What next after Rwanda re-opens border?
Kampala, Uganda | IAN KATUSIIME | The latest attempt at improving Uganda Rwanda relations registered some significant steps forward with Rwanda re-opening its border to Uganda on Jan. 31 nearly three years after it was closed. In addition, Uganda replaced Maj. Gen. Abel Kandiho, as commander of the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI). The events happening in quick succession showed how painstaking diplomatic efforts can be.
Rwanda said in its statement dated Jan. 28 “The Government of Rwanda has taken note that there is a process to solve issued raised by Rwanda as well as commitments made by the Government of Uganda to address remaining obstacles.”
President Yoweri Museveni dispatching his son, Lt. Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, to Kigali, the Rwandan capital, was a surprising move by some extent, in his attempt to reconcile with his erstwhile comrade, Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
Muhoozi’s private talks with Kagame appeared to bear fruit when days after Muhoozi visited Kigali, Kandiho was ousted. Rwanda has complained several times about the Ugandan intelligence outfit levelling all kinds of accusations against it.
It remains to be seen whether CMI under Maj. Gen. James Birungi will change tack when suspicion abounds and with so many recriminations between the two countries’ security apparatus hanging in the air. An interview Kagame granted to The Africa Report illuminated the predicament of the strained ties.
“Some people are satisfied with official photos and see it as an end in itself. This is not my case.” He added, “I appreciate the words of President Museveni’s son. But I hope that we can go beyond that and come up with concrete solutions.”
Kagame’s message seemed aimed at the public rapprochement that is belied by the unseen events that state actors partake in that undermine efforts of mending relations. It is a message he has always hinted on whenever the Angola-mediation process was in high gear. On two occasions, Kagame, and Museveni met in Angola hosted by Angolan President Joau Lorenco. The third meeting mediated by the Angolan president happened at the common Uganda-Rwanda border in 2020.
The détente is happening after three years of frustration brought about by a closed border which affected livelihoods on both sides, claimed lives in senseless skirmishes and a drawn out propaganda war between both sides.
There has been an air of fatigue amongst ordinary Rwandans and Ugandans at the prolonged diplomatic standoff between the two countries including among the high level emissaries.
Kagame’s concern about the photo ops is lent credence by earlier events when Muhoozi, now Commander of the Land Forces in the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF), was involved in the colourful reconciliation between the two leaders when they met in Kigali in 2011.
After the 2011 summit in Kigali, there was a high profile display of reconciliation. On NRM’s 26th anniversary in 2012, Museveni bestowed on Kagame the Pearl of Africa Medal- the highest medal the state of Uganda can give- reserved for Heads of State. The Ugandan president also officially recognised the role played by Rwandans in the Bush War that brought Museveni to power in 1986.
At the time, Muhoozi was at the rank of Colonel and was not as prominent as he is although the talk of him being groomed to succeed his father was already rife. Fast forward and he is the de facto army commander with a large band of supporters urging him to run for President in 2026.
Therefore when it emerged that Muhoozi was making a high level trip to Rwanda to have dialogue with Kagame who he had affectionately referred to as “my uncle” on Twitter, there was fevered speculation on the latest turn in the never ending negotiations with Rwanda and what could come out of them.
This is because Muhoozi’s tweets on the internal politics of African countries have set off firestorms. First was the comment on the 2021 coup in Guinea and then the declaration of support for Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), the rebel group fighting the Ethiopian government. Entrusting him with a diplomatic mission as sensitive as that of Rwanda seemed to be the most unexpected in Museveni’s toolbox going by various commentators.
The latter tweet on Ethiopia drew sharp criticism from Winnie Byanyima, UNAIDS Executive Director, and a well-known Ugandan with close ties to top politicians. “Please delete this tweet. It is risking the lives of Ugandans working and living in Ethiopia,” she tweeted.
Byanyima herself has been involved in diplomacy between Uganda and Rwanda. In December 2019, after attending a UNAIDS meeting in Kigali, it is alleged that Byanyima was mistreated by Rwandan officials at Kigali International Airport.
Because of her high profile, Byanyima had a meeting with Kagame to resolve the issue and the two naturally waded into Rwanda-Uganda relations. In the end, both agreed that Byanyima could engage in some shuttle diplomacy between the two principals. After a few trade-offs from both sides including a meeting between Museveni and Kagame in early 2020 at Katuna; the Rwanda Uganda border point, the relations between the two East African nations went back to default settings because the border remained closed.
Ambassador Adonia Ayebare, Uganda’s special envoy to Rwanda, preceded Muhoozi’s visit a few days prior. Ayebare, Uganda’s Permanent Representative to the UN, had not been involved in the dialogue for more than a year. In an interview with The Independent last year, Ayebare said he was concentrating on UN issues. Therefore his visit to Kagame signaled hope of something anew.
The ouster of the CMI chief Kandiho has been seen as an act of generosity on Museveni’s part after years of indifference towards Rwanda’s complaints. After the 2011 talks, then CMI boss, Maj. Gen. Mugira was replaced- demonstrating the bearing the intelligence community in Uganda has had on the bilateral relations. Other analysts say Ugandan intelligence has been driving its diplomacy.
Last year, CMI made a swoop on Lawrence Muganga, the vice chancellor of Victoria University on charges of espionage. CMI detained him on allegations that he was a Rwandan mole. After a few calls and interventions including by Ambassador Ayebare, Muganga was released without charge.
Ayebare and Kandiho are brothers and their roles found them caught in the middle of the ugly cold war between Uganda and Rwanda. As it turned out, one had to take the fall for a thaw in relations to have a chance.
In spite of Museveni’s apparent accommodation of Rwandan demands and the re-opening of the border, thorny issues remain. The presence of Ugandan troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a radioactive issue to Rwanda which has always wanted to keep a tight leash on the happenings in the eastern part of DRC which is also Rwanda’s giant and complex neighbor to the east.
Rwanda did not hide its opposition to the Ugandan deployment which went ahead nonetheless and Muhoozi’s trip came nearly two months after the UPDF incursion. Right now, there is no clear timeline on when UPDF troops in their thousands will leave DR Congo and neither can Muhoozi, the Commander of Land Forces, and Museveni’s latest emissary to Rwanda, dictate the shape of events in Congo as the troops rout the remnants of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a rebel group that lurks there.
Other factors remain. Sources familiar with the dicey nature of Uganda Rwanda politics say the decision by Ugandan security to recruit a son to the late Maj. Gen. Fred Rwigyema into the Special Forces Command (SFC), the elite arm of the UPDF, was met with great apprehension by their Rwandan counterparts. Rwigyema was a leader of the Rwandan guerilla movement in 1990 killed moments after the movement was birthed in Uganda to oust the then Rwandan government of Juvenal Habyarimana.
Going forward, Uganda and Rwanda have a lot of business at the East African Community (EAC). Their neighbour DRC, is in advanced stages of joining the six member bloc. Both Kagame and Museveni have worked closely with DRC President Felix Tshisekedi.