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President Kagame with Ntare School old boys at the dinner held at the Kigali Convention Center. (PHOTO/URUGWIRO)

How Ntare Lions League boosted Uganda-Rwanda relations

Kampala, Uganda | IAN KATUSIIME  | Described as the greatest caravan to Rwanda since 1990 when the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) launched a guerilla war to liberate their country, the journey of Ntare School Old Boys, with friends and well-wishers to watch the Ntare Lions League finale that was held in Kigali on March 9 at the IPRC stadium is being hailed for the diplomatic coup it pulled off: getting more than a thousand Ugandans into Rwanda through sport.

Analysts and observers are raving about the impact the Ntare league finale could have on relations between Uganda and Rwanda, two brotherly nations that have experienced bilateral tensions in the recent past.

Previous attempts at boosting relations have been made by high ranking ministers, tough talking Generals and high flying diplomats. But according to the multitudes of Ugandans who travelled to Kigali over the Women’s Day public holiday, all are nothing compared to the Ntare League extravaganza because of the ordinary Ugandans who made it possible.

More than twenty buses, hundreds of private cars, numbering over a thousand crossed the Katuna border en route to Kigali for the highly anticipated finale of the Ntare Lions League, a Sunday football league that brings together teams from Ntare School cohorts from the 1990s to the 2020s.

On March 8, a day before the finale, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, an old boy of the school, hosted Ntare alumni under their umbrella Ntare School Old Boys Association (NSOBA) to a dinner at the Kigali Convention Centre in an event that set the tempo for the long awaited day.

The dinner breathed a much needed informality and calmness to the Uganda-Rwanda affair that has always been punctuated by officialdom and bureaucratic unease whenever presidents are involved.

At the dinner, Kagame cracked jokes and spoke fondly of his time at Ntare and the memories he made. “I want to thank you for taking us back to Ntare School which we have very good memories of,” he began in his speech. Kagame praised Ntare for the impact it had on his life journey. “Ntare is not just a school. It is a philosophy.” The Rwandan leader also told the old boys that Ntare provided a home for students like him who were refugees from Rwanda.

“This is why we have invested our time, our passion, in this partnership around this school; it brings together people from all kinds of backgrounds, people from Rwanda and Uganda. That school we have built (Ntare School Rwanda) symbolises and gives value to that partnership.” Kagame said, and added “It is only the beginning,” to applause from the audience.

The dinner was a rare moment that observers hailed as a diplomatic triumph for the two countries. Kagame freely mingled and chatted with old boys of the school who snapped selfies and got presidential handshakes at the black tie dinner. Kagame revealed that he would have loved to attend the match day but he had a campaign event with RPF, the ruling party in Rwanda, where he is chairman.

The dinner was also attended by Ephraim Kamuntu, a former minister in the Ugandan cabinet, and a former student at Ntare. Also in attendance were former head teachers and a number of staff and students of Ntare.

“Mr President you have made this possible together with our Ugandan president, you have made our brand stronger,” Apollo Kashanku, chairman of NSOBA Uganda, spoke at the event. He highlighted the collaboration between the old boys associations in Uganda and Rwanda. Kashanku also recognised former head teachers and Aaron Aroriza, President of the Ntare Lions League.

For a successful expedition, Kagame gave instructions to his protocol teams to make sure the historic visit goes as smoothly as possible including a rare curfew extension of one hour for bars and hangouts. Bars in Rwanda close at 2am on weekends.

When the Ntare league team buses crossed the border into Rwanda, they had police lead cars creating a rare scenario of the most flamboyant border crossing in the East African region since RPF captured power in Rwanda thirty years ago.

For the teams’ entire stay in Rwanda, they were escorted by police lead cars. “For as long as the buses are here (in Rwanda) we will be in charge of them,” a Rwandan police officer was heard saying. There were delays at the border as buses waited for clearance but according to some sources, it was to ensure nothing goes astray during the event that was months in planning.

President Kagame who attended Ntare School from 1972-1976 has been a strong champion of his alma mater. He is the patron of NSOBA Rwanda chapter and always attends events according to members of the association based in Kigali.

During a fundraiser in 2015 towards the construction of the Ntare School in Rwanda, Kagame donated US$100, 000. At the time, US$1.5 million was raised for the construction of the new US$9 million Rwanda campus. At the same event, President Yoweri Museveni donated US$500, 000 (Shs1.9 billion) in cash. The school will open this year.

Kagame praises Museveni

At the dinner at Kigali Convention Center, Kagame lauded President Museveni for his earlier efforts at uniting old boys of Ntare and for his other roles such as leading liberation movements. “He has made a huge contribution. Remember when we had a meeting here, he made a pledge and he fulfilled that pledge in a short time,” President Kagame said of his Ugandan counterpart.

Not long after Kagame left Ntare, he was recruited into FRONASA, and eventually the National Resistance Army (NRA), liberation movements which fought a guerilla war in Uganda and captured power in 1986. FRONASA and NRA were led by Yoweri Museveni, another old boy of Ntare, (1962-1966) who has been president of Uganda since 1986.

Fans watching the Ntare League final at IPRC stadium in Kigali. (PHOTO/IAN KATUSIIME)

Ntare School has always prided in having the two presidents as its old boys. The two leaders have kept ties to their school through attending alumni events and providing support to the school. In 2006, Museveni and Kagame attended the golden jubilee celebrations of Ntare School that gathered hundreds of old boys at their alma mater including many who served in cabinet and other high ranking positions in government. In 2004, President Museveni attended an OBs reunion event at Ntare where he made pledges to the school.

A rich heritage of the school has been the Ntare Lions League which was founded in 2014 by old boys as a way of continuing the legacy of the school founded in 1956. Now in its fourteenth season, the league has grown by leaps and bounds.

The league executive committee took the decision to have the 2024 finale in Kigali as early as 2022. Ntare League is made up of twenty teams where the two with the highest points tussle it on a final. The game was won by Nshera FC who beat TY Omujuma on penalties to clinch their third Ntare League shield at the IPRC stadium.

After another successful and record breaking season, the league is looking forward to more crowning moments.

Aroriza, the President of the League, said the reception Ntare got indicated that relations are good. “The Rwanda ministry of foreign affairs ensured we availed to them a list of all senior government dignitaries to ensure they accorded them the right VIP treatment right from when they landed at the airport,” he told The Independent.

Aroriza said the reunion of OBs, some in high government positions, could signal potential for improvement of relations.

Ugandans took their electrifying vibe and indomitable spirit to the usually calm but on-the-move city that Kigali is. By the time of departure on Sunday, there was a sense that the Ntare league had not just set a new standard for alumni leagues but for what it had done for the two nations of Uganda and Rwanda.

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