From my experience dealing with officials of the government of Rwanda, most especially Kagame personally, I have been struck by their desire and determination to build good relations with Uganda. Kagame personally treats good relations with Uganda to be of utmost strategic importance. In my many years working with him on Uganda-Rwanda issues, he has never wavered in his determination to pursue a better relationship with Kampala. Indeed, he has always been willing to bend backwards to get this relationship to work. However, he is not willing do seek a good relationship on his knees.
Museveni has personally told me there is no fundamental problem between Uganda and Rwanda. However, Kagame has serious charges against Uganda, the most serious being regime change. There are other strategic issues of an economic nature but they are not as alarming. Therefore, in trying to repair the relations between the two governments, the first issue to resolve is the accusation of regime change by Kigali against Kampala. But since Kampala’s rumor mill is making similar allegations, Uganda should place them on the table – formally and/or informally. Official silence and informal denials are unlikely to solve anything.
What one gets from Kampala’s attitude towards Kigali is what Batooro call omugayo – despise, under-look, disregard. Yet for all Museveni’s talk of regional integration and other such strategic considerations, Kampala’s attitude towards Kigali only shows he is not willing walk the talk. Uganda exports goods worth $250m per year to Rwanda. Rwanda only exports a paltry $16m. Uganda has over 30,000 professionals and semi skilled people working in Rwanda. Ugandan companies have multi million dollar contracts to supply goods and services in Rwanda, others have made investments there. And Rwanda sends a large number of students to study in Ugandan schools from primary to university, not to mention over 150,000 tourists per year and they stay the longest.
It is possible therefore that Uganda earns over $500m in foreign exchange from Rwanda – which is about 8.5% of our export earnings and 2.2% of our GDP. This is income to Ugandan farmers, traders, manufactures, and other investors. If such strategic considerations influenced Uganda’s attitude towards Rwanda as Museveni often presents it, then Kampala should be the one working frantically to improve relations with Kigali. Look what has happened at the border when Kigali closed it – Ugandans are losing money!
The strategic deficit in Kampala’s thinking is reflected in the fact that to speak positively about the government of Rwanda generally and Kagame particularly is considered unpatriotic in State House circles. One does not need to love Rwanda or Kagame to seek a good relationship with our southern neighbour. One only needs to love Uganda – her farmers, professionals, manufactures and other investors who make a lot of money from Rwanda. And this is actually the content of the keynote speech Museveni gave in Kigali at the 25th anniversary of the founding of the RPF in December 2012.
It is very possible that Uganda has legitimate grievances against Rwanda. However, in my many years working on Rwanda-Uganda matters, I have never been presented with any. Instead, elements in the security and rumor mongering services in Kampala have made many allegations against Kigali, which they have been unwilling to substantiate or formally or even informally complain about to Rwanda. At any rate, if they have credible claims against Rwanda they can simply present them to the government in Kigali. I suspect Museveni fears about Rwanda he is unwilling to put on the table, a factor accentuating this conflict. My advice is that pretense invites ambiguity; candor breeds clarity.
Many people are accusing Rwanda government of overreacting. Anyone can justifiably be critical of many aspects of the way Kigali has reacted. But following the story above one can easily read Kigali’s dilemma. I suspect the decision to close the border, if true, is designed to escalate the situation so as to induce Kampala to talk, not to spark a war. Short of this, I do see what else Kigali would have done when all formal and informal requests for discussions to resolve the differences were met with indifference and stone silence. In I will speculate about what I think are Museveni’s real fears in my next article.