Rwanda’s Paul Kagame is lauded as an arch pan-Africanist but his relations with neighbouring countries have become fraught. He has accused some of them, including former close allies, of harbouring dissidents set on toppling his administration. What is the reality behind the rhetoric? Analysis by Epajjar Ojulu.
Rwanda and President Paul Kagame were once again in the global spotlight as, last month, the country marked the 25th anniversary of the genocide with a week of mourning and remembrance.
Kagame said that nothing on earth could turn Rwandans against Rwandans ever again. But while extolling the strides the country has made, especially in resuscitating the economy, enforcing public accountability and initiating pro-poor people programmes, he gave a stark warning to “those who think our country has not seen enough of a mess, and want to mess with us. We will mess up with them big time…big time.” He added: “Rwanda is a very good friend to those who befriend us but adversaries should not underestimate what a formidable force we have become as a result of our circumstances.”
This was fighting talk aimed squarely at some of Rwanda’s neighbours as well as countries as far afield as South Africa. For a while now, he has been accusing some countries of either colluding with Rwandan dissidents to destabilise the country or giving them sanctuary.
As he spoke, the country borders with Uganda and Burundi were for all practical purposes closed. At the beginning of March the Rwandan government barred traffic from Uganda from going through the main border point at Gatuna.
Rwanda-destined traffic from Uganda was diverted to Cyanika, the border point near the DR Congo border. Rwandan officials claimed traffic was diverted to allow ongoing road construction on the Gatuna Kigali highway.
But motorists said they were turned away from other border points as well. Only vehicles belonging to Rwanda, or other countries such as Kenya and DR Congo, were allowed entry. Rwanda also barred its citizens from travelling to Uganda because Uganda, according to Rwanda’s foreign minister, Richard Sezibera, was arresting, torturing and incarcerating them in detention for refusing to join anti-Rwanda dissidents.
Kagame accuses Burundi and Uganda of being hand in glove with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDRL), comprised mainly of the Interahamwe, a Hutu-led militia blamed for the 1994 genocide in which over 800,000 mainly Tutsi and moderate Hutu were killed; and the Rwanda National Congress, led by Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa.
Burundi has denied the accusations and counter-accused Rwanda of training Burundi rebels to oust the government of President Pierre Nkurunziza. Reuters reported in February 2016 that a condfiential UN report by experts presented to the Security Council accused the Rwandan military of training Burundi dissidents with the aim of ousting the government of President Nkurunziza. The Burundi government also accuses Rwanda of abducting Burundi fishermen from the border zone of Lake Rweru last December.
Allies turned into foes?
Despite Uganda being key to Kagame’s accession to power, relations between him and President Yoweri Museveni have largely been on the rocks. It has not been easy to pinpoint the cause of the bad blood between the two former guerilla leaders. While Museveni expects Kagame to acknowledge his role in his attaining power, Kagame too wants Museveni to concede that Rwandans, both as refugees and residents in Uganda, played a big role in Museveni’s winning the bush war that brought him to power three decades ago.
Some observers claim it is nothing more than a clash of egos. But events on the ground suggest something more serious. The current stand-off between the two countries followed Rwanda’s accusation that Uganda was arresting, incarcerating and killing its nationals who visited the country. “For the past three years, I have been raising this issue with the President [Museveni]. Nothing has been done,” Kagame told a national leadership conference in Kigali in March.
The Uganda government has denied the accusations. Museveni says some of the alleged ‘dissidents’ are nothing more than entrepreneurs. “The problem is that Rwanda doesn’t separate business from politics,” he told a news conference, also in March.
However, the Ugandan government spokesman Ofwono Opondo told reporters at the beginning of March that some Rwandans were being held in Uganda under the law. He did not stipulate the charges preferred against them.
That said, a 20-man list of Rwandans detained, part of a longer list, which was released by Rwanda’s deputy foreign minister, Olivier Nduhungirehe on 1 March, shows that most of the Rwandans have been detained by Uganda’s Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence, an arm of the Uganda People’s Defence Force tasked with fighting espionage and foreign military-related crime.
Number one on the list is Rene Rutagungira, who has been in detention since 5 August 2017. Rutagungira and others detained by the military suggest that they are suspected of either being spies or Rwandans deployed to track down dissidents with the aim of murdering them. Kagame alleged on his twitter account in February that the Rwandans were being held in Uganda for refusing to join General Kayumba Nyamwasa’s rebel Rwanda National Congress.
From the 1950s, millions of Rwandans have lived in Uganda. According to the Ugandan Constitution, the Banyarwanda (Rwandans) are among the 55 officially recognised ethnic groups in the country. The Banyarwanda have been so deeply integrated into the Ugandan society that a survey in 1962 when Uganda got independence, showed that 20% of the population in south-western Buddu County comprised ethnic Rwandans, most of whom had settled there during and after the 1959 overthrow of the Tutsi monarchy in Rwanda.
It is believed that the Banyarwanda are in fact the largest ethnic group today, larger than even the Baganda and other major native ethnic groups in the country. In the central region inhabited mainly by the Baganda, it is difficult to ascertain the number of Rwandans because most of them pass for Baganda, as they speak the same language, have indigenous Kiganda names and follow the culture of the Baganda as a result of several generations of intermarriages.
Although Kagame has been trying to rebrand Rwanda as a nation free from social, economic, cultural and political influence, especially from Uganda, the ties between the two populations run so deep that it appears a futile exercise.
Luganda, Uganda’s main language is, for example, commonly spoken on Kigali’s streets. Virtually every aspect of Rwandan life has a Ugandan element to it. Although Kagame himself was born in Rwanda, his parents fled to Uganda during the Rwanda Revolution, which ended the Tutsi monarchy. He spent nearly all his childhood in Uganda and some of his friends were to later become members of his government.
Kagame studied at Makerere University in Kampala, before joining the forces of Yoweri Museveni, who overthrew Ugandan President Milton Obote in 1986. Kagame became Museveni’s chief of intelligence and gained a reputation for incorruptibility and severity by enforcing a stringent code of behaviour. The two men are said to have formed a strong bond of trust, respect and friendship.
Kagame’s own invasion of Rwanda from exile in 1994 (which ended the genocide) was carried out from bases in Uganda and a good part of his force was made up of Rwandan battle-hardened veterans from Museveni’s army. Given the intimate ties between the two peoples and their leaders, the current icy relationship between the two is difficult to comprehend.
At loggerheads further afield
Rwanda is also not only accusing the DRC of colluding with dissidents but of failing to exercise jurisdiction over and control of its vast eastern North Kivu Province, which harbours numerous rebel groups and militia, including FDRL and other militants.
Rwanda invaded North Kivu Province in 1996 and 1998, ostensibly to push out the rebels. Kagame said, “We shall pursue those criminals inside DRC” before sending troops. However, the UN accused Rwanda, alongside Uganda, which also justified sending troops to DRC to flush out Islamist Allied Democratic Forces, accused of pillaging and looting DRC’s resources.
Beyond the sub-region, Kagame has an axe to grind with South Africa. Pretoria accuses Kigali of masterminding the 2014 strangling to death in a Johannesburg hotel of Patrick Karegeya, Rwanda’s former intelligence chief in exile there. Since 2015, relations between the two countries have been on the rocks with South Africa accusing Rwanda for twice attempting to murder renegade former Rwanda army chief, General Kayumba Nyamwasa, also in exile in South Africa.
In both cases, Rwanda was suspected of sending a team of hitmen to carry out killings. Further south, Rwanda and Tanzania’s relations have neither been strained nor particular friendly. Former Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete appeared to have riled Kagame when in 2013 on the sidelines of the AU summit in Addis Ababa, he called on Rwanda to hold peace talks with the FDLR.
He also urged Rwanda and Uganda to stop support for the M23 DRC rebels. Kagame’s response was that he would not talk to ‘terrorists’ and he politely advised Kikwete to mind his own business. The visit to Rwanda in April 2016 by the new Tanzanian president, John Pombe Magufuli, appears to have been aimed at mending the cracks on the wall left behind by Kikwete.
The M23 rebel group was supported by the two countries to fight the government of Laurent Désiré Kabila, the man Rwanda and Uganda helped to remove Mobutu Sese Seko from power in 1997. Later, however, Kabila fell out with his erstwhile backers, alleging that Kagame and Museveni wanted to relegate him to a stooge in the running of the DRC government.
Rwanda has since time immemorial depended on Uganda for food, manufactured goods and other services. Before the border crisis which started in March this year, over 80% of consumer goods in Rwanda were either manufactured or came through Uganda, according to Rwandan trade statistics.
Rwanda’s East African ties
Large numbers of Rwandans also live in DRC, Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, Angola and elsewhere in Southern Africa and present a diversity of culture. If having a shared sentiment about a nation means nationalism, then Kagame has an uphill task to entrench it in the country. Rwanda is a member of the regional bloc, the East African Community, which includes Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi and South Sudan.
Its decision to stop Rwandans from leaving the country by denying them exit permits is against the spirit of the bloc. “By stopping Rwandan citizens from leaving the country, Kagame violates the free movement of people and goods protocol agreed by the East African Community,” says Uganda’s finance ministry economist Stephen Ndhaye.
Ironically, Kagame is the current chairman of the EAC and outgoing AU chairman. Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta visited Kigali in March at the height of Rwanda’s conflict with Uganda and Burundi. No mention was made of what he discussed with Kagame on the strained relations with Uganda and Burundi, an indication that there was no change of position by Kagame on the crisis.
At home, though, Kagame is lauded for initiating economic and social transformation of his country. Rwanda’s economy is among the fastest-growing in Africa, averaging 7% per annum in the last decade. However, the fruits of economic success seem not to have been felt by ordinary Rwandans, say economists.
His critics say Kagame is whipping up nationalist sentiments to divert his people from the hardships they face. “There is biting poverty, food shortage and youth unemployment. Like other African leaders who came to power through the barrel of the gun, he wants to create excuses for keeping power,” says Makerere University political scientist Lumumba Bwire.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are 14,000 Rwandans in Uganda, who have declined voluntary repatriation mainly for economic reasons. It is believed that there are millions of both documented and undocumented Rwandans living in Uganda, DR Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi and Southern Africa who have ignored requests to return to Rwanda. It is these Rwandans, most of them Hutus, who have been joined by Kagame’s erstwhile Tutsi comrades, such as Gen. Nyamwasa, opposed to what they claim is his authoritarianism, who will continue to poison relations between Kagame’s Rwanda and its neighbours.