Rwanda-Uganda row: sovereignty or ego?

Rwanda-Uganda row: sovereignty or ego?

By Emeka-Mayaka Gekara

President Uhuru Kenyatta landed in Kigali, Rwanda on March 11, just two days after his host, Paul Kagame, arrived from Dar es Salaam. Kagame’s Tanzania trip was particularly significant, coming at the height of an escalating diplomatic and commercial feud with Uganda which threatens to disrupt economic integration and regional trade.

Details of the Dar meeting were not made public but Kagame’s mission could be barely disguised given the timing of the trip – he had gone to secure an alternative for some of Rwanda’s exports, just in case Uganda boycotted.

Landlocked Rwanda is served by two major transport routes: the Central Corridor that runs from Dar es Salaam to Kigali through Tanzania’s heartland, and the Northern Corridor which stretches from Mombasa through Kenya and Uganda.

About 80 per cent of Rwanda’s import cargo is handled through the port at Dar, but its major exports — minerals, tea and coffee — go through Uganda to Mombasa.

Kagame and his Ugandan neighbour, President Yoweri Museveni have been beating drums of war, the culmination of which was the closure of the Rwanda-Uganda border at Katuna on February 28. Dr Richard Sezibera, Rwanda’s Foreign Affairs minister then issued a statement advising Rwandans against travelling to Uganda “for their own safety.”

Rwanda also blocked Ugandan cargo trucks from entering its territory through Katina, its busiest crossing point. Hundreds of cargo trucks carrying fuel, food, construction materials and other items from Kenya and Uganda were affected.

The closure, which Kigali said was meant to allow for construction of a One-Stop Border Post (OSBP) caused a logistical nightmare and disrupted movement of goods and people, raising accusations that Kigali had imposed a trade embargo against Uganda with the aim of crippling its economy.

At the heart of the conflict are accusations and counter-accusations between the two countries. Kagame accuses Uganda of hosting forces opposed to his regime, as well as arresting, torturing and deporting Rwandese on claims of spying.

Kagame is persuaded that the Museveni is seeking regime change in Kigali. Museveni holds the reverse is true.

Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda, a friend of both Kagame and Museveni, thinks that the two countries “will most likely end up in war,” and he blames it all on Museveni’s indifference.

On the kidnappings, the arrest of General Kale Kayihura, who served as Uganda’s police chief has been cited. Kayihura was arrested in June last year and charged alongside nine others – including senior police officers, a Rwandan army officer, and a Congolese national – with aiding and abetting the kidnap and repatriation of Rwandan nationals. He denies the allegations. The latest high-profile deportation is that of Annie Tabura, who was a manager at telecommunication company MTN Uganda. Tabura was deported in January for allegedly using her position to “undermine Uganda’s national security.”

Dr Sezibera, on March 5, accused Uganda of reinforcing two foreign-based Rwanda rebel groups – the Rwanda National Congress (RNC) and Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). Kigali also demands that Uganda repatriates businessman Tribert Rujugiro, seen as the main a funder of groups opposed to Kagame including FDLR.

The FDLR is a rebel group composed of former Rwandese soldiers and Hutu militiamen who fled into the Democratic Republic of Congo after massacring around 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus during the 1994 genocide. They have sworn to topple Kagame.

Kigali cites a recent report compiled by the UN Group of Experts which accuses Uganda of arming and providing logistical support to anti-Rwanda elements based in South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Uganda strongly refutes the claim.

“RNC and FDLR work from Uganda with support of some authorities there. This is another serious case and we have raised it with them,” Sezibera told a news conference. The RNC is a rebel group led by some of Rwanda’s most prominent dissidents, including South Africa-based Kayumba Nyamwasa.

The former army chief fled to South Africa in 2014 and has been a thorn in Kagame’s fresh. He has criticised what he sees as Kagame’s dictatorship, accusing him of ordering the killing of individuals opposed to his regime.

The UN report dated December 31, 2018 suggested that Gen. Nyamwasa is recruiting fighters and getting ammunition from Burundi, Uganda and DR Congo.

The report by a UN Group of Experts says that Nyamwasa has frequently visited the region on a recruiting drive for a newly formed rebel group called Platform Five. The group reportedly operates from Eastern Congo. 

Meanwhile, embattled Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza who was almost uprooted from power in 2015 following an abortive coup, blames Kagame for his woes. Kagame has dismissed Bujumbura’s claim that he inspired the failed coup.

Nkurunziza, on December 4, 2018, wrote a strongly worded  letter to Museveni to call for an emergency meeting of the regional leaders to resolve what he called as Rwanda’s “aggression” against his country.

“In addition to the fact that Rwanda prepared and supervised the coup d’état of 2015, the coup perpetrators and other criminals have taken up residence in Rwanda where they receive support to attack Burundi, crossing Rwanda-Burundi border or via the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as getting assistance and travel documents to enable them to circulate in the region and even in Europe,” he wrote.

“Rwanda is…the main destabiliser of my country and, therefore, I no longer consider it a partner country, but simply as an enemy country.”

Seemingly, Kagame is waging war with both Kampala and Bujumbura. But it is the latest standoff with Museveni that is raising tension, prompting calls for mediation. Before the boarder closure, there was a disturbing exchange of words between Museveni and Kagame.

The Rwanda strongman has not adorned military fatigues for a decade, but on December 11, he turned up at an army combat training centre during a drill and issued a stern warning to Rwanda’s enemies, a statement which was interpreted to be directed at Uganda.

“You can attempt to destabilise our country, you can do us harm, you can shoot me with a gun and kill me. But there is one thing that is impossible,” he charged. “No one can bring me to my knees,” he declared.

The statement prompted a response from Museveni.

“Those who want to destabilise our country do not know our capacity. It is very big. Once we mobilise, you can’t survive.”

It is the sound of the war drums that drew President Kenyatta to Kigali in a bid to mediate what seems to be morphing into a full-blown conflict. After Kigali, Kenyatta flew to Entebbe where he met Museveni. But the impression formed after the meeting is that President Museveni was indifferent.

Shared history

Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda, a friend of both Kagame and Museveni, thinks that the two countries “will most likely end up in war.”And he blames it on Museveni’s indifference, an accusation that Kagame has made as well. Some observers see the conflict as an ego fight between the two strongmen.

Kagame and Museveni share history. The two have helped each other to attain power.

Museveni mentored Kagame who, as a refugee in Kampala, joined the then National Resistance Movement to topple Milton Obote. Museveni later backed Kagame and his group of rebels who were mobilising in Uganda to seize power after the 1994 genocide.

“I personally tried several times to interest Museveni in the issues Rwanda was raising but he either expressed indifference or paid lip service or said he will discuss them directly with Kagame… he did not,” wrote Mwenda in his The Independent magazine.

The problem between Uganda and Rwanda, he thinks, is the refusal of Kampala to listen to the concerns raised by Kigali, to sit and thrash them out.

Uhuru’s mediation seems to have failed but they have been overtures to the two leaders to address their issues to avert conflict that could disturb regional peace and trade. According to 2017 data from the World Bank, Rwanda was Uganda’s fifth biggest export market, selling about $180m worth of goods. Rwanda exported $10m worth of product to Uganda. (

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