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Escalating Tensions between Uganda and Rwanda Raise Fear of War

The long simmering rivalry between Yoweri Museveni and Paul Kagame has escalated border tensions into a serious risk of armed interstate conflict.

Escalating Tensions between Uganda and Rwanda Raise Fear of War

Soldiers of the Rwanda Defence Force (left) and Uganda People’s Defence Forces (right). (Photos: Spc.Angelica Gardner, MSgt. Carlotta Holley)

Formerly staunch allies, Uganda and Rwanda are at loggerheads. Since March 2019, their armies have been massing along their border. In May 2019, tensions rose after Uganda protested what it said was an incursion by Rwandan forces onto Ugandan territory, killing two civilians in the border town of Rukiga. Rwanda refuted the claim, saying that it was pursuing a group of smugglers that had illegally crossed over to its side of the border.

The trigger to the rapidly escalating tensions between the two countries was a December 2018 Report of the United Nations Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) that found that the military wing of a coalition of Rwandan opposition groups calling itself the “Platform Five,” or P5, was being armed and trained by Uganda, Burundi, and the DRC. The P5 military forces are led by General Kayumba Nyamwasa—formerly a Ugandan senior army officer and also a former Rwandan Army Chief of Staff. The P5 has been in existence since at least 2014 and seeks to overthrow the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF). Unlike other Rwandan rebel outfits such as the Interahamwe, the P5 is dominated by former high-ranking RPF government, intelligence, and military officials, the vast majority of whom once served in the Uganda military and government.

In July and December 2018 as well as April 2019, P5 elements and their allies launched attacks into Rwanda. The December attack led to the deaths of two Rwandan soldiers and an unknown number of rebels. Two civilians were killed and eight were seriously wounded in the April assault. Rwanda pursued and captured three senior Rwandan rebel commanders accused of leading the attacks. They are now facing a military tribunal.

In February 2019, Rwanda closed its border with Uganda after accusing Kampala of harboring Nyamwasa’s fighters and arbitrarily detaining and torturing Rwandan nationals—charges Uganda denies. The border was reopened briefly in early June but shut again a few weeks later. Rwanda has issued a travel advisory warning its citizens not to travel to Uganda. Alarmed by the escalation, a coalition of three civil society organizations have sued Uganda and Rwanda in the East African Court of Justice over the border closure and other acts of hostility that they say are hurting ordinary citizens.

Over the past year, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Rwandan President Paul Kagame have exchanged threats laced with loaded cultural messaging. Reflecting the limited checks and balances in authoritarian governance structures, senior officials on both sides have also escalated their rhetoric rather than serving as moderating influences. This has put the two countries on a war footing. During a briefing for military attachés accredited to Uganda in May shortly after the cross-border shooting, Uganda’s army chief, General David Muhoozi, and the Rwandan defense attaché, Lt. Col. James Burabyo, had a heated exchange, falling just short of personal insults, to the astonishment of other envoys in the room.

“Reflecting the limited checks and balances in authoritarian governance structures, senior officials on both sides have also escalated their rhetoric rather than serving as moderating influences.”

General Nyamwasa added fuel to the fire in May 2019 during an interview with Uganda’s state media in which he accused Rwanda of sponsoring a coup attempt in Burundi three years ago and backing former Burundi army officers that joined the Resistance for Rule of Law (Red Tabara) and other rebels fighting President Pierre Nkurunziza, such as the Republican Forces of Burundi (FOREBU). Kigali saw his appearance on a Uganda government media outlet as yet another indication of ongoing collaboration among Rwandan rebels, Uganda, and Burundi.

The prospect of war between Uganda and Rwanda is also significant since interstate conflict in Africa has become rare with nearly all active armed conflicts on the continent today an outcome of unresolved domestic grievances and rivalries.

Tensions between Uganda and Rwanda also have direct implications for stability in the Great Lakes region more generally, with Burundi becoming a key flashpoint of the rivalry between Kampala and Kigali. Rwanda, which recently succeeded Uganda as EAC chair, decries what it calls “connections between Bujumbura and Kampala” and blames both for allowing the P5 and other armed groups to use Burundi as an operational base. The UN has reported on clashes in the DRC’s South Kivu region between P5 fighters and Red Tabara, which is the largest rebel group battling the Burundi government.

Hostility between Uganda and Rwanda also distracts and diminishes regional capacity to combat other crises in the Great Lakes region, not least the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) insurgency, and efforts to respond to the expanding Ebola outbreak in the eastern DRC.

The economic costs of the crisis are also being felt. Uganda’s imports from the East African Community (EAC) increased more than 8 percent in the 2017–2018 fiscal year, largely due to trade with Rwanda and Burundi. This will decrease significantly given the restriction of movement across the Uganda/Rwanda border and the continuing crisis in Burundi. Museveni dismissed the issue, saying that his country “will find better markets.” He did so in full military regalia, signifying that this was more than a trade war.

A Simmering Standoff Coming to a Boil

The prospect of open conflict between Uganda and Rwanda would seem inconceivable to many observers because of the long and intertwined history of the two countries’ leaderships. Exiled Rwandan (largely Tutsi) fighters and Rwandan immigrants played a leading role in the struggle that brought Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) to power in 1986. Likewise, the bulk of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) that invaded Rwanda and stopped the 1994 genocide had been part of the Ugandan military and enjoyed Ugandan backing. Kagame was one of the NRA’s “originals” who launched the Ugandan armed struggle. Kagame later served as a senior leader in Uganda’s intelligence services, leading efforts to neutralize internal and external threats to Museveni’s rule.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. (Photo: UN/Eskinder Debebe)

However, Museveni and Kagame also share a complicated personal relationship that looms large in this crisis. The two leaders are graduates of Uganda’s prestigious Ntare High School, where most of the current Ugandan and Rwandan government and military officials went to school. They formed a friendship that would alter the course of their countries’ histories. Kagame served for seven years as Uganda’s Deputy Director of Military Intelligence, putting Museveni a step ahead in defeating numerous insurgencies, including the notorious Holy Spirit Movement, which came within 40 miles of bombarding Kampala in 1987. In 1990, Museveni sent Kagame to the U.S. Senior Staff and Command College at Fort Leavenworth, but called him back to command the RPF after its first commander and former Ugandan Deputy Defense Minister, Fred Rwigyema, was killed during a failed invasion of Rwanda.

After the RPF took power in 1994, the pair forged a strong military alliance with a Joint Command that oversaw several operations, including the 1998 war against the DRC’s long-serving ruler, Mobutu Sese Seko, and the installation of his successor, Laurent Kabila. Differences, however, emerged over how to manage the DRC. These differences grew sharper after the two fell out with Kabila and launched a second rebellion to remove him. Rwanda preferred a “lightning strike,” capturing city after city, while Uganda preferred a slower and more protracted battle. The two countries ultimately suspended their Joint Command and disengaged their forces.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame

Rwandan President Paul Kagame. (Photo: Bizimana Jean)

Then, in 1999-2000, Ugandan and Rwandan soldiers clashed several times in the eastern Congolese city of Kisangani over the control of strategic locations, rival Congolese factions backed by each side, and hostility between local Ugandan and Rwandan commanders. The two armies were also accused by the United Nations Security Council of illegally exploiting Congolese natural resources such as gold and coltan. The fighting is estimated to have resulted in around 3,000 civilian and 1,000 military deaths.

Seeking compensation for the deaths of the Ugandan troops, Museveni referenced an old Rwandan concept, ntiturakaraba, which holds that the family of an individual guilty of murder must hand over one of its own members to the aggrieved side. The tenor of the message suggested that reconciliation with Rwanda would not be possible until Uganda either avenged its soldiers, or Kagame, long seen by Museveni as his junior and beneficiary of his largesse, made amends.

Nearly two decades later, Kagame still remembered the statement, saying in a March 2019 interview that Uganda had been “undermining my country since 1998.” He added that “no one can bring me to my knees,” invoking the concept agaciro (dignity), which leaders on both sides frequently use during moments of tension. In the traditional Rwandan context, agaciro represents the nation’s highest aspiration and any effort to undermine it, is a justification for war. “We defeated them three times” during the 1999-2000 violence, Kagame recollected—a comment that predictably didn’t go over well in Kampala. He also underscored Rwanda’s steadfast rejection of a claim by many Ugandan military leaders that the RPF owes them a debt of gratitude for helping it seize power after the 1994 genocide. Rwandan leaders have long rejected this suggestion. There is “the vague feeling that we should be indebted” to Museveni, said Kagame. “Museveni is not the president of Rwanda and will never be.” Museveni responded with a pointed warning of his own: “Those who want to destabilize our country do not know our capacity. Once we mobilize, you can’t survive.”

Uganda has accused Rwanda of infiltrating its security services. In June 2018, Ugandan General Kale Kayihura was sacked as Inspector General of Police in a major shake-up of the security sector. He was later arrested and put on trial along with other security leaders for repatriating suspected Rwandan rebel elements to Kigali even though the two countries do not have an extradition agreement.

Gen. Kale Kayihura

Gen. Kale Kayihura, in court in August 2018. (Photo: video screen capture)

It continues to rankle Rwanda that many high-ranking defectors from its security forces such as Nyamwasa grew up in Uganda and have strong ties to its military establishment. Kampala is equally paranoid about the connections Rwanda has with its security apparatus. After Kayihura’s arrest, Uganda expelled several Rwandans on allegations of espionage. Since then, Uganda has reshuffled its security apparatus three times, reflecting in part a sense of panic about the extent to which Kigali is thought to have penetrated the Ugandan state in an apparent effort to monitor Nyamwasa’s links with Uganda’s security services and neutralize the P5 network.

The escalating tension also risks undermining delicate ethnic relations in Uganda. Kayihura, a decorated hero of the NRA war, hails from the Banyarwanda community, a linguistic group that speaks Kinyarwanda and practices Rwandan traditions. His downfall sparked panic among parts of this community, which although constitutionally recognized as Ugandan, has had its loyalty questioned whenever tensions with Rwanda have escalated.

This unease has been amplified by rumors of an imminent purge of Banyarwanda from Uganda’s security sector and growing anti-Rwanda sentiment. Regional leaders concerned by the escalating tension have attempted to launch direct talks between Museveni and Kagame. Presidents Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, John Pombe Magufuli of Tanzania, and Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa have all tried to bring the two together without success.

Fraternal Rivalries Often the Most Vicious

A core grievance in Ugandan security circles is that the RPF committed a grave error by attacking the Ugandan troops in Kisangani. Many Ugandan officials refer derisively to their RPF former comrades as “juniors” and “boys” to underscore the fact that Museveni was once their Commander in Chief. Rwandan officials bitterly repudiate the insinuation of their inferiority, holding that they are sovereign leaders in charge of an independent country capable of taking a different course from Uganda’s. This independence was seen in the RPF’s refusal to accept many of Museveni’s preferences over how post-genocide Rwanda should be managed, a grievance many Ugandans still hold today. In 1999, after the first round of fighting in Kisangani, Kagame decried the slights: “Our Ugandan brothers treat us as kids, as if we are supposed to be subordinate to them.” In his March 2019 interview, Kagame reiterated his point, saying, “Rwanda cannot accept diktat from anyone. … We might be small geographically, but we are big ideologically.”

Other grievances are tied to deeper, unresolved issues in Uganda/Rwanda relations. During the NRA war, Rwandan immigrants and Banyarwanda, two groups victimized by the then-Obote government, joined Museveni in droves, making up more than a third of the NRA by 1984. Relations between them and other ethnic groups in the force ebbed and flowed over time. Despite their integral place in the struggle, the Rwandan immigrants in particular were often derided as “foreigners” and there was incessant grumbling over their prominence in Museveni’s inner circle and later in Uganda’s governmental and security apparatuses. Museveni himself was often labeled a “foreigner” on account of this, putting him in the awkward position of keeping the NRA together, rewarding his Rwandan comrades, while appeasing other ethnic groups.

He also needed to assuage the fears of Rwanda’s government—then headed by Juvénal Habyarimana—that Museveni would one day back the Rwandans in the NRA to attack Rwanda. Within Uganda, the role of Banyarwanda communities in national politics has long been a source of strain due to sectarian manipulation by successive governments dating back to the country’s independence. It also contributes to the rise in xenophobic rhetoric against members of the Banyarwanda whenever tensions with Rwanda arise.

“Relations between the two countries are mostly handled by military and intelligence leaders, with civilian institutions playing a minimal role.”

Many had hoped that the intimate cultural ties between Uganda and Rwanda would provide a foundation for conflict resolution. Instead, it has fueled suspicion and mistrust that at times spirals out of control, leading to accusations and counter-accusations of infiltration given how well the two countries know each other’s preferred tactics and secrets.

Before Kisangani, differences between Uganda and Rwanda were handled swiftly and often outside public view. This level of trust was never fully recovered after the deadly clashes. One of the legacies from that period is that relations between the two countries are mostly handled by military and intelligence leaders, with civilian institutions playing a minimal role. This explains the speed at which differences tend to escalate and become militarized, rather than negotiated.

Defusing the Crisis

This is the fourth time the two former allies have been on the brink of conflict since the British government helped them narrowly avoid an all-out war in 2001. In each case, the personal commitment of the two presidents was key to de-escalation. However, the absence of other centers of influence outside the presidential inner circle and security sector has meant that relations remain personalized and militarized.

“The absence of other centers of influence outside the presidential inner circle and security sector has meant that relations remain personalized and militarized.”

One option out of this quagmire would be for neutral international actors to help negotiate with the two sides in order to deescalate and find a more durable long term set of solutions. In particular, countries with historical links to the NRA and RPF, such as Mozambique, Zambia, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Norway could help pull them back from the brink. Elder African mediators who are highly regarded by the two leaders and have worked with them in the past, such as Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda, Tanzania’s Joseph Butiku and Salim Ahmed Salim, Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, and Daniel arap Moi of Kenya, could also be brought in to create a roadmap to a lasting detente.

Another priority is to expand the basis of bilateral relations beyond the head of state and ministries of defense levels that currently dominate ties between the two countries. Instead, affairs could be normalized with the respective ministries of foreign affairs taking the lead roles, with robust engagements by local governments and parliamentarians. Relations could also be stabilized by facilitating broader popular engagements including ongoing citizen exchanges involving private sector representatives, youth and women’s associations, academic exchanges, and religious leaders.

This is a conflict that can and should be avoided. It will require cooler heads to serve as circuit-breakers to pull back from the brink. Moderating influences can then shape longer-term solutions to move the relationship beyond the personal rivalries of the two leaders and put relations on surer footing. In the process, this approach can defuse future escalations that make the Uganda-Rwanda tensions so dangerous.

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