By Andrew M. Mwenda
Museveni and Kagame’s reconciliation about year ago was a diplomatic coup for the history books. After 13 years of rivalry and mutual distrust, with accusations of mutual sabotage and assassination plots, they rebuilt their friendship relying on the most rudimentary of diplomatic props, yet the simplest and dearest of traditions – family, cows and Christmas. That is worked should be a valuable lesson to students of diplomacy and politics.
On December 23, 2011, Presidents Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Paul Kagame of Rwanda drove in the same car from Katuna border to the home of Mrs. Constance Kabonero, in Ntungamo, for lunch. Kagame had come with his entire family: wife Jeanette, daughter Ange and sons, Ian and Brian. Ivan, the oldest son, was still on his way from the United States to join them later. From Mrs. Kabonero’s home the two presidents parted – Museveni headed for Rwakitura, Kagame for Mweya Safari Lodge in Queen Elizabeth National Park.
Kagame spent the next day visiting the park with his family and looked happy and relaxed. Later in the day he even took time off to referee a soccer match between two teams composed of family and friends – Manchester United supporters versus Arsenal, where the former beat the latter 3-1. The Rwandan president was jovial and relaxed; a sea-change from previous visits to Uganda which were filled with tension. He even took off time to take pictures with Ugandans holidaying at Mweya.
Early morning on May 25th, Kagame drove from Mweya to Rwakitura to join the Museveni family for Christmas. Ivan had landed in Kigali the previous day and flown to Rwakitura to join his family. There, they found the Museveni family waiting to receive them: the president, his wife Janet, son Muhoozi Keinerugaba and his wife Charlotte and their children; first daughter Natasha, her husband Edwin Karugire and their children; second daughter Patience and her children (her husband Odrek Rwabwogo was absent) and third daughter Diana, her husband Geoffrey Kamuntu and their children; and others in the Museveni family, including a family friend from Tanzania.
It was a grand reunion as the two families sat for lunch and then later moved to the sprawling gardens to take pictures. But it also underscored a key shift in the regional political and diplomatic alignment. Uganda and Rwanda had been at loggerheads for over a decade. The two countries and their presidents had fallen from close friends and allies to bitter rivalry. Their armies had fought three pitched battles in the Congolese town of Kisangani. The intelligence organisations of the two countries had reported severally of plots by either president to overthrow the government of the other, and worse, to murder one another.
For those observing the cordial and relaxed atmosphere that Christmas day at Rwakitura, a sea-change had taken place between the two presidents, their families and their countries. Yes challenges remained but a closer relationship had been crafted. How had this happened when only eleven months earlier, Museveni had summoned Rwanda’s High Commissioner to Uganda and given him a message for his president, that Kagame had allied with Libyan leader at the time, Muammar Gadaffi, to overthrow his government?
Apparently, Muhoozi had sat with friends and decided to take the initiative to bridge the communication gap that had fed the distance between the two presidents and their establishments. He wanted to go to Rwanda and establish an informal contact between the two presidents. But it would send a signal to many other players, especially security organisations that were feeding each side with toxic intelligence, that there was contact between the two, at such a close family level, to end the standoff. If that happened, Muhoozi and his colleagues reasoned, it might make intelligence chiefs more careful when reporting intelligence to the presidents.
To initiate such a delicate process, Muhoozi sought and got a nod from one of the most influential people on such matters, his uncle, Gen. Caleb Akandwanaho aka Salim Saleh. Without Saleh’s support, Muhoozi’s leverage would be weak. With Saleh on board, Muhoozi now needed to find out if Kagame would welcome the olive branch. He sent an emissary to the Rwandan president suggesting a meeting with him to begin the process. Kagame welcomed the idea and gave Muhoozi a go-ahead to play role of contact between him and Museveni. With Kagame on board, Muhoozi now needed to bring his plans to his father’s attention – and he did.
However Museveni was wary of the visit and said he needed to meet some of Muhoozi’s friends to hear out their plan. When he listened to the reasons why it was necessary to begin talks, the Ugandan president did the unthinkable. “I have known Paulo [Kagame] for many years and no one knows him better than me,” Museveni is said to have pronounced, “So I will personally travel to Rwanda for a visit and open the dialogue myself.” In just one masterstroke, Museveni had unlocked an incredible diplomatic momentum.
On April 21, Uganda’s president wrote a letter to Kagame saying that he felt strongly that the two of them should sit down and iron out their differences for the good of the region and their countries. “I would like to come and visit your country,” the letter said, “So that we can sit and iron out these differences amicably”. It was a bold and unprecedented move that, sources say, took Kagame by complete surprise. For a moment, Kagame was taken aback; could this be true?
But having known Museveni for long, sources close to Kagame say, the Rwandan president was quick to smell the opportunity in this gesture and understood that Museveni must be serious. Museveni had sent a message to Kagame that he intended to stay for four days. Kagame suggested that two days be spent at his country home in Muhazi so that the two presidents could even graze cows together, a very informal interaction that provided a powerful glue to create understanding, reconstruct their personal friendship and move the formal process forward. Museveni welcomed it.
Thus, on Friday July 29, 2011, at exactly 4.15pm, a Gulf Stream Five executive jet touched the tarmac at Kigali International Airport. There was a lot of excitement, mixed with tension and anxiety among some dignitaries who had been waiting for more than two hours, especially from the Rwandan security establishment. As the jet landed safely and began taxing on the tarmac, one could even feel a sigh of relief.
This was the first time Museveni was travelling to Rwanda by plane in 13 years. Officials in Rwanda believe, and their counterparts in Uganda confirm, that the President had always been afraid that Rwandan officials could easily shoot his plane out of the skies. Everyone who knows him says Museveni can do many risky things but he cannot compromise his personal security. This time, to demonstrate confidence in improved relations with Rwanda, he decided to take the bold step and fly into Kigali.
Rwandan and Ugandan security and political officials did not believe it until they actually saw the plane touch the ground. For many Rwandan officials, there was suspicion that Museveni had little or no confidence in them. For Museveni, it was an important demonstration of confidence in Rwanda’s improving relations with Uganda. If there were still any doubts in Kagame’s mind that Museveni had decided to turn a new page, they were now significantly reduced.
However, before this Museveni visit, Kagame had taken an audacious step to build confidence. He had sent his wife and three of his children (minus Ivan), to Kampala to visit the Museveni family. Janet Museveni, sources in Kigali and Kampala say, handled the visit very well. She made a profound impression on Rwanda’s First Lady and the children. Also, sources say, Muhoozi won the love and admiration of Rwanda’s first family for the care and attention he gave them during their four day visit to Uganda.
At a dinner at State House Nakasero, Mrs. Kagame asked Mrs. Museveni if she could accompany her husband on his scheduled visit to Rwanda. The date had been set. Janet Museveni promised. Sources close to the first family in Kigali say that when the First Lady and the children returned to Kigali, there was an atmosphere of celebration that the visit was a success. It is said that Kagame was personally touched by how Muhoozi, Janet Museveni and President Museveni personally had hosted his family and felt a deep sense of gratitude. He even sent a special thank you message to Muhoozi.
As the Ugandan president’s visit approached, Museveni sent his advance team to Kigali. Kagame instructed his officials to treat the team generously. Rwandan presidential guard officers would take their PGB counterparts (Presidential Guard Brigade) to the Officers’ Mess for sumptuous dinners every evening. The cooperation between them in security arrangements, sources say, had been unprecedented.
However, Museveni wanted to keep Kagame’s spirit of building informal ties as a stepping stone to strengthening formal relations. So he decided to go for a state visit alongside a private one. First, he would visit with his wife and one of his daughters. He selected Natasha Karugire. That was the informal part. For the formal part, he would have his key ministers there. He would also spend Friday and Monday in Kigali on official business; and the entire weekend (Saturday and Sunday) at Kagame’s country home in Muhazi where the two families would spend time together.
At Muhazi, there was initially no discussion of politics – only social interaction. Thus, during lunch, the only non-family members were the waiters and waitresses serving them – and a fly on the wall that kept The Independent informed of what was happening. The families discussed Ankole and Kinyarwanda culture and language and the similarities between them. They talked about the coming of colonial rule and the internal divisions in Africa that made colonial conquest possible. Lessons from Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart were supplemented with a discussion of the work of Cheikh Anti Diop on the contribution of black people to civilisation.
Kagame told Museveni about the genome project where he surrendered his DNA for testing and found his ancestry is a cocktail of many races from Palestine to China, from Cameroon to Senegal and Kenya. Kagame said his wife had also done a similar test and she was more genetically diversified. Museveni proposed that he too should do it and asked if Janet would accept. Then a string of jokes and laughter followed as Mrs. Museveni refused the offer severally while Museveni insisted, teasing her that it was because of her Christian views.
By the time the lunch ended it was close to 5pm; it had lasted nearly four hours. Both families retired to their quarters to rest; Kagame’s in the main family house, Museveni’s in the guest wing detached from the main house. Kagame and Museveni met again with their wives for evening tea at 8pm. At 9pm, the two presidents went into a private discussion in Kagame’s personal study. The First Ladies sat in the living room waiting – one hour, two, three, four hours and the meeting was still going on. Someone advised that that was a sign that things were going very well, the two presidents were connecting.
It was not until past 1am that the two presidents ended their meeting and retired to their rooms. After that, Kagame and his wife talked into the wee hours of the morning during which it was agreed that for lunch the next day on Sunday , they should invite the foreign ministers and ambassadors of both countries, plus a few of their trusted advisors. Kagame’s PPS (Principal Private Secretary) was given the unenviable task of locating the guests so deep in the night, to make sure they would be at Muhazi the next day for lunch.
Both presidents woke up early on Sunday morning; Museveni took time off to read his favourite military treatise, On War by Clausewitz, while Kagame read Fidel Castro’s My life. After breakfast, the two presidents, Kagame’s wife and Museveni’s daughter Natasha Karugire, boarded a boat to go to see Kagame’s “Rwandese” cattle in a paddock across the lake from the house. Mrs. Museveni remained behind. At the paddock, they were joined by journalists. Kagame’s herdsmen recited traditional poems when they saw Museveni, something that made the Ugandan president beam with excitement.
Museveni walked around explaining things about almost every cow, the names of the different plant species and the purpose they serve in cattle nutrition. Kagame listened attentively, occasionally explaining the things he has been doing on the farm. Behind them, Jeanette Kagame and Natasha Karugire could be seen engrossed in deep and friendly conversation. Apparently, the two had also connected well.
The grazing went on for more than an hour until the two presidents reached a small kraal with ten cows in it. As Museveni admired the cows, Kagame told him that he had specially prepared those cows for him to take home as a gift. Museveni did not hear the sentence properly and thought Kagame was asking him to choose which one of the ten cows in the kraal hewanted. Kagame corrected the Uganda president saying all the cows there were his to take.
Those who know him say Museveni rarely shows emotion. However, this time he was openly emotional about the offer and turned to shake hands with Kagame three times, each time saying “urakoze cyane” meaning ‘thank you very much’. Museveni was even more generous in his gratitude as he told Kagame that when he returned to Uganda, he would now be swearing in Kagame’s name, saying “Paulo ayampha inka”, meaning ‘Paulo who gave me cows’.
Kagame and Museveni’s security detail were extremely relaxed as they noticed that their two presidents were walking around and talking like brothers, where previously they had been bitter rivals. The presidents also interacted with the journalists and photographers well, Museveni making poking jokes at NTV’s Maurice Mugisha, accusing him of reporting lies. The herdsmen on the farm were excited too as Museveni spoke to them in a combination of broken Kinyarwanda, Kinyankore and English, and kept throwing questions about different cow habits at them.
As the grazing came to end, the two presidents walked to the boat to sail back to the Kagame residence. Upon sitting on the boat, someone suggested they take a ride on the 120km long stretch of this winding lake. Museveni agreed. The driver of the boat hit the accelerator as Rwanda Defence Forces marine boats speeded on each side, providing a protective guard to the two presidents and their family members.
A boat ride that was envisaged to last five minutes lasted more than 30 minutes as Kagame took Museveni around the different arms of the lake, showing him hills and homes of different Rwandans who came from Uganda. What the program had sought to achieve, to make the two presidents develop a strong personal connection, was succeeding far beyond imagination. The cattle grazing expedition, meant to last one and a half hours, lasted three as the boat driver turned it round to ride back to the residence.
Back at the residence, Kagame’s security detail brought a Range Rover Sport into the compound; Kagame jumped in to drive while Museveni took the passenger seat, and the two presidents began driving around the farm. They visited the Friesian cattle used for diary milk, which Kagame had separated from the “Rwandese” i.e. indigenous cows. From there they visited the mechanised milking area, the cooling plant, and the packaging section, which Kagame abandoned.
These earlier developments therefore set the tone and shaped the mood at Christmas in Rwakitura. On the morning of December 26, the two presidents and their wives sat under a shady tree talking about nothing in particular. They took family pictures and reminisced about old days in Luwero. Later they boarded a helicopter to Kisozi, President Museveni’s second and largest ranch. Wearing cowboy huts, the two first families set out to spend the day grazing cows. They drove from one kraal to another, Museveni in the driver’s seat, Kagame the co-driver’s seat. The first ladies sat in the back seats. There was an atmosphere of one family enjoying Boxing Day.
In January 2012, Museveni crowned this process by officially recognising the role Rwandans played in Uganda’s liberation when he bestowed the Kagera Medal on Kagame and Fred Rwigyema (posthumously) during the 26th anniversary of NRM’s coming to power. Museveni also bestowed upon Kagame the highest medal the state of Uganda can give – only reserved for heads of state – the Pearl of Africa Medal.