How Kampala’s cold war with Kigali harms Uganda’s national interest and what can be done about it
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | Last week, Uganda’s Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) arrested the Vice Chancellor of Victoria University, Lawrence Muganda, apparently on charges of espionage. Muganga is not the only person who has suffered such arrest. Many Ugandans of Kinyarwanda culture are routinely arrested and detained by CMI in illegal detention facilities, held for months and even years without trial, often without charges. Many are tortured. The accusation is that they are spies of Rwanda.
It is obvious, given our very bad relations with Rwanda, that Kigali must be having many spies in our midst. It is also possible that many of those arrested are guilty. But why does CMI hold them for months or years without trial or even a charge? Apparently, CMI says, it is conducting “investigations.” This claim begs the question: why arrest before investigating?
I admire Museveni because he often keeps his eye on the big picture i.e., he is good at grand strategy. But over the last three years I have been disappointed and frustrated: this big picture disappears when it comes to dealing with Rwanda.
Grand strategy must be driven by policy. What is our policy for this region? Museveni has stated this consistently and succinctly: regional integration beginning with a customs union and then moving towards a political federation.
Museveni is the leading champion of this cause, seeing it as a personal mission he must accomplish. In fact, he has said he will not retire unless and until this vision has been attained.
Precisely because he is both its ideologue and champion, our President carries a heavy weight of responsibility to act with both tact and circumspection in the region. And for the most part, he has done this.
When Kenya and Tanzania have imposed tariffs and other restrictions on our exports in blatant violation of the East African Community (EAC) agreement, our businesspersons supported by our public officials have called for a retaliatory response. However, Museveni has consistently acted mature, insisting on restraint in order to find ways to resolve the differences amicably.
This is Museveni on grand strategy: don’t let small slights or even big quarrels distract you from your vision. It is also a grand strategy he has carefully employed in our domestic politics. Many, including me, who have criticised him, even vitriolically, have not been alienated. Instead, he has always made efforts to find some accommodation with them. Army generals such as David Tinyefuza (now Sejusa) and Henry Tumukude are the perfect example.
They fell out with him, spoken ill of him but when occasion presented itself, he reconciled with them. This practice of grand strategy has slowly and steadily calmed his opponents and critics, often winning some of them to his side as in the case of Betty Kamya, Aggrey Awori, Omara Atubo, to mention only but a few.
It is on Rwanda that grand strategy disappears. Small disagreements with Kigali are easily escalated into big quarrels. Vitriolic personal attacks by Kigali’s internet bots and trolls guide our policy towards that country. The micro trumps the macro. From grand strategy, we have descended to tactics. The vision of regional economic integration leading to political federation is lost over allegations that Kigali kidnapped some people from Uganda.
In grand strategy (and in the wider flow of history) these kidnappings are mere noise, not meaning. Don’t be distracted by them. If they ever happened, it is a moment for diplomacy, not a reason to pick a fight.
But something has gone fundamentally wrong with our policy towards Rwanda. We are relying on our intelligence agencies, especially CMI, to conduct our diplomatic relations with Kigali. Intelligence should inform and aid diplomacy. A smart chief of an intelligence organisation must know the core interest of the state he serves and use intelligence to promote that policy.
In Kampala’s relations with Kigali, intelligence is driving diplomacy, has actually supplanted diplomacy, and is driving it in a negative way. CMI is always looking for reasons for us to quarrel with Rwanda, not to fix problems with them. And I suspect they behave this way because they know “the principle” consumer of their briefs prefers it that way, hence their promotions and increased budgets and power.
I have seen many correspondences where Kigali has written memos complaining about our actions that threaten their security. It is possible that some of Kigali’s claims are wrong. But replies from our Ministry of Foreign Affairs are depressing but also illuminating. They show that the ministry of foreign affairs no longer does diplomacy. I suspect that it sends Rwandan memos to CMI for a response. From the tone in the replies, I suspect CMI replies and gives them to foreign affairs who pass them on to Kigali. And it does so with arrogance, practically dismissing everything using very hostile language. We need doves, not hawks, to handle Kigali.
Between 2011-15, I worked with Museveni on improving our relations with Kigali. I was greatly impressed by his grasp of grand strategy. Rwanda was a big destination of our exports of goods, in 2015 worth $250m, remittances by Ugandans working in Rwanda were $443m. I don’t have the number for export of services but I know it sends the largest number of tourists to Uganda and they stay the longest and has thousands of students studying here. Rwanda is, therefore, a strategic asset for our farmers, businesses and professionals.
Between 2011 and 2015, Museveni worked closely and tirelessly with presidents Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya on major infrastructure projects for the region. How can all this be ruined by mere allegations of kidnap which, I must also mention, Uganda could hardly produce evidence of. The only evidence they adduced in courts of law and to me was of three people we had officially handed over to Kigali.
Rwanda has made many mistakes, big and small, in her relations with Uganda. For instance, its internet bots and trolls declared war on Lt. Gen. Muhoozi Keinerugaba. They have made many highly personal attacks on him for reasons I cannot even understand. Yet he was a powerful voice in seeking good relations with Kigali, and he had the clout to push this case. But they alienated him. The closure of the border was, I think, a strategic mistake. But these mistakes were a response to, not the cause of, our indifference to their complaints. We need to fix the primary first before we handle that which is derivative. But do we want to? That is the question!