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Uganda confident Rwanda learnt nothing from spying on top officials 

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Thursday, 19 August 2021 18:12

Kagame and Museveni follow the proceedings of the 20th anniversary commemoration of the Rwandan genocide, in Kigali
Rwandan President Paul Kagame (R) and his Ugandan counterpart Yoweri Museveni follow the proceedings of the 20th anniversary commemoration of the Rwandan genocide, in Kigali April 7, 2014. REUTERS/Noor Khamis

The bitter cold war between Kampala and Kigali only deepened after revelations from the Pegasus Project that Kigali had used spyware to target top Ugandan officials. However, a former Ugandan minister tells The Africa Report that Rwanda failed to extract any high-grade intelligence from its surveillance operations, because of key internal safeguards used by Kampala.

Rwanda, according to the Pegasus Project, targeted Ruhakana Rugunda and Sam Kutesa who, until two months ago, were Uganda’s prime minister and foreign affairs minister, respectively.

Rwanda is also said to have also spied on, among others:

  • Adonia Ayebare, Uganda’s chief diplomat at the UN
  • Gen David Muhoozi, the former chief of defence forces who Museveni appointed state minister for internal affairs,
  • Andrew Mwenda, a journalist who used to do public relations for Kagame

Kigali dismisses the accusations, terming them as “part of an ongoing campaign to cause tensions between Rwanda and other countries, and to sow disinformation about Rwanda domestically and internationally.”

History of suspicion

Kagame and his Ugandan counterpart Yoweri Kaguta Museveni have a shared history. In Museveni’s bush-war days and early years in power, the former was part of Uganda’s army and government.

“You were [the] director of military intelligence?” François Soudan of Jeune Afrique asked the Rwandan president, to which he responded saying: “Well although my title was director, I served under the director, so I was one of the deputies.”

Modern technology has simply extended the range of [Kagame’s] curiosity.

“I read some reports saying that you were feared. It’s a good quality to have in that position,” Soudan asked Kagame, who then said, albeit evasively: “I don’t know. I just did my job, that’s all.”

Kagame honed his skills as a spymaster during the 1981-86 bush war that brought Museveni to power. He was among the batch of 27 rebels who launched the guerrilla movement in 1981. According to Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda – a former Ugandan journalist-turned-MP who wrote about the Rwandan leader more than a decade ago – from the start, Kagame’s job was that of a spy and he executed it meticulously.

A day before the launch of the guerilla war in February 1981, the only Rocket-Propelled Grenade (RPG) that the rebels owned disappeared, raising fear that the group had been infiltrated by enemies. Thus, it became Kagame’s first task to find the enemies.

“Museveni was deeply troubled by the disappearance of the RPG,” said Ssemujju, who interviewed several top bush war generals. “He immediately assigned Kagame to find out who the internal saboteurs were, how many they were and which danger they posed to the struggle.”

Kagame was also instrumental in helping Museveni crush a coup that was being orchestrated by a section of fighters who planned to breakaway from National Resistance Army (NRA) into two factions at the end of 1981, Ssemujju wrote.

Lifetime spymaster

Spying has been a speciality in Kagame’s life, Michela Wrong wrote in the wake of the Pegasus spying scandal in which Rwanda also targeted several high profile government officials in Uganda and South Africa as well as dissidents in diaspora. “Modern technology has simply extended the range of [Kagame’s] curiosity,” Wrong wrote.

Pushing back against that view in an article published by Kigali Times, Vincent Gasana notes: “As always, Kagame is depicted as the Machiavellian figure, forever conniving to influence events for his own ends.”

Uganda thinks Rwanda got nothing

Okello Oryem, who has served as Uganda’s state minister for foreign affairs for 15 years, told The Africa Report that the government has never departed from guerrilla modus operandi. As a corollary, he says, government secrets aren’t discussed remotely. “It’s our government policy that classified information is never discussed on [the] phone,” he says. “It has to be discussed in face to face meetings.”

Oryem says there are some government officials who have bitter, personal opinions on the issue of Rwanda. However, according to him, if Kigali had eavesdropped on their conversations, it would have published them. “The fact that they have never published anything on any government official expressing personal opinion or bitterness means that they are getting low grade intelligence which is not worthy of them wasting their time on,” he says.

I am not surprised that Rwanda was spying on Uganda; and I wouldn’t be surprised if Uganda is spying on Kenya, Tanzania or Rwanda.

Cognisant that there are some countries, not only Rwanda, who could be engaged in phone tapping, Oryem says the government will upgrade its technology to always “detect such activities immediately.” Oryem says he is glad that the Pegasus stories “came to the public.”

Before Pegasus

In Uganda, there has always been fear that Rwanda penetrated security agencies, especially the police force. As relations between the two countries deteriorated from 2017 and onwards, Uganda moved quickly to remove police officers who were seen to be close to Kigali. Senior police officers were arrested and charged with espionage while Kagame’s former bodyguard was kidnapped in 2017. Another group was charged with similar offences in August 2020.

Museveni also sacked his police chief, Gen. Kale Kayihura, who was also later charged with aiding the kidnapping of Kagame’s former bodyguard. In 2019, Uganda deported Annie Bilenge Tabura – the head of sales and distribution at MTN Uganda – and Olivier Prentout, a French citizen who the government accused of using employment tools to “compromise national security.”

There were many more arrests. When Rwanda closed its main border with Uganda, urging its people to desist from visiting Uganda at the end of 2019, it claimed that hundreds of its citizens had been arrested and detained by Uganda security agencies.

At the end of last month, Vincent Biruta – Rwanda’s foreign affairs minister – said efforts to restore and improve relations with Uganda have been “stagnant.”

Harold Acemah, a retired Ugandan diplomat, says spying – which is normal practice in diplomacy – is unlikely to complicate relations between Uganda and Rwanda. “I am not surprised that Rwanda was spying on Uganda; and I wouldn’t be surprised if Uganda is spying on Kenya, Tanzania or Rwanda,” he says. “You have to be a fool to assume that no one is spying on you. Spying is normal work in diplomacy.”

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