of the Ugandan Army through their Chief of Staff, Brig Kazini constitutes grave provocation towards RCD, which will no longer entertain this excess.”

Bellicose rhetoric
The UPDF responded in a bellicose tone, “The Ugandan Army will no longer accept a group of adventurous fascists led by commander Ondekane backed by a small country [Rwanda]…”

On August 10, 1999, the RPA warned the UPDF that if they attacked their positions in Kisangani, they would return fire. 

“We have more serious enemies and targets than to engage ourselves in irresponsible shootouts in the slums of Kisangani in support of any rebel faction,” said Lt Col Wilson Rutayisire, the Rwanda spokesperson, who died a year later in Goma under mysterious circumstances. “Some fragments of the shelling by [Reuben] Ikondore hit a group of our officers travelling on a pick-up in Kisangani. Although some of our people got injured, we were not involved in any fighting. But if we are attacked by the UPDF, we shall defend ourselves decisively.” 

Lt Col Ikondere was three months later killed in a plot involving the Mai-Mai militias in Beni, North Kivu Province.

This fighting coincided with the verification exercise after Wamba’s faction, now allied with the UPDF, had abandoned Goma, the capital of North Kivu for Kisangani. 

The verification mission, which was composed of the South African minister of Foreign Affairs and the Zambian minister for the Presidency, had visited Kisangani on August 12. 

Speaking on condition of anonymity, an army officer who served at the frontline revealed that at that time “it was 65th and 75th battalions which were in Kisangani.”

Shooting war
The Ugandan army required reinforcements when their planes were landing. They came under a salvo of gunfire from the Rwandan troops in Kisangani. 

“The C130 cargo planes flown by the Russians managed to land under the rain of bullets from the Rwandans. One of the planes went off the runway and stopped in the bushes. The soldiers had to get out of the plane as they fought, recalls the officer, adding, “UPDF soldiers were killed. They were helped by the tanks that gave them covering fire. The Russians were also involved in the fight. They grabbed the guns of the dead soldiers and took part in the fight.”

During his briefing to Parliament later on August 30, 1999, President Museveni confirmed the airplane shooting incident.  

“Two of our soldiers were killed inside the plane and seven were injured. It was not easy for me to find out the cause of the problem,” he said. “Col Kale [Kayihura] had not yet returned from Kigali and the fighting in Kisangani was continuing, with Maj Ddiba’s [Ssentongo] companies being attacked.”

At the crack of dawn, the Rwandans had earlier attacked the UPDF and cut off Laforeste, which was Kazini’s tactical base about 4km from Bangoka Airport. 

“65th battalion was at Laforeste with Kazini. To clear the route to Laforeste, the Fifth battalion was deployed to clear Rwandan ambushes so that the 65th battalion could have an access route to the airport,” our source revealed further. 

The first casualty of war is truth. On August 14, 1999, the Rwanda army accused the UPDF troops of shelling its forces at Bangoka Airport.

“Ugandan troops under Brig Kazini attacked our forces at Kisangani airport yesterday and again this morning,” Lt Col Wilson Rutayisire told this newspaper on phone.

Kazini responded, saying Kigali was telling lies. 

Defence state minister Steven Kavuma offered support and told this newspaper back then that it is the RPA that fired first at the UPDF plane, which was landing.

“They are also the ones who ambushed the UPDF near Kisangani airport. Our soldiers were only lucky that they were able to get through. Even this morning at 6am, they again opened fire on the UPDF and we responded in self-defence,” he said.

RPA’s Col Patrick Nyamvumba would later reveal thus: “One of the planes was hit while it was trying to take off. The other landed to let off troops who immediately attacked our positions before we retaliated.”

Using mortar and artillery shells, fighting spread across the Congo basin enclave as Rwanda and Uganda turned guns against one another, leaving a trail of death and despair. 

The AFP claimed that the RPA had captured part of the city centre, including a textile factory previously under the control of the UPDF. Uganda, meanwhile, remained in control of the major artery connecting the city to Bangoka Airport, an area of intense fighting.

As sporadic mortar rang out in a city of more than a million people, doctors revealed that more than 50 people had been killed as fighting spread across the Congo River. The RPA’s firepower focused on two hotels occupied by Prof Wamba dia Wamba, who was seen as a traitor. 

Kigali, Otafiire trade barbs
Kahinda Otafiire, who was the chief security advisor to the President on DRC Affairs, in a telephone interview with this newspaper, said: “Yes, we had a few losses on our part but I am not in position to give you the death toll. We actually incurred both major and minor injuries but the RPA also incurred heavy losses.”

He said although the UPDF was not in Kisangani, “[they were] only nine kilometres away at Sotesxki in a textile factory.” That, he hastened to add, was much closer to Kisangani than the RPA.

Otafiire referred to Rwandan officers as “treacherous”, saying they failed to honour a ceasefire agreement reached between Museveni and Kagame on August 16, 1998.

“For us we decided to observe the ceasefire, but the RPA are treacherous. They tricked us and instead went ahead to bomb Wamba’s base. They can’t be trusted,” Otafiire revealed.

Wamba, who was staying at Wagenia Hotel, revealed: “A lot of forces descended on our place and overran it at around midday … The whole leadership must have been killed by now.” 

Col Nyamvumba had been reinforced by Col Kabareebe, the former Chief of Staff of DRC President Laurent Kabila, who rushed to the calvary from Goma. Both Nyamvumba and Kabareebe later served at the highest echelons of the RPA as Chief of Defence Forces.  

With fighting spreading across the outskirts, both sides claimed to have an upper hand as Rwanda commanders claimed they had encircled Ugandan forces at the city’s main airport. This fighting came at the time Museveni met Kagame at Mweya Safari Lodge from August 16 to 17, 1999 at Queen Elizabeth National Park in Kasese District. They intended to resolve the conflict between the two armies that had earlier allied in 1996 to oust the kleptocratic regime of Mobutu Sese Seko.

UN’s IRIN news later claimed that 200 UPDF officers had been killed in the Kisangani clashes.

“The truth is that nobody knows the exact death-toll on either side. We do not know how many UPDF soldiers died. The Rwandans also don’t know how many RPA soldiers died on either side,” Otafiire said shortly after his plane touched down at Entebbe airport after returning from the DRC alongside then CMI deputy chief, Maj Noble Mayombo.

Kigali responded, saying: “What Otafiire is talking about is pure lies. There has been no treachery on Rwanda’s part as it accused him of warning that he would ‘crush the Rwandese.” 

The statement added: “Otafiire is shamelessly falsifying the facts of what happened in Kisangani in order to pre-empt the investigations and clear his already tarnished name. He is seeking cheap sympathy from the public where he has been irresponsible.”

Museveni briefs the House
Kagame, then Vice President and Defence minister of Rwanda, had on August 15, 1999 arrived at Mweya by road from Kigali. As part of a speech he made before MPs on August 30, 1999, President Museveni later revealed what was discussed in granular detail. He accused the Rwanda army of firing the first shots when “on August 6, 1999, prior to the arrival of the verification mission in his area, Prof Wamba dia Wamba arrived in Kisangani. 

“The other faction, apparently backed by RPA, had laid ambushes on the road from the airport and shot at the UPDF convoys, which were clearing the way for Prof Wamba. In all this, we had promised Prof Wamba security in areas where there was some friction,” he said.

Museveni told Parliament: “When Brig Kazini sought an explanation from the RPA over the ambushes, the RPA denied responsibility and instead blamed the ambushes on the Congolese rebel groups. With these developments, the verification team, which was due to visit the areas under Wamba’s control, was called off for that day.”

Museveni also revealed: “Brig Kazini subsequently cleared the ambushes and later moved to secure strategic points within Kisangani City. Prof Wamba was then given UPDF protection under the command of Major [Ssentongo] Ddiba.”

Museveni was later briefed by Brig Kazini about the need to bring in Kisangani troop reinforcements. 

“I allowed Brig Kazini to do so, but, in the meantime, I sent Col Kale Kayihura to Rwanda to seek explanations on the activities of the RPA troops in Kisangani, and on the general arrogance of Rwanda in Congo, behaving as if they had power to veto any move they did not like, instead of looking for compromises.”

Museveni later received a message from then Assistant Secretary of State of the United States Government, Susan Rice, expressing concern that Uganda was sending reinforcements to Kisangani. Uganda’s president made clear that “we had not yet done so. It seems somebody must have been misinforming the Americans.”

Following his conversation with Ms Rice, Museveni instructed Brig Kazini to halt the deployment pending further guidance. 

“When next I spoke with Brig Kazini, he informed me that the situation in Kisangani had worsened, and that he had detected that the RPA were planning to attack UPDF positions,” the President disclosed, adding, “He had authorised the airlift of half-a-battalion from Gbadolite to Kisangani.”

Museveni proposed to Vice President Kagame that as a result of the suspicion, mutual monitoring teams should be placed at each of the airports.

“[Kagame] however, rejected the proposal, saying the problem was not at the airport. He did not like the idea of a monitoring team and I wondered what it was he could have been hiding. He proposed, instead, that the commanders of the UPDF and RPA in Kisangani should be summoned to a joint-meeting with him and myself,”  he said. 

President Museveni and his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame. Photo/File

Inside Mweya deal
A meeting was convened at Mweya Safari Lodge, where Museveni had camped for holiday. 

“Early the following day, Kagame rang me and told me that it seemed the situation in Kisangani was getting out of hand. He proposed that instead of the commanders in Kisangani coming to Uganda, other senior commanders from Uganda and Rwanda should go to Kisangani and control the situation on the ground,” he said.

As the fighting escalated, Uganda’s Commander-in-Chief handed strict orders for the UPDF not to attack and only to defend themselves when they were attacked. Museveni would later tell the House that Kagame, who arrived at Mweya at 10pm, “did not appear to treat the crisis in Kisangani with the urgency that it deserved.”

The first night hammered out the details of the agenda of the meeting, which included pushing for a mutual alliance and probing the shooting incidents when UPDF officers were disembarking from the aircraft.

As suspicion swirled during the Mweya meeting, Museveni briefed lawmakers that “Kagame went to his room. I wondered whether these people (the Rwandans) were not playing some tricks. I had told them for four days that their army was blockading our army, but they were not taking it seriously”.

Museveni continued: “Why should UPDF declare war on RPA? Last night I agreed with [Kagame] about a joint inquiry. I am still waiting for his call about operationalising it. I need a clear answer from him so that I can decide what to do. There was another proposal that I gave them twice and they did not accept it. However, the attacks against Ddiba [Ssentongo] and Otafiire [Kahinda] were continuing.I, therefore, decided that it was high time our Rwandese brothers were either allies or enemies.”

As Kagame retired to bed in the sleepy rhythms at Mweya, Museveni rang Kazini at 1am and told him to prepare for “everything and that I would call him at 7am later that morning to give him the final word.”

Museveni further revealed: “Due to our professional training, and also because of my tribal culture, I can never attack anybody without warning. That is cowardice of the worst kind. I have never attacked anybody without warning him, in broad daylight, so that he has enough time to prepare and can, therefore, give no excuse when I defeat him. I drafted a message for Kagame. He was in the next room but I wanted to put it on record.”

On August 17, 1999, Museveni wrote:  “Paulo [Kagame], in order not to unnecessarily offend the combat dignity of the UPDF, not to cause unnecessary losses due to failure of evacuating and treating casualties, as well as maintaining the ceasefire, we so badly need to end these historical mistakes and rescue our now tarnished reputations. I propose two immediate measures: a ceasefire to take place by 0900hrs (Uganda time) and uninterrupted movement of troops and supplies by 1000hrs (Uganda time).”

He added: “The two steps must be quite close because it is clear to me that, at least in terms of attempts to encircle the other, RPA has been the active one as is evidenced by the two ambushes cleared by Kazini’s company on the way to the town from UPDF headquarters yesterday (August 16, 1999) and last night. Kazini has just told me the company is now fighting at the market in town. Clearly, these blockades would destabilise any ceasefire. Let us act decisively.”

Shaky ceasefire holds
Museveni wrote: “Incidentally, when you left, I talked to Kazini again. He told me the company that was taking supplies to Ddiba [Ssentongo] had just cleared the second ambush and was on the move towards the town. I told him that he should either halt it or inform [James] Kabareebe that a supply coy was on the way. Although he was reluctant, eventually I persuaded [Kazini] to ring his counterpart. He has just told me now that when he rang Kabareebe, the other one [Kabareebe] accused him of attacking his positions and banged the telephone in his ear. We need to diffuse this situation at once.” 

Museveni in his concluding remarks to Kagame instructed Kazini that if the attacks on commander Ssentongo and Otafiire continued, [Kazini] should not wait till 10am to attack. 

“I wanted Kagame to respond clearly to this message. Since the attacks were continuing, Kazini did not [wait] for 10:00 hours. As soon as morning mist cleared, he started attacking the Rwandans’ positions between himself and Bangoka Airport. I was supposed to meet Kagame at 09:00 hours, but because of the telephone calls I was making, I delayed and we met at 10:00 hours. For the first time, I saw that Kagame was treating the situation with the requisite urgency.”

On August 17, 1999, the two leaders agreed to draft a deal, which among others called for a ceasefire to be enforced on all positions at exactly 12:00hrs (Uganda time) and any officer who violates this “will be court-martialled and all ambushes on the way to the meeting place be lifted immediately.” 

As the vultures circled Kisangani and the pungent smell permeated across the city, on August 19, 1999, Red Cross began to bury bodies of soldiers who had died on both sides of the divide and were left on the streets. Uganda flew home the corpses of the fallen comrades on the air-cargo C-130 plane. 

In the next instalment of Africa’s Forever War, we will revisit how the uneasy ceasefire did not last that long. Both the Ugandan and Rwandan armies dug trenches to fight in a senseless conflict largely driven by bruised egos.

Peace deal
On August 17, 1999, President Museveni and then Rwandan vice president Paul Kagame agreed to draft a deal, which among others called for a ceasefire to be enforced on all positions at exactly 12:00hrs (Uganda time) and any officer who violates this “will be court-martialled and all ambushes on the way to the meeting place be lifted immediately.” 

As the vultures circled Kisangani and the pungent smell permeated across the city, on August 19, 1999, Red Cross began to bury soldiers who had died on both sides of the divide and were left on the streets. Uganda flew home the corpses of the fallen comrades on the air-cargo C-130 plane.