EXCLUSIVE: Uganda’s Adonia Ayebare talks about Museveni, Kagame, and his brother Kandiho

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Monday, 28 February 2022 18:29

Uganda’s UN Permanent Representative Adonia Ayebare - whom President Yoweri Museveni often dispatches to Kigali to smooth over issues - speaks to us in this exclusive interview on his diplomatic career and the trust he has earned from both Museveni and Paul Kagame, which contributed to the Burundi peace process.

As the relationship between the two countries ebbed to its lowest point, one Uganda security officer that Rwanda pointed fingers at severally – for abducting and torturing its citizens – was Major General Abel Kandiho, then head of Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI). Rwanda demanded that he be sacked, yet Ayebare – who was always warmly welcomed by Kagame – is his brother.

Kandiho was replaced days after Lt. General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the son of Museveni and commander of land forces of the Uganda army, visited Rwanda President Paul Kagame last month. Three days after Kandiho was removed from the spy chief office, Rwanda announced that it would reopen the border that had been locked for almost three years.

Ayebare tells The Africa Report that he doesn’t agree with his brother on everything, and argues that it would be “disingenuous” to reduce the complexities of Rwanda-Uganda relationship to his brother.

Ayebare joined diplomacy in 1998 when he became first secretary at the foreign affairs ministry in Rwanda. In 2001, he was transferred to New York in the same role. Two years later, he was appointed ambassador to Rwanda and Burundi, and then transferred again to New York in 2006 as deputy permanent representative to the UN. He joined the International Peace Institute as Africa director in 2009.

He then served as the Senior Adviser on Peace and Security at the African Union’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations in New York City from 2013 to March 2017. That same year he was later appointed Uganda’s ambassador to the UN, a position he still holds. Museveni added him to the portfolio of special envoy in June 2021.

Ayebare spoke to The Africa Report about his diplomatic career, the trust he has earned from Museveni and Kagame, the Rwanda-Uganda relationship and many other issues.

The interview responses have been edited for brevity.

‘Longest serving diplomat’

The Africa Report: In the last list of ambassadors that the president released, we saw more politicians taking diplomatic positions. You’re now the longest serving diplomat. Don’t you find yourself in a situation where you have no senior diplomats working with you and isn’t politics complicating diplomacy?

Adonia Ayebare: The appointment of ambassadors in every country is a prerogative of the president, even in the so-called democratic countries; and the imbalance between the career diplomats and the political appointees is always in favour of the political appointees in most countries. It’s not only in Uganda; diplomacy is political, it’s not a neutral profession. I have actually found that sometimes you get political appointees who actually do better than us career diplomats. Diplomacy is not rocket science, it’s not a preserve of career diplomats. You just need to have the right training and the right personality to really deliver.

You were a journalist in the 1990s. When and how did you end up in diplomacy?

Fate and destiny sent me to diplomacy, but journalism prepared me for diplomacy. I think the skills I acquired from journalism – notably networking, good writing and the skill of reading – largely prepared me for a diplomatic career. It was a time for me to transition and this was after I realised that the journalism career had run its course. I was one of those journalists who were idealists and wanted to change the world. When I realised that I could not change the world in journalism, I switched. Idealistically, I still think that I can still change the world through diplomacy.

From your first posting in Kigali, you were moved quickly to New York and then returned to Kigali. Why?

When I left Rwanda in 2006, I went to New York as number two (deputy ambassador). Some people thought it was a demotion, but I went to New York because Uganda had specific challenges [there at the time] because of the war in Northern Uganda. The president and my minister thought they needed [someone] with my skills to go to New York and [make] a case for Uganda. Uganda had more IDPs than Sudan; the LRA was [on the] rampage and we almost had a war with Sudan. I went to New York with a specific assignment: to explain to the world the strategy of the Ugandan government to end the war in Northern Uganda. I was asked to serve as number two, but with an ambassadorial rank.

Gaining Museveni and Kagame’s trust

Over time, in your career as a diplomat, you seem to have won President Museveni’s trust. During the election season in 2020, we saw you in meetings with the president and the US ambassador. Isn’t this the role of foreign affairs ministers?

I am flattered, but I think the president – as my supervisor – really knows my strong points and based on that, he assigns me to do certain assignments, like the ones you have mentioned, and many more that never be [made] public. I think it is both the trust, but also my capabilities and strengths that the president relies on.

When was the first time that you met President Museveni and what struck you about him?

The first time I met President Museveni was in 1992 when I was a student of mass communication, but also a stringer. It was during a press conference at Entebbe Airport. During those days, we had press conferences whenever the president returned from abroad. I remember asking him questions, such tough questions that we had an exchange and I became a household name. I was struck by his deep knowledge on issues and how he responded to my questions, not only with respect, but also with candour.

How about Kagame? You also seem to have built a strong relationship with him. When Uganda and Rwanda had a difficult relationship, the president would pick you to deliver his messages to Kagame, yet there are ministers and other senior officials.

First and foremost, when I go to President Kagame, I am a special envoy of President Museveni. There is nothing like friendship with President Kagame. He receives me in my official capacity as the envoy of President Museveni. However, in my career, I have had the privilege and opportunity of working in Rwanda as ambassador; and you can say that I am a very known individual in Rwanda and the region, because of the roles I have played.

What about Burundi? When President Museveni was sworn in last year, you travelled onboard Uganda Airlines to bring the Burundian president to Kampala?

That was a special courtesy. As I said before, I have also worked for Burundi in two capacities: as Uganda’s ambassador, but also as one of the mediators in the conflict. One of the people I worked with closely is the current president of Burundi, when he was the chief negotiator of the then rebel movement, CNDD-FDD.

We developed close ties [not just as individuals], but also as countries. We have stayed in touch since then, [which is why] I was selected to go and pick him up from Bujumbura. It’s important to note that the relations between Uganda and Burundi are excellent and they have been consolidated.

Uganda – Rwanda relations

Why did it take long to resolve some of the issues that had caused rifts in the relationship between Uganda and Rwanda?

I wouldn’t call it a bad relationship, but a challenging one. When [two countries] have issues, you [can] get lucky when they are easily resolved, but sometimes they take time so that people can reflect, do better and improve the relationship.

Uganda and Rwanda have a special relationship as countries – historically, socially, politically and economically. There were challenges even before the current RPF government came to power. However, [though] the RPF and the current government have a historical bond with Uganda that cannot be broken, [it] can be challenged.

Still on Rwanda, its paradoxical that you were Museveni’s special envoy, yet one of the people that Rwanda accused of abducting and torturing its citizens was your brother Maj. Gen Abel Kandiho who was the government spy chief. Didn’t Kagame tell you that “your brother has to go before we can open the border”?

Yes, Gen. Abel Kandiho is my brother, but although we work for the same government, we play different roles. He is a soldier, I am a diplomat, and we don’t necessarily agree on everything. Those who agree with their brothers and sisters are lucky families. To reduce the differences between Uganda and Rwanda to Kandiho would be disingenuous. I don’t think he had the capacity to really determine, in a very significant way, the relationship between Uganda and Rwanda. There might have been sensitivities attached to his position, but I don’t remember him being raised as a big issue by Rwanda; and I don’t think he was traded off, he was not.

Even so, the reality is that when Muhoozi Kainerugaba went to Kigali for discussions with Kagame, before Rwanda said “we are opening the border”, Maj Gen. Kandiho had to be given another assignment.

In my diplomatic career, I have seen many coincidences, and I am speculating here; maybe this is one of the coincidences.

Why did it take Kainerugaba going to Rwanda for things to happen?

The president can appoint anybody as special envoy at any given time depending on the situation and the capability of different individuals, but it was all in the interest of improving the relationship between Uganda and Rwanda. Lt. General Muhoozi Kainerugaba was best suited to do that given his position [and] the history of his connection to Rwanda. He was better placed to make negotiations.

You are Uganda’s ambassador to the UN in New York and your brother Gen. Abel Kandiho was sanctioned by the US government. Afterwards, many uniformed supporters of Bobi Wine took to social media to celebrate, assuming that you, as his brother, would also be affected by the same sanctions.  

Being born with somebody becomes part of you as an adult. In my profession, I have met and heard of a lot of ill-informed people and this is a case study of how people use social media as breeding ground for ignorance, to say the least.

These are individual sanctions and the government of Uganda has already given its official position, which is that we don’t accept this.

Diplomacy

What have been your outstanding achievements in diplomacy?

I have had fun, but that aside, I can point one: the Burundi peace process, which I participated in for eight years as one of the mediators, supporting very great facilitators like Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Nelson Mandela, and President Jacob Zuma. I was part of a team that was able to deliver peace to Burundi and democratic transition and I am proud of that achievement. When I see where Burundi is, I feel a sense of satisfaction. I was privileged to be part of the team.

Secondly, I think I have also been among the few diplomats in the world that have campaigned and facilitated the election of two women judges to international judicial organs. There is Solome Bbosa at the International Crimes Court (ICC) and Julia Ssebutinde at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Finally, the rumour that you’re about to cross from diplomacy to politics has been around for sometime. Before the president released the cabinet list last year, you were on the front page of the Daily Monitor newspaper as among those who would be appointed ministers.

I don’t think I am about to cross. I am enjoying diplomacy to the fullest and it’s always up to the appointing authority, but I am really happy where I am.

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