Of Rwanda - Uganda tensions and the ghosts of Kisangani – Part I

Monday January 28 2019


Norbert Mao. PHOTO | Daily Monitor 

By Norbert Mao

There’s a saying that you must never believe a political rumour until it is denied.

The authorities in Uganda have a standard response to any news of tension between Rwanda and Uganda: “there is no fundamental problem between Uganda and Rwanda.” That very statement should warn us that there seems to be a big problem.

Since independence in early 1960s, Rwanda’s Tutsi minority had suffered repeatedly under the majority Hutu population until the military takeover of state power by the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF).

The Hutu majority had also assumed political power by mobilising against what they saw as a colonial power that favoured the Tutsi minority.

Their failure to establish a new order that would transcend the colonial divide and rule policy would haunt them for decades and would continue to cast a shadow into present day Rwanda.

The euphoria of independence unleashed the seeds of latent intolerance and violence which forced multitudes of Tutsis to flee the country. Many fled to Uganda but the Obote regime proved hostile to the Rwandans who sought refuge across the border.

What Obote saw as a problem, Museveni saw as an opportunity to build a personal power base among a population of people forced out of their homeland and dreaming of a day when they would return by any means necessary. He started by recruiting some of them into his nascent movement known as Fronasa.

In the anti-Amin war, Museveni recruited even more from the ranks of the Rwandan refugees.

After the fall of Amin he used his position as minister of Defence to intensify recruitment as he eyed the possibility of challenging Obote militarily.

When he launched his guerrilla war in 1981, these refugees were at the core of his rebel army. He became their godfather. In return they gave him their undivided loyalty.

Many of these refugees, including current Rwandan president Paul Kagame and the charismatic founding leader of the RPF, Fred Rwigyema, rose quickly through the ranks of the National Resistance Army (NRA).

The rest as they say is history. The RPF took charge of Rwanda. Kagame became vice president and minister of Defence. He later took the helm. The relationship between Uganda and Rwanda was then seen in terms similar to that between the United States and Israel.

Uganda was seen as a possible guarantor of stability in a country where a persecuted minority had seized political power. The period after the Tutsi genocide saw excellent relations between Uganda and Rwanda.

The two countries even plotted to support rebels that eventually overthrew Zaire’s Mobutu.

Laurent Kabila, the new post-Mobutu leader they installed, however turned against them. He ejected Rwandan and Ugandan troops from his country.

The two countries again started backing another rebel group to fight the Kabila regime they had installed. Rwanda was the prime mover in this anti-Kabila offensive with Uganda as a reluctant ally.

Laurent Kabila hang onto power but the cracks between Rwanda and Uganda continued to widen. The causes of the cracks seem to range from strategic disagreements and personality clashes between key military commanders to competition over the right to plunder and extract wealth from occupied parts of the Congo.

Eventually the simmering tensions erupted into all-out war in 2000 when the two allies fought in the eastern town of Kisangani. The battle lasted for six days. International allies, notably the US and Britain were involved in quelling the conflict but the scars of that conflict seemed to be too deep to ignore.

To date, mutual resentment continues to define the relations between the two countries. In the next column we examine the bitter harvest of Kisangani.

The commentary was first published in Daily Monitor