Rwanda and Uganda: A frustrating friendship

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‘with friends like these eh, who needs enemies…’

Following a quadripartite summit held in Angola under the auspices of President João Lourenço and bringing together Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, Rwandan President Paul Kagame and DRC President Felix Tshisekedi to discuss security issues within the region, I would like to come back, for the layman to the outstanding issues between Rwanda and Uganda.

For the last four months the relations between Uganda and Rwanda have been chilled, at best. President Paul Kagame was open in earnest, followed by various senior officials on the Rwandan side with details and proof of violation of rights of Rwandan expatriates in Uganda, and the abetting anti-Rwanda militias on Ugandan territory.

Ugandans remained vague. The Ugandan president in his legendary humor explained in a press conference that the problem between our two countries was due to ‘telephoning’ – or lack thereof, I couldn’t really get his point in a context of hundreds of Rwandans languishing in Ugandan jails and safe houses. He later wrote a letter to his Rwandan counterpart with similar confusion and first leaked it to the press.

Amid all this, the regional press was worked out with scoops and drumming-up for military confrontation, while Ugandan intellectuals and citizens resorted to moral equivalence and self-evident truths: ‘our two presidents Museveni and Kagame should sit down and iron out their mutual misunderstandings’; ‘we are brothers and sisters we should live in peace and love’, etc.

This has been most frustrating to Rwandan officials, who finally issued an advisory ‘not to travel to Uganda’. It is one thing to be openly oppressed, it is another to deal with a fundamentally deceitful counterpart. Listening to Ugandans reminds of Romans 7. It seems‘their intentions are noble, it only the sin that stands in their way…’ 

In any other circumstance we would be amused, as we usually are, but this time there are lives being lost, families torn apart and livelihoods destroyed, on the one hand, and on the other, what now profiles itself as a systematic sabotaging of economic projects that are vital to Rwanda. If that isn’t enmity I do not know what is. 

in a better world, intellectuals would be instrumental in holding politicians to account to avoid conflict. In this instance, the opposite has been true, in fact speaking to Ugandan colleagues at our civilian levels, we are able to appreciate what our leaders and our president must be going through.

At the hallmark of hypocrisy is a string of tweets by former Ugandan politician turned charity boss, Mrs Winnie Byanyima, playing moral equivalence; then a long essay in the Monitor, a Ugandan paper with the title: ‘How clashes of class, egos drag Ugandan and Rwanda to conflict’ by Angelo Izama, drawing his analysis from a totally misinformed NRM (Ugandan ruling party) thesis on Rwandan politics.

In the ten-page essay or in Mrs Byanyima’s tweets, at no occasion, do our Ugandan colleagues mention the Rwandan civilians incarcerated without trial, those tortured, then dumped at our common border routinely.No single word on the withhold of Rwandan export goods transiting through Uganda. No mention of Uganda’s systematic sabotage of a joint railway project from the port of Mombasa to Kigali transiting through Uganda; or a powerline from Ethiopia, through Kenya, Uganda and finally Rwanda, nothing on the denial of fifth freedom rights to Rwanda Air – our national carrier; in short, So much theory, little truth: the definition of sophistry and intellectual demagoguery.

What does Uganda have on Rwanda?

I have been keen to find out what the Ugandan government is reproaching their Rwandan counterparts. This is what I was told: 1. Rwanda has been spying on Uganda, and 2. Rwanda has been kidnaping its own citizens and forcefully repatriating them.

I found issues with both accusations: 1. In peace times, spying is a routine activity among States and is usually not a problem – unless the country allegedly ‘being spied’ has something to hide from the ‘spying’ country. A question arises then: If Uganda wishes Rwanda well, what are they afraid Rwanda might find out by means of spying? In any event, why hasn’t Rwanda taken issue with Ugandan citizens on its soil, accusing them of any spying activities? Obviously, that would be a grotesque generalization.

2. Why would Rwandan regular citizens on a bona-fidemission in Uganda need to be kidnapped and returned to their own country against their will? 

To my knowledge, no Ugandan analyst or politician has answered these questions. Instead, Rwandan security services frequently report the presence of training camps and recruiting rings of individuals sworn to overthrow the current Rwandan government through violence. When the evidence is submitted to our neighbors, we are back to square one: Demagoguery. it is a stalemate.

As I write this piece, I am unable to see an end to the Rwanda-Uganda crisis – unless Uganda chooses to end it. I do not expect Ugandan colleagues to put themselves in our shoes; but how do they expect us to sleep soundly while our fellow countrymen are held incommunicadoin Ugandan safe houses, because they declined to join anti-Rwanda militias? 

After many years of complaining, Rwanda retaliated with the travel advisory and discouraging Rwandan businesses to not import from Uganda – rumors of border closer abounded on the Ugandan side but were unfounded. 

The impact has been immediate: Ugandan journalist Canary Mugume of NBS reported that “In 2017 Uganda exported to Rwanda $182M worth of goods, against imports of about $16M. In 2018, exports grew to $406M. The last four months, Uganda’s exports to Rwanda have dropped ‘stupendously’ to $592,495 in April.”

That’s a staggering 1000% drop. From half a billion dollars to half a million dollars in four months, in a sector which figures show, was taking off exponentially and whose wings were clipped by bad politics. This is good news for no one. The money that Rwanda has been spending on Ugandan imports will still be spent elsewhere. No one wins.

Let me make a recommendation, in ending: Relationships require sacrifices and mutual respect. The rhetoric that Rwandans live off Uganda’s food is a myth as figures show. And if it were true, it would still offer a vibrant market for Ugandan producers.

Let me join others in reiterating that this conflict harms both our countries. Anyone using it to score momentary political points is deeply shortsighted – ultimately numbers do speak for themselves.

Half a billion dollars is a huge market which can’t be easily substituted. Rwanda makes more than 30% of its National budget by selling safety and tranquility and a war would undo so much investment yet to be cashed in on. Finally, an open war between Rwanda and Uganda is likely to precipitate the removal of the weaker leader among the two, with no clarity on the aftermath. My wish is that Uganda should choose to work with the current government in Rwanda over those against it. 

It goes without saying that in principle it is in the best interests of the two peoples that the two respective governments collaborate. However, there are individuals who stand to benefit from a conflict between the two countries, including the anti-Rwanda militias based in Uganda and their benefactors – also conducting business in Uganda.

It is time to start looking at the bigger picture as Africa starts implementing the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA), signed just over a year ago at the African Union Summit, in Kigali-Rwanda – in the absence of Ugandan President Museveni, ironically…

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