Rwanda-Uganda feud escalates

Why there could be no end in sight for Uganda and Rwanda's deepening diplomatic row.


As tensions mount between Rwanda and Uganda, Tom Collins reports on recent developments and analyses the history of the problems between the two countries.

Speaking at the end of the 25th Kwibuka ceremony in Kigali to commemorate the 1994 genocide, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame made an unusual foray into regional politics in a speech normally reserved for sombre reflection.

“For those from here or from outside who think our country has not seen enough of a mess and want to mess with us, I want to say we will mess them up big time,” said the soft-spoken president. 

These comments are the latest in a sparring battle between Kagame and his Ugandan counterpart, Yoweri Museveni, that has been going on for nearly two years. 

Museveni himself previously declared: “Those who want to destabilise our country do not know our capacity. It is very big. Once we mobilise, you can’t survive.”

While Uganda accuses its neighbour of planting spies in its national security apparatus, Rwanda hits back with accusations that Kampala is supporting anti-Rwandan rebel groups in both Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). 

As the fiery rhetoric ratchets up, Uganda has expelled a string of high-profile Rwandans, both sides report mistreatment of their citizens, and the main Gatuna border crossing between Uganda and Rwanda has been closed.

‘Negative forces’ 

In December, the spokesperson for the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) – a Hutu militia that includes members implicated in the 1994 genocide and whose aim is to destabilise Rwanda from eastern DRC – was arrested by Congolese forces on the Uganda border and extradited to Kigali after a short stop in Kinshasa.  

Accused of belonging to a terrorist group, the spokesperson pleaded guilty to meeting in Kampala with Philemon Mateke, the Ugandan secretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, together with representatives from the Rwandan National Congress (RNC) – an exiled opposition group considered by the Rwandan government as a “negative force”. This bolstered Rwanda’s long-held suspicion that Uganda had been backing groups looking to destabilise Kigali. 

While the meeting between the FDLR and a member of the Ugandan government is no doubt a cause for concern in Kigali, the RNC movement – with more credible links to Uganda – drew the bulk of the Rwandan government’s ire, with Kigali accusing Kampala of offering the group training in Uganda. 

Formed in the US in 2010, the RNC is an opposition group with political rather than ethnic goals, led by Kayumba Nyamwasa, a former chief of staff of the Rwandan army who served under Kagame. Most of the group are high-level defectors from within Kagame’s government, such as Patrick Karegeya, who was killed in South Africa in 2013 under mysterious circumstances. 

Many members grew up in Uganda and maintain strong links with the country, with Kigali accusing Tribert Rujugiro – a Rwandan industrialist who left Rwanda in 2010 and owns a tobacco plant in northern Uganda – of funding their organisation. 

Filip Reyntjens, professor of law and politics and Rwanda expert at the University of Antwerp, believes the link between Uganda and the RNC is more than possible. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Uganda supported the RNC,” he says. 

Museveni, however, has repeatedly denied these claims. “As I told you when we met, there is no question of Uganda supporting anti-Rwandan elements,” he wrote in a letter sent to Kagame.  

National security 

For his part, Uganda’s president has accused the Rwandan government of infiltrating the Ugandan security forces with Rwandan spies. 

Last year, the country’s former inspector general of police went on trial along with other members of Uganda’s security forces, charged with offences including the abduction and illegal repatriation of asylum seekers wanted by Kigali.

One of those repatriated, Joel Mutabazi, a former bodyguard of President Kagame, is now serving a life sentence in Rwanda. 

In December, a high-ranking member of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) was arrested at a supermarket in Kampala and has been accused of spying on the Ugandan government and mobilising Rwandans living in Uganda to support anti-Museveni opposition groups.

In addition, a Rwandan businesswoman working for MTN Uganda was deported on security charges in February, one of four foreign executives from the company to be expelled from Uganda on similar grounds this year.

This “clean out” of suspected Rwandan agents living in Uganda has spurred calls from Kigali that Museveni is carrying out a “witch hunt” against its citizens, leaving many Rwandans in Uganda in fear of arbitrary arrest and detention. 

The Rwandan government, in fact, has attempted to stop its citizens from travelling to Uganda and many have since fled. In a similar fashion, Ugandans living in Rwanda have started returning home, fearing persecution as the feud shows little signs of abating.  

Bad blood 

Though the relationship has deteriorated in recent times, the feud between Uganda and Rwanda has been going on for some time and can only be understood through the lens of Kagame and Museveni’s complicated personal relationship. 

Kagame and Museveni fought together in the bush only to fall out while in office.

Chris Kayumba, Senior Lecturer at the University of Rwanda, recalls how the leaders have fought no less than three wars together: “The first is the one which gave Museveni power in Uganda; the second is the one which removed Habyarimana from Rwanda and brought the RPF to power; and the third is the Congo war.”

Indeed, many Rwandans currently serving as high-ranking RPF officials in Kigali – including Kagame – fought with Museveni against Milton Obote in Uganda during the 1980s. 

At one point, almost a quarter of Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) was made up of Rwandans before they left and created the RPF to wage war on Rwanda’s Hutu-led regime from the Ugandan bush. 

This shared history helps, in part, to explain the now defunct relationship between Uganda and Rwanda, in as much as Museveni – owing to his belief that he nurtured the RPF and its personalities – believes Kagame is his inferior, according to some commentators. 

“Museveni sees the officials in Rwanda as owing him something as somebody who is more senior,” explains Kayumba.

“He believes they should be taking orders from him because at one time they were under his rule in Uganda. He does not see them as individuals leading a sovereign nation.” 

A few years after the RPF gained power in Rwanda, the leaders fell out during the Congo war, despite sharing the objective of ousting Kinshasa’s Laurent Kabila.

This eventually led to armed conflict in the Congolese town of Kisangani around the turn of the century. 

While there are many theories behind what caused the war, one of the most plausible is the competition for Congolese resources – with both leaders accused of illegally funnelling wealth back to their respective capitals during and after the instability. 

In 2001, with wrangling in the DRC continuing, both leaders amassed troops on the shared border between Uganda and Rwanda, but the UK’s then secretary of state for international development, Clare Short, mediated a de-escalation. 

“It was never really cordial again,” comments Reyntjens. “But they refrained from hostile speech and acts until the end of 2017.”

Burning bridges

Both governments are strongly advising traders not to cross the border.

Such political directives look set to do significant damage to both parties and to trade within the region. 

Uganda, in fact, is running a large trade surplus with Rwanda. According to data from the United Nations’ Comtrade database, Uganda exported $182m worth of goods to Rwanda in 2017 compared with Rwanda’s $16m-worth of exports in the other direction.

In addition, the main route for Rwandan exports to the rest of the world – along with goods from eastern DRC and Burundi – is through Uganda towards the Kenyan port of Mombasa. 

The University of Rwanda’s Kayumba, however, says that the Rwandan government has been working to reroute traders through the “eastern route”. 

“The likely impact on the Rwandese market may not be very huge because Rwanda has known about this conflict and been planning for it since 2017,” he says.

“So it’s been about two years and therefore many of the goods which used to go to Mombasa are being sent through Tanzania to the port of Dar es Salaam.” 

Tanzania and Rwanda have been working on a $2.5bn bullet-train linking the Rwandan capital with the Indian Ocean, which could massively reorient trade flows in the region and further distance Rwanda from Uganda.

Yet the biggest loss for Rwanda and Uganda will be the setback to regional integration within the East African Community (EAC), which had been progressing slowly despite various hold-ups. The issue is particularly embarrassing for this year’s chair Paul Kagame, who ended his term as chair of the African Union in January after spending much of last year lobbying for greater African integration. 

With a similar dispute unfolding with neighbouring Burundi, Rwanda has much to do in order to translate its pan-African thinking to its regional relationships. 

As it stands, however, neither side shows signs of backing down and Rwanda’s $2.5bn bullet train suggests this sentiment could last well into the future. 

“The distrust between Kagame and Museveni is such that I don’t think they will resolve this,” concludes Reyntjens.

Read “Rwanda-Uganda conflict: Is the end in sight?”

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