Behind the worsening relations between Kampala and Kigali
On August 24, former Inspector General of Police in Uganda, Kale Kayihura, was charged in a military court martial with kidnapping (by omission or commission) “Rwandan exiles” aided by junior officers between 2012 and 2016. Although the accusation is in plural, only one victim was named – a Lt. Mutabazi. This same charge was made against police officers close to Kayihura last year.
Kayihura was also accused of failure to protect war materials – which fell into the hands of Boda Boda 2010, a civil group Kayihura was using to deal with protests in Kampala. The other was “failure to supervise arms and ammunitions in Flying Squad, Criminal Intelligence and Investigation Department and the Special Operations Unit”.
Anyone conversant with national and regional politics can see a code-name for a coup plot. In Kigali, they would see an attempt to link them to such a plot. The deterioration in the relations between Uganda and Rwanda is vexing. But to understand it better, we need to first look at the relationship between Kampala and Juba.
In December 2013, Uganda sent troops to South Sudan to prop the then rapidly collapsing government of President Salva Kiir. I took to traditional and social media arguing that our government was committing a strategic blunder. I argued that we could not solve the intractable problems of South Sudan. Therefore,we should give the war a chance so that either one side secures a decisive military victory, or both sides are exhausted by fighting and find mutual accommodation more attractive than further combat.
Then in late January 2014, I met President Yoweri Museveni in State House Entebbe. He said my arguments on South Sudan were misinformed. Uganda had not intervened in that country to fix its problems; that was a secondary aim. The primary aim, he said, was to safeguard the national interest of Uganda, which he outlined.
First, he said, the fall of the Kiir government would inevitably have led to the disintegration of the state in South Sudan. Riek Machar did not have effective control over the militias that were about to take over Juba and the takeover would lead to a bloodbath. A chaotic South Sudan would create opportunities for Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Movement to reconstitute and launch attacks on Uganda, Museveni said.
Second, Museveni told me, South Sudan was the fastest growing market for Uganda exports. I later checked and found our exports to South Sudan in 2013 were $330 million. He said northern Uganda was recovering from civil war and South Sudan was a big driver of economic recovery because it was buying our food. So its collapse would be economically ruinous to Ugandan traders and farmers.
Thirdly, Museveni told me that as a pan-Africanist and a revolutionary with ideological ties to Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), he felt a humanitarian obligation to help our South Sudan brothers avoid a bloodbath. I was convinced by these arguments although he was vague about what would constitute “success” of such a mission, how long he felt it would last, and what his exit strategy was.
On an earlier visit to Kigali, I had talked to President Paul Kagame of Rwanda over the unfolding crisis in South Sudan and Uganda’s involvement in it. Kagame told me Museveni’s decision was correct, and he supported it. He said if he were in Museveni’s shoes he would have done the same thing. In my meeting with Museveni, I told him about Kagame’s position, which he appreciated.
I was impressed by Museveni’s arguments. Governments in Africa are often under the control of foreign interests. Hence state action in domestic and foreign policy tends to represent foreign ideological positions as opposed to domestic interests. I was happy Uganda had a leader with a clear grasp of our national interests, and he is willing to use our military power to safeguard them.
Yet the South Sudan story above stands in stark contrast to the deterioration of relations between Kampala and Kigali. In May of this year, the two nations amassed troops near the border ready to battle. It is only when Kagame made an impromptu visit to Entebbe that tensions cooled down. Since then, military preparations on both sides have picked apace. This is a slippery slope.
I have worked closely with presidents Museveni and Kagame on the relations between the two countries as a volunteer i.e. I am not a paid employee of either state. This has allowed me some distance to analyse the problem with a degree of independence. So this article is really a view of a Ugandan who is an outside-insider in the two states.
Post-genocide Rwanda is, to a big degree, a product of Uganda, specifically Museveni. It is no exaggeration to say that without him, the liberation of Rwanda would have been a bleak possibility. Many leaders of Rwanda today were politically initiated and militarily trained in Uganda. Many aspects of the post genocide political and economic reconstruction drew heavily on lessons from Uganda.
Of course this assistance was not a one way. Thousands of Rwandans actively participated in Uganda’s liberation struggle. Many lost their lives. It is, therefore, also no exaggeration to say that without them the struggle in Luwero would have been very difficult.
This history has integrated the two countries – especially economically. Rwanda sends the largest number of tourists into Uganda and they stay longest in our country. It is the largest destination of Ugandan labour; both high and low skill. Rwanda has tens of thousands of students studying in Uganda from primary school to university. It is also the largest destination of Ugandan investments.
In 2000, our export of goods to Rwanda was $9 million, in 2014, $270 million – 30-fold growth.
In 2000, our export of goods to Rwanda was $9 million, in 2014, $270 million – 30-fold growth.
I used to be a critic of Museveni’s military interventions in the region. But I was focusing on his subjective motivations and ignored the objective outcome of these military adventures. Looking back, I can now see their value. They have done more to integrate our region economically than the East African Community has done. Whenever and wherever our troops have gone, our traders and industrialists have followed. It is not surprising, therefore, that today one third of our total exports ($900 million) go to South Sudan, Rwanda, and DR Congo where our troops have been.
Thus one would think that given the above, Uganda would treat the relationship with Rwanda as strategic. I always felt Kampala would (and should) court Kigali the way a man courts a pretty woman, or a businessperson does customers. If there were any misunderstandings, Kampala would be at hand to seek a resolution.
So what is the issue between the two countries? Museveni has always told me there is no major problem. But informally I hear allegations that Rwanda has done something sinister to Uganda. A cloud of suspicion hangs in the air. One of these allegations is that Kigali has with the help of Kayihura and the Uganda police, been kidnapping Rwandans from Uganda and taking them back to Rwanda where it kills them. But Kampala has NEVER made a formal or even informal protest to Kigali over this allegation.
I am aware, however, that through Interpol, Rwanda and Uganda had an arrangement to exchange suspects. Kampala officially handed over nine suspects to Rwanda and Kigali handed 26 suspects to Uganda. Are these the kidnappings Uganda talks about?
Museveni has never made this allegation of kidnappings although his military, political, and intelligence officials have repeatedly made it. When he was minister for security, Henry Tumukude, told me he had over 100 families of Rwandans in Uganda who have lost their relatives through these kidnappings. I asked him to bring evidence – in vain. Mutabazi was handed over officially by the state of Uganda to the state of Rwanda even though the officials involved did not follow the established legal procedures. Kampala also knows these officials acted in good faith.
For some years, I worked as a kind of “quasi private envoy” to Kigali, specifically to Kagame on a purely volunteer basis.
In this capacity, Rwanda has expressed to me many concerns: the presence in Uganda of people accused of genocide crimes in Rwanda, the presence of Rwandan political dissidents whom Kigali accuses of actively recruiting rebels (with collaboration of our security officials) to join armed rebel groups against Rwanda based in Congo. And the freedom Tribert Rujugiro, who is accused by Kigali of funding rebels hostile to Rwanda, has to do business in Uganda.
Ishared these concerns with Museveni. He told me Uganda cannot host genocide suspects. He suggested that a way be found to hand them over to Rwanda. He also said Rwandan political dissidents seeking sanctuary in Uganda should be sent to a third country. On Rujugiro, he said if there is evidence he is supporting rebels against Rwanda, his business presence in Uganda would be reconsidered. Recently he told me Rujugiro had agreed to sell his business in Uganda.
I participated in official meetings between the two governments to achieve these aims but progress was never forthcoming on the Ugandan side. Kigali sent files on 208 suspects accused of genocide crimes but Kampala never did anything on them.There were discussions to get Uganda to ratify an extradition treaty it signed with Rwanda in 2009 but it got nowhere. Meetings were held, decisions taken, timelines agreed to resolve these problems but the state in Uganda consistently proved unable to move.
One incident stands out. In 2013, 16 students escaped from Rwanda to Uganda. Upon arrival at Old Kampala Police Station they sought asylum claiming their government was forcing them to repeat exams. Uganda officials said this cannot be a reason for seeking refugee status andasked the government of Rwanda to take them back.
The Rwandan High Commission in Kampala arranged transport. But the night before departure, Uganda security operatives went and helped these students change their statements. They did not know that Rwanda had infiltrated the group. The students now claimed they had escaped Rwanda because the government in Kigali wanted to force them to join M23, a Congolese rebel group.
Soon the students we on international media making allegations that fitted the line certain international players wanted to spin around Kigali. They claimed that Rwanda hosts bases for the training of M23 rebels. Kigali watched in consternation as the story was changed. I warned many Ugandan officials even at high levels that this show of bad faith was undermining trust between the two nations. Rwanda may cease to see these as isolated incidents by a few errant officials but as a deliberate strategy by Kampala.
As a Ugandan who always had to listen to Rwandan officials complaining and also witness Ugandan officials drag their feet, I felt frustrated. There seems to be a deeply held suspicion in Kampala about Kigali’s intention and every move. This mistrust is like a clan totem. Every request by Kigali is interpreted to represent some sinister intent. Yet the suspicion itself is never officially or informally stated. Over time, Kigali developed the view that this is evidence of a sinister and hostile intent by Kampala.
There is a widespread view in official circles in Kampala also shared by the opposition, “civil society”, academia and mass media in Uganda that Kagame does not forgive his critics and Kigali kills dissidents. I always tell Ugandan officials that even if their suspicions were correct, how Rwanda deals with her politics should not influence how we relate to her because it is not our business. What would Uganda say if Rwanda made our government’s treatment of Bobi Wine and other opposition legislators an issue in our bilateral relations?
Yet most of these suspicions were ill informed. I interceded with Kagame to pardon Patrick Karegyeya, to meet Rujugiro and release Kalisa Mupende all of which he agreed to, even though reluctantly. In each of these cases, these people turned around and betrayed what we agreed to. I will write the details of these cases in a separate article. The point is the prejudices in Kampala do not fit the facts.
The examples I have given here are by no means exhaustive. But they give a general picture of the things that have torn our two countries apart. Rwandan officials were increasingly becoming of the view that Uganda was up to some mischief against their government and it was covering it up. The complaints by Kigali and the poor effort by Kampala to meaningfully address them began to cloud every decision, however innocent, Uganda made in its relations with Rwanda.
For example, discussions by the Coalition of the Willing (COW) on the Northern Corridor infrastructure plans began. Uganda kept shifting its position on the Standard Gauge Railway – whether its first priority would be the southern route to Kigali on the northern route to South Sudan. I made many efforts to get the two presidents and governments on the same page but this remained constantly elusive. There was also a delay by Kampala to complete the construction of an electricity transmission line to Rwanda; the same applied to the fibre optic line from Kampala to Katuna.
It is possible some of these delays reflected the incompetence that characterises the state in Uganda. But in the context of raising suspicions, Kigali began to see them as part of a grand strategy by Kampala to undermine her economic development. Failure cannot be on every issue. Hence, whenever something between Rwanda and Uganda was not working, Kigali saw it as deliberate sabotage.
Thus, when Rwandair applied for rights to fly out of Entebbe to London and Brussels, the atmosphere of suspicion was toxic. International aviation law allows Fifth Freedom landing rights. Here the airline based in one country is allowed to drop and pick passengers from the airport of another country. Uganda and Rwanda did even better. They have a bilateral agreement for this.
Rwandair applied to Uganda’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to pick and drop passengers on its flights from Kigali to London and Brussels. CAA promised to get back to them but never did. I discussed this with Ugandan officials, including Museveni, but a clear answer was not forthcoming. One day a highly-placed Ugandan official told me that Uganda was planning to launch an airline. It would be disadvantageous if it granted Rwandair these rights.
I told him this would violate our bilateral agreement with Kigali. It would also undermine the spirit of regional integration. Uganda has a trade surplus with Rwanda in hundreds of millions of US dollars. Should Rwanda ban Ugandan goods to close this trade deficit? You cannot build a functional relationship where all gains go to you and when you anticipate a disadvantage you change goal posts.
I had to constantly explain these inexplicable Ugandan positions to Rwanda. Often times Kagame would say I am being naïve. And officials in Kampala would say I am pushing Rwanda’s agenda.
Soon Kigali was accusing Kampala of planning regime change. I felt if Kigali believes this, they would not sit idly and watch. Yet whatever contingency measures they would put in place for self-protection or to retaliate would leak to Kampala. Soon Kampala would also begin counter plans. This portends a risky escalation.
Uganda has been a huge beneficiary of Rwanda’s economic growth. Our country is Rwanda’s supermarket. Our farmers and industrialists make hundreds of millions of dollars every year selling their products and produce to Rwanda. In the last ten years (2007-2016) we have sold goods worth $2.2 billion to Rwanda yet it has sold to us goods worth a paltry $85.5 million – a trade surplus of $2.1 billion.
Now this is not to mention export of services and capital. Ugandan professionals work and earn foreign exchange for us in Rwanda. Our schools, from primary to university, are teeming with tens of thousands of students from Rwanda. We receive the largest number of visitors from Rwanda and they stay the longest. Ugandan investors go to Rwanda more than any other country in this region.
Now remember the story of South Sudan with which this article began. We were willing to sacrifice our blood and treasure by sending our military to prop the government in Juba in defense of our national interests. Yet we are unwilling to sacrifice the least diplomatic effort to improve our relationship with Rwanda. I cannot understand this.
We always bend backwards to appease the Chinese, Americans, Europeans,etc. Yet our economic interests are best served by our neighbours. In 2016, we earned $2.9 billion from our export of goods. Of this, nearly $1.5 billion (52%)was earned from our four neighbours in the region: Kenya ($485m), DR Congo ($400m), South Sudan ($281m), Rwanda ($226m) and Tanzania ($112m).Our imports from them were $570 i.e. a trade surplus of over $900 million.
In 2016, the entire European Union with a Gross Domestic Product of $17.4 trillion imported goods from Uganda worth only $430 million, less than Kenya’s $485 million with a GDP of $80 billion. The United States and Canada, with a combined GDP of $21 trillion bought from us goods worth $52 million, or 20% of what Rwanda with a GDP of only $9 billion bought from us. China with a GDP of $12 trillion bought goods worth only $27 million from Uganda while India with a GDP of $2.6 trillion bought from us goods worth only $45 million.
I have deliberately omitted other areas of cooperation between Uganda and Rwanda such as security, crime, diplomacy that would make us stronger and better. I have focused on economic issues, not because they are the most important, but because they are measurable.
Museveni has been the most vocal advocate of the EAC. These figures vindicate his argument for regional integration. The work of our political institutions including the security services should be agents promoting this vision. Instead they have been instrumental in selling him rumours that are undermining a strategic relationship.
Museveni has often acted as a reconciler and unifier when problems have arisen in Kenya, South Sudan,Burundi, and DR Congo. In 2011, he successfully reconciled with Rwanda. I worked closely with him and was profoundly impressed by his bold vision and strategic considerations. Yet today, narrow-minded officials incapable of appreciating our national interests have taken control of foreign policy.
If Kigali feels Kampala is a threat, her strategic objective would be to reduce her dependence on Uganda. It will begin to reorient its economy away from Ugandan exports by turning her gaze to Tanzania and beyond. When policies like these are adopted in the short term, they have long-term implications. So even if Uganda tried to mend fences a year or two from now, Rwanda will have invested too heavily in alternative markets to turn her back.
The state in Uganda seems dis-articulated from the interests of its farmers, traders, investors, and workers. Since these quarrels began, scores of our traders and investors have been asking me what is going on and what can be done to stop the slide. Many have lost their contracts to supply the government in Kigali. Some have lost their jobs. Rwandan manufacturers who depend on Ugandan inputs are being asked to look for alternative sources. In the next three years, Uganda’s exports to Rwanda may have plummeted to a trickle.
Hence state policies and actions are increasingly dis-articulated from the president’s vision of regional peace and integration and from the interests of our farmers, traders, and manufacturers. In my many unhappy encounters with Ugandan officials, I have been greatly disappointed by the lack of appreciation of our national interest.
It is not a must that Uganda has to have a good relationship with Rwanda. However if our relationship with Kigali has to collapse, this must be based on something fundamental – actions of the Rwanda state that threaten our national security or economic well being. In my encounters with Ugandan officials, I have not heard any strong reason for this.