Jared Jeffery | NKC African Economics
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was conspicuously absent from proceedings in Kigali on Wednesday, March 21, where many of the continent’s leaders gathered to sign the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement.
The Daily Monitor, a Ugandan newspaper, reports that his absence was due to security reasons after his advance security team and its Rwandan counterparts failed to work out his itinerary. Meanwhile, the president’s press secretary, Don Wanyama, stated that the reason for the cancellation was confidential, before saying: “The president is here [in Uganda] because he has equally important matters to take care of.”
Mr Museveni is famously an enthusiastic proponent of pan-Africanism and would hardly give up the chance to wax lyrical about the prospects for such an ambitious agreement. Thus, it is likelier that Mr Museveni’s snub is another sign of the chilly relations between the neighbouring countries.
Relations between political elites in Kampala and Kigali are complicated, to say the least.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame spent his youth as a refugee in Uganda and was part of Mr Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) when the latter took power from former President Milton Obote in 1986.
In fact, around a quarter of the NRA’s fighters at the time were Rwandan Tutsis and many were rewarded with high ranks in the new Ugandan army for their efforts – Mr Kagame was made acting chief of military intelligence.
Between 1990 and 1993, the Ugandan army supplied the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) with provisions and weapons as it carried out its attempts to topple former President Juvénal Habyarimana’s Hutu-dominated regime in Rwanda. Indeed, it is thought by some that the missile that downed Mr Habyarimana’s plane, the spark that set off the Rwandan genocide in 1994, was a Russian-made SA-16. The Russian military prosecutor’s office has said it sold the SA-16 rocket launchers found in range of the airport to Uganda in 1987.
With such an intertwined history of helping each other come to power, one would expect nothing but cordiality between the two regimes; however, it was not long before their two armies clashed.
During the 1998-2003 war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Uganda and Rwanda backed opposing rebel groups. With the DRC once again teetering on the brink of conflict, there is a chance that their interests in the volatile eastern part of the country may once again not be aligned.
But the causes of the current chill in relations probably have more to do with domestic politics.
Rwanda’s Defence Minister James Kabarebe last October reportedly accused the Ugandans of offering a space for Rwandan enemies to conduct their operations.
According to The East African, this was a reference to exiled tobacco tycoon Tribert Rujugiro (PanAfrican Tobacco Group) who is close to Mr Museveni’s brother General Salim Saleh. A memorandum of understanding between Mr Saleh and Mr Rujugiro reportedly gives the general a 15% stake in M/S Leaf Tobacco and Commodities Ltd in exchange for ‘security’ (it is unclear what that involves).
Mr Rujugiro was a special economic advisor to Mr Kagame before going into exile in 2009.
Those in the Rwandan tobacco business appear to have a particularly difficult relationship with the government. It will be remembered that another tobacco tycoon, Assinapol Rwigara, died in a car accident in 2015 that his family claims was a politically-motivated assassination. Mr Rwigara’s wife and two daughters are standing trial for insurrection after his daughter Diane Rwigara attempted to run against Mr Kagame in last year’s presidential election.
Complicating matters further, on October 31 nine Ugandan police officers, a Rwandan ex-general and a Congolese national appeared in a military court in Uganda on charges related to the kidnapping of Mr Kagame’s former bodyguard. Lieutenant Joel Mutabazi was allegedly kidnapped five years ago and handed over to Kigali without the Ugandan government’s consent, and then sentenced to life in a Rwandan prison.
The case is confused further by the alleged threats against the Rwandan general, René Rutagungira, by Kayumba Nyamwasa (Mr Kagame’s former right-hand man and former lieutenant general in the Rwandan army who now lives in exile in South Africa and has had multiple attempts made on his life).
Mr Nyamwasa was reportedly trying to get Mr Rutagungira to join the Rwandan National Congress (RNC), an opposition group in exile. According to Mr Rutagungira’s brother, when he refused, Mr Nyamwasa used his relationship with the head of Ugandan intelligence to get the charges of espionage brought against those put on trial in October.
Mr Rutagungira claimed in court in December that he had been tortured by former Security Minister Henry Tumukunde and the head of Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) Abel Kandiho with the intention of forcing a confession that would link former Inspector General of Police Kale Kayihura to kidnappings in Rwanda and Uganda.
On March 4, Mr Museveni fired both Mr Tumukunde and Mr Kayihura. The reasons for their firing are still unclear, but some speculate that they are related to the tensions between Kampala and Kigali.
Mr Kayihura was close to Mr Kagame, having been the best man at his wedding, and there are rumours that Mr Kagame was backing Mr Kayihura to succeed Mr Museveni as president. Opposition frontman for Uganda’s Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) Kizza Besigye is among those that believe Mr Kayihura’s axing was due to his links with Kigali.
Mr Tumukunde, meanwhile, was pulling in the other direction and apparently working against Kigali.
Of the two leaders, Mr Museveni’s position appears more vulnerable. Countering resistance and rebellion will require a loyal security force, and Mr Museveni has had to work hard to shore up his support in the armed services over the past year or so. In November, he promoted over 300 officers in the intelligence and special forces divisions of the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF). It was the third shakeup of the military in 2017, following reshuffles in January and May.
Mr Kagame, meanwhile, does not appear to have the same concerns over the loyalty of his troops, but those in exile could still cause a headache. He met with his South African counterpart ahead of Wednesday’s signing of the AfCFTA agreement and it seems that diplomatic relations are improving – something that may worry Mr Nyamwasa and others who have sought sanctuary in the Southern African country.
In November last year, Ugandan police raided the tabloid Red Pepper after it ran a story claiming Mr Museveni was plotting to overthrow Mr Kagame. In December, Kenyan newspaper The Standard claimed it had credible evidence that the Ugandan intelligence services (reportedly the CMI) were recruiting fighters for the RNC in refugee camps in Nyakivara and Bweyale Kiryandongo. The article claims Mr Nyamwasa’s cousin, Rugema Kayumba, does the recruiting and Mr Kandiho of the CMI oversees the project.
With rumours of plots by both sides, it is no wonder relations are chilly. Open conflict in the DRC, with proxy groups again put to use, could see them turn hot. Even if the worst does not come to pass, the mistrust will negatively affect regional projects and business between the two countries.
Get the best of CNBC Africa sent straight to your inbox with breaking business news, insights and updates from experts across the continent. Sign up here.