Uganda/Rwanda: Rather than mend relations, Kagame, Museveni agree on exchange of dead bodies

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Thursday, 30 September 2021 19:46

Rwanda President Paul Kagame, and Uganda President Yoweri Museveni, in Kampala on 7 August 2012. (AP Photo)

With both Rwanda's Paul Kagame and Uganda's Yoweri Museveni refusing to mend relations, the two countries have instead settled on an exchange of dead bodies.

On 30 August, local leaders from the Rwanda district of Burere and the Uganda district of Kabale gathered for a brief sombre function at Katuna border, which Rwanda had closed in February of 2019. Rwanda was handing over the body of Justus Kabagambe (a local trader who had been shot dead by Rwandan police in mid-August for allegedly smuggling cosmetic products into the country) to Uganda.

“You know we are brothers and sisters, we marry from that side, there are people who marry from this side,” Nelson Nshangabasheija, Kabale district chairperson said as he received the body. “It is not good all the time to come to receive dead bodies.”

10 days later, it was time for another brief sombre function: Rwanda was receiving bodies of two of its citizens Theoneste Dusabimana and Paul Bangirana who had died under unclear circumstances on Uganda’s side.

Others are exchanging technology, knowledge, experts, goods and services but we are busy exchanging dead bodies.”

Such have been the only functions held at the border between representatives of the two countries since February 2019, when Rwandan President Paul Kagame ordered closure of the border. This was based on claims that Uganda was harbouring dissidents who were planning to upset Rwanda’s stability and that Museveni’s government was arresting Rwandans in its territory. It’s an allegation that Uganda has strongly dismissed.

Nine bodies (seven were Ugandan and two Rwandan) have been exchanged at the border since it was closed and this has now been termed as the diplomacy of exchanging dead bodies.

“Others are exchanging technology, knowledge, experts, goods and services but we are busy exchanging dead bodies. This tension in East Africa should come to [an] end,” one Rwandan says on Twitter.

The deaths are “unfortunate”, Okello Oryem, Uganda’s minister of state for foreign affairs, says. However, he downplays fears about Uganda’s relationship with Rwanda saying that if it was so bad, even dead bodies wouldn’t be exchanged.

“One would say, ‘we will only hand over bodies when the conflict is finished’,” he tells The Africa Report, arguing that if both countries close embassies and air space to national airlines, that’s when one can jump in and say the relationship between Uganda and Rwanda has reached its worst level.

After border closures, presidents João Lourenço (of Angola) and Félix Tshisekedi (of the Democratic Republic of Congo) initiated mediation between Kagame and Museveni. The first meeting was held in the Angolan capital Luanda, while the second one was held at the Uganda-Rwanda border. Lourenço and Tshisekedi chose to hold the second meeting in February 2020 at the closed border, with the hope that it would reopen on the same day.

Kagame however dashed their hopes, insisting that Uganda had to first meet Rwandan demands: an end to hosting dissidents.

No meetings anymore

Museveni and Kagame haven’t met since February 2020 and neither have the foreign affairs ministers of the two countries. However, the presidents continue to speak about the issue in the media, expressing verbal commitments to improve relations, but with no actual efforts.

On 5 September, Kagame told the Rwanda Broadcasting Agency that there are some complexities in trying to improve relations with Uganda. Rwanda, he argued, has done its part and everybody can see the efforts it has put into trying to normalise the relationship. The crux of Kagame’s argument is that it’s up to Uganda to do its part.

“We have engaged Uganda on several occasions in vain. How the issue ends is really not in our control,” he said.

In an interview on 8 September, Museveni nevertheless told France24 that the ball is in Kagame’s court.

“You go and ask the one who closed the border, I am not the one who closed the border,” Museveni said. Asked if there would be more mediation talks, Museveni said, “we had mediation with the help of Angola. I have not seen the border being open[ed].”

Only Kagame and Museveni together can unlock the block

Two retired diplomats in Kampala, Harold Acemah and Edith Sempala, tell The Africa Report that the personal dispute between Kagame and Museveni is one that cannot be solved by diplomats. Whatever bad blood there is between the two, the diplomats say, they should put it aside and forgive each other for the good of their reputation, families and citizens of the two countries.

Kagame and Museveni fought together in Uganda’s bush war of 1981 to 1986. Kagame later served in the Ugandan army after Museveni came to power, until Rwandans decided to fight their way back home in 1990.

The failure of the Luanda initiative by Lourenço is a clear indicator that no other leader can mend ties between the two [Kagame and Museveni], says Acemah. “They  can’t [hold] a grudge indefinitely. What will solve the situation is an initiative that comes from them. Angola has done its best. What more can anybody do? You can’t impose a solution. The goodwill must come from the two leaders.”

The dispute – which is hurting trade as well as people to people relationship – is embarrassing, painful and indefensible, Acemah says. Explaining how close citizens of the two countries are, Acemah says many Rwandans have close relatives in Uganda and vice versa. He gives an example of a friend who was a career diplomat in Rwanda, while her daughter was a career diplomat in Uganda.

Edith Sempla, for her part, says natural settings such as geographical boundaries is something Kagame and Museveni cannot wish away. Thus, she says, “the wise thing to do is to have friendly relations even if you’re not friends. You must learn to co-exist.”

Working behind the scenes

Every opportunity is being sought to rekindle the relationship, says Oreym. Behind the scenes, both Museveni and Kagame are constantly reminded by friends –  who can reach them – that the dispute has gone on for a long time and needs to be resolved.

When General Jeje Odongo, Uganda’s new foreign affairs minister, took office in July, he wrote to his Rwandan counterpart trying to introduce himself. However, according to Oryem, the initiative failed.

So why did Luanda’s initiative also fail?

Oryem says it was because Rwanda was making unrealistic demands. For instance, Rwanda was demanding for usage of Entebbe International Airport as a hub for direct flights to London. “It’s impossible for any country to give away its international routes,” he says. Uganda revived its national carrier in 2019 and the London route is one of its main targets. Oryem also says that Rwanda was demanding that should any of its citizens who are critical of Kagame cross into Uganda, they should be handed back. All the same, Uganda’s policy is to hand them over to a third country.

No more trade

Trade used to flourish between Rwanda and Uganda, but that’s no longer the case. During the 2020 calendar year, Uganda exported goods worth $1.4m to Rwanda, the lowest figure since 1997 when the Bank of Uganda started recording trade statistics. In comparison, the value of Uganda’s exports to Rwanda had reached $250 million in 2016. All Ugandans who were killed in Rwanda had been trying to smuggle goods into the country.

If leaders fail to mend ties, “pressure will build from people on both sides who are tired of the nonsense”, says Acemah. It will stem from lost opportunities due to a conflict that no one understands.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options