Rwanda – Uganda: Did Muhoozi’s ‘border diplomacy’ work?

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Monday, 31 January 2022 11:14, updated on Thursday, 3 February 2022 10:33

President Paul Kagame (L) and Lt Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba

On 22 January, Uganda’s President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni dispatched a surprising emissary for a meeting with Rwanda’s Paul Kagame. It’s this surprising emissary who has unclogged the communication channels, restoring confidence in Kigali and leading to the reopening of the Gatuna border that Kagame closed in 2019.

The emissary was Muhoozi Kainerugaba, Museveni’s son and commander of land forces of the Uganda army who is touted as his father’s possible successor daily on social media by a growing army of his admirers. He also holds the portfolio of special presidential advisor on special operations. It was the first time that Museveni was dispatching his son publicly on a diplomatic assignment. Muhoozi’s visit came a week after Adonia Ayebare, Uganda’s top diplomat delivered a special message to Kagame from Museveni.

Their meeting lasted two hours. Rwanda’s Presidency described it as “cordial, productive and forward looking” that deliberated “practical steps needed to restore the relationship” between the two countries.

Muhoozi described the meeting as in-depth and expressed optimism that Kagame and Museveni would soon “restore historical good relations.”

Uganda’s immediate tangible benefit from the meeting was the release of a soldier from the special forces command–an elite force that guards Museveni and his family–who had been arrested after crossing into Rwanda for a private errand in November 2021.

Rwanda on Wednesday evening said following Muhoozi’s visit, it has, “taken note there is a process to resolve issues raised” and “commitment by the government of Uganda to address the remaining obstacles.” Rwanda has not listed the remaining obstacles.

The optimism of restoring relations were visible beyond the confines of Urugwiro Village–Kagame’s official residency in Kigali on the day of Muhoozi’s visit. Rwandans and Ugandans started unblocking each other on social media and those who had spent the past three years engaged in smear campaigns started warming up for restoration of friendship between the two states.

Where presidents failed, Muhoozi succeeded

Muhoozi took up a daring task that Angola’s President João Manuel Lourenço and Democratic Republic of Congo’s Félix Tshisekedi failed to  accomplish in 2019 when they facilitated four meetings between Kagame and Museveni. Rwanda’s key demands included Uganda ceasing to host anti-Kigali elements and the release of its abducted citizens.

Rwanda also demanded the sacking of intelligence chiefs who they believe were at the centre of abduction and torture of its citizens in Uganda. That is what Muhoozi may have delivered instantly. Maj. Gen. Abel Kandiho, Uganda’s military intelligence chief whom Rwanda accused of torturing its citizens, was removed from office on Tuesday 25 January and sent to South Sudan. He is a younger brother of Adonia Ayebare, Uganda’s top diplomat who has always received a warm reception in Kigali.

Kandiho was also sanctioned by the US government for human rights abuses in December of last year. Muhoozi was the first to congratulate Kandiho on his new appointment before it was officially announced by the Uganda army.

Even Uganda’s Foreign Affairs officials were caught surprised by Muhoozi’s visit and didn’t have details of the discussions he held with Kagame. On Tuesday 26 January, Uganda’s State Minister for Foreign Affairs Okello Oryem told The Africa Report that the recent visit by Muhoozi had resulted in progress in smoothing over channels of communication between the two countries.

“Communication is better than how it was last month or last year,” he said. Oryem’s anticipates serious progress could result in meetings at a high level in the coming months.

The minister was quick to defend Muhoozi taking centre stage in diplomatic work, arguing that diplomacy is “more complicated than what people think.” He also argued that what Muhoozi is doing isn’t new, and referred to former US President Donald Trump who used to dispatch his daughter Ivanka Trump and in-law Jared Kushner as envoys.

No room for failure

Andrew Mwenda, Muhoozi’s close friend whose relationship with Kagame was also ruined, while media businesses lost its Rwanda cash-cow market as the relationship between the two states receded, argued that Muhoozi believes Kagame “does not have malign intentions against Uganda.” He also argued that Kagame trusts Muhoozi as “a genuine friend of Rwanda and as someone who looks up to him as a hero and mentor.”

Muhoozi may have delivered on his first diplomatic task. How about when he takes up others? Mwambutsya Ndebesa, a political historian argues that by engaging in diplomacy when he is a serving senior military officer, Muhoozi is walking on a tightrope.

Firstly, because military men are always on the last line of defence in state-to-state relationships and are shielded by diplomats and politicians. The double roles, he says can result in “role conflict.”

Secondly, given that Muhoozi could be on a test, Ndebesa says getting into diplomacy publicly could be a double edged sword. If he registers numerous successes, it will raise his profile as a person who can handle diplomatic affairs and hence fit to succeed his father as head of state.

On the other hand, if Muhoozi’s diplomatic overtures go wrong, they will “ruin his future” as a potential head of state. “People will say he failed to handle inter-state affairs, how will he handle it if elected as head of state,” Ndebesa tells The Africa Report.

Succession agenda

On any given day online, Muhoozi devotees can be found touting him as Uganda’s next president. The intensity, however, shot up in the days following his Kigali visit.

Some people are satisfied with official photos and see it as an end in itself. This is not my case. I appreciate the words of President Museveni’s son. But I hope that we can go beyond that and come up with concrete solutions.

Odrek Rwabwogo, an in-law of Museveni who is also said to be interested in succeeding Museveni, tweeted on 23 January – a day after Muhoozi’s visit – that those pushing a narrow succession agenda continue to provoke the ruling party and this could “generate backlash that could reverse the party fortunes. I am warning people who are doing this to stop.”

Though it’s a welcome initiative for Muhoozi to speak to Kagame to ease tensions, Moses Khisa, a political scientist at North Carolina State University, tells The Africa Report that the move deepens personalisation and consequently weakening of institutional channels for handling public affairs. The best Muhoozi could have done, he says, is to engage Kagame quietly and let diplomats continue their work.

Apart from Kagame, Muhoozi has in past months met Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta twice. The first meeting took place in September 2021 at a location Muhoozi did not disclose.  The second was an invitation at the launch of Naivasha Inland Container Depot early January 2022.

Undiplomatic tweets

Muhoozi’s Achilles heel could be his undiplomatic tweets say both Khisa and Ndebesa. For instance, in September last year, he tweeted support for the Tigray rebel forces. Days later, he tweeted that Uganda would fight any country that attempts to fight Egypt. In the same month, he also tweeted that Uganda’s army had the capacity to discipline the mutinous Guinean coup army in a day if Museveni authorized them.

“I doubt that Muhoozi has the skills and wisdom to engage in regional and global diplomacy, not with the incendiary and careless Tweets he has recently put out especially on Ethiopia,” Khisa tells The Africa Report.

Kagame pours cold water

In our recent interview with Paul Kagame, held before the border reopened, some cooling was applied on the enthusiasm for deeper rapprochement.

“Some people are satisfied with official photos and see it as an end in itself. This is not my case. I appreciate the words of President Museveni’s son. But I hope that we can go beyond that and come up with concrete solutions.”

But as traders and citizens pass through the Gatuna border crossings, small steps do appear to have been taken.

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