How Kagame and Museveni became the best of frenemies
Once great allies, presidents Kagame and Museveni are becoming more and more critical of each other, risking conflict in East and Central Africa. At stake are big investments, regional leadership, the future of the EAC
Someone with a sense of humour drew up the seating plan for Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidential inauguration on 25 May in South Africa.
There in the best seats, reserved for Africa’s veteran leaders, were presidents Yoweri Museveni and Paul Kagame, chatting, if not animatedly, at least with civility.
So why not seat two of East Africa’s grandees next to each other? They should have had so much to discuss.
But this year, relations between Uganda’s President Museveni and Rwanda’s President Kagame have sunk to their lowest ebb for two decades. The day before the two men flew to Pretoria to cheer on Ramaphosa there was another skirmish on the border between Rwanda and Uganda.
This time, two Rwandan soldiers crossed into south-western Uganda in the district of Rukiga in pursuit of a Rwandan national. When the man resisted capture, they shot him dead along with a Ugandan citizen who had tried to protect him.
Uganda’s foreign ministry demanded an immediate apology. The rest of the episode is shrouded in mystery, but it is likely to have come up when the two presidents met the following day.
It fits a pattern of growing tensions between the two countries this year over trade and political matters. These escalated in February when Kagame’s government started blocking Ugandan trucks from entering Rwanda at the Kitona crossing point, one of the busiest border posts between the two countries.
Rwanda’s foreign minister, Richard Sezibera, then barred his country’s nationals from travelling to Uganda – ostensibly for security reasons. He told the BBC that Rwandans faced harassment, arrest and sometimes indefinite detention by the Ugandan authorities.
Behind all this is Kagame’s core accusation that Museveni is backing dissidents and militias intent on overthrowing his government. That is all the more serious because both countries, with substantial military forces and intelligence services, regard themselves as guarantors for security in the region.
Row over dissidents
A visibly angry Kagame tells The Africa Report that Museveni had been trying to cover up Uganda’s associations with Rwandan dissidents such as tobacco magnate Tribert Rujugiro and former Rwandan chief of army staff General Kayumba Nyamwasa.
Both men had been close allies of Kagame. But in 2009, Rujugiro fell out with him and was stripped of his Rwandan citizenship and his businesses.
Kagame dismisses Rujugiro as a crook now, but resents his presence in Uganda, citing it as evidence of Museveni’s complicity in a plot against Kigali. Rwandan intelligence says it has evidence that Rujugiro is in business with Museveni’s brother, Salim Saleh.
This has evolved into a very personalised quarrel, which makes it harder to forecast its outcome. “President Museveni, we know each other,” Kagame told The Africa Report. “He knows me very well. Museveni has a flaw of thinking that everyone must bow to him whether he’s wrong or right. He actually thinks he has that right, that this region is his.”
But the dispute goes far beyond the personal realm.
Rwanda and Uganda send peacekeeping forces to Somalia, Sudan, the Central African Republic and beyond. They try to set the agenda and pursue their specific interests on security at the African Union and the United Nations.
An escalation of tensions between them could threaten regional stability. At the very least, with Kagame as chairman of the East African Community (EAC) it could set back the cause of regional economic integration.
A big part of the row between Museveni and Kagame is rooted in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), part of a rivalry over resources and strategic influence.
Gold exports from Uganda, for example, have risen from less than $10m a year a decade ago to over half a billion dollars last year; much of it is believed to be from the DRC.
So the arrival of newly elected Congolese president Félix Tshisekedi in Kigali on a full state visit in late March, where he was a star attraction at the Africa CEO Forum, raised eyebrows.
Tshisekedi’s own supporters back home piloried the Congolese president for visiting the genocide memorial in the Rwandan capital. Nevertheless, Tshisekedi condemned the militias operating on the Congolese side of the border with Rwanda. “We have to believe him,” says Kagame. “My problems in Rwanda very often end up being problems in the DRC, and vice versa. We can’t address that without cooperation.”
“We start with one principle: we ourselves are just temporal actors, but our countries will always be neighbours,” said Tshisekedi at the close of the forum. “Nurturing tensions is just a waste of time, time which we could set aside for building. I have felt from President Kagame a desire to move forwards, it is exactly the kind of partnership I am looking for.”
Against this backdrop, The Africa Report sought out the views of Kagame and Museveni on the causes of the rising tensions between their two countries and how Africa should respond to the international economic slowdown and trade wars.
Interrupting a cabinet meeting at the majestic State House in Entebbe overlooking Lake Victoria, President Museveni, a spritely 74 year old, strides across the building to meet us.
Almost immediately he ticks off a list of 10 bottlenecks that are holding back structural economic transformation in Uganda, such as inadequate infrastructure, electricity and transport systems.
Then he starts handing out papers on development strategy that he delivered in Japan and Europe. The spirit of his days at Dar es Salaam University in the 1960s, taught by Walter Rodney and other Marxists, lives on.
Over the next three years, gross domestic product growth in Uganda is set to average about 5.7% due to the gradual expansion of services and industries. And if oil production and refining starts up on schedule in 2022, growth should increase by at least an additional percentage point per year.
Despite these better growth prospects, does Museveni worry about Uganda’s growing debt-service commitments undermining the country’s financial stability? Not at all, as long as the loans are used productively, he replies. “If all our cotton had been converted into textiles, how much money would we have earned? So Africa is losing whether we borrow or we don’t borrow,” Museveni says.
The best example, he argues, is the government’s strategy on developing Uganda’s oil reserves. Although it was one of the first countries in East Africa to find commercial quantities of oil – it has estimated recoverable reserves of at least 1.7bn in the Lake Albert basin – Uganda has held out for a deal that met its key demands: a substantial amount of the oil should be refined near the oil wells, providing enough supply for national and regional markets.
“Without a refinery, the oil would have stayed in the ground. It has been there for two million years. There’s no way we could be an oil producer while importing finished products [such as petrol]. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s really treason, and I’m not a traitor,” says Museveni.
The pipeline’s not the point
In June, Museveni’s government finally agreed terms with France’s Total, China National Offshore Oil Corporation and Ireland’s Tullow for the tariffs and fees on the pipeline to Tanga port in Tanzania to export crude. That part of the project was of secondary importance, according to Museveni: “I wasn’t interested in the pipeline […] but the oil companies wanted to recover their money quickly, so we compromised as long as they agreed with my oil refinery.”
Such decisions about resource allocation will prove critical if Uganda is to meet the ambitious aims of its Vision 2040 programme, which aims to achieve upper-middle-income status through a succession of five-year plans. Alongside the oil production and refining, the government is building a new hydropower project at Karuma on the edge of Murchison Falls National Park. It is also investing in new transport projects, including the revitalisation of its national carrier, Uganda Airlines.
That fits into the plans for a boost to tourism, marketing the country’s natural beauty. In all these projects, Museveni makes it clear that the jobs created are as important as the revenue they raise.
Pointing to his traditional tunic, he says: “This shirt I am putting on is a Ugandan shirt […] from cotton to fabric to garment. If you sell a kilo of what they call lint cotton, after they remove the seed you may get $1 a kilo. Africa has been ending the process there. But when you make a shirt out of it, you get $15.” It is a straightforward progression with clear rewards, he adds: “You spin the cotton to get thread – there are jobs. You weave – that’s more jobs. You print the colours – that’s more jobs. You’re donating all those jobs.”
Yet there is also a big tax-revenue drive, partly to pay for the government’s new infrastructure investments. The most controversial has been the so-called lugambo (meaning gossip) tax, under which Ugandans pay a tax of USh200 ($0.05) per day to use digital services such as WhatsApp, Skype, Facebook and Twitter.
Activists have condemned the tax as an attempt to restrict freedom of speech. It follows the cutting off of Twitter and Facebook during the 2016 elections.
Consumption tax Museveni staunchly defends it: “We don’t have to tax technology. Our tax policy is very clear. We don’t tax production when you are putting inputs into production for industry, for agriculture. […] But when it’s just consumption, that’s where we tax.” Other countries in the region, especially Tanzania, are watching to see the impact of Uganda’s initiative.
The day before our interview, Museveni had been touring northern Uganda, getting his message out, although elections are not due until 2021. He used the term “the politics of war” when referring to a mooted alliance between longtime opposition candidate – and his former doctor – Kizza Besigye and Robert Kyagulanyi, better known as Bobbi Wine, the 37-year-old singer and self-appointed ‘Ghetto President’ (see TAR 107, ‘The Youth Wave’).
“What I meant was that here in Africa we are building countries, [whereas] in Europe and America people are running countries. So it’s a struggle of direction. Do we do this or do we do that? And they are all very serious issues”, says Museveni.
Asked what he considers his legacy, Museveni slips back into electioneering mode: “First of all, the anti-colonial efforts, the liberation of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Angola, South Africa itself. Then the politics of unity, building a strong, disciplined army, and then, finally, defogging the ideo- logical horizon because in Africa people don’t know what is needed. By removing the fog, it has helped Uganda. That’s why Uganda is growing.”
The other area he pinpoints is regional integration: “Integration – we are the ones who insisted on it.” Why then, we asked, was Uganda not doing more to heal the rift with Rwanda, as it is disrupting trade and regional projects?
A pause, then a smile with an uncharacteristically brief response. “No. Those are hiccoughs, but the direction of the integration is correct.”
What is the cure for the hiccoughs? Another smile and more pauses.“There’s always medicine for hiccoughs. You drink some water. We shall find a solution.” He concludes: “We’ll deal with Rwanda confidentially – not through journalists.” Try as we might, that was the only available verdict from Kampala on relations with Rwanda.
Barbs in public
Contrary to standard diplomatic protocols, this bilateral dispute has been aired thoroughly in public. When it started in February, Kagame gave a tough message – without mentioning Uganda – to a national leadership retreat at Gabiro: “You can attempt to destabilise our country. You can shoot with a gun and kill me, but there is one thing that is impossible: no one can bring me to my knees.”
To which Museveni fired back, at the opening of a new manufacturing plant and surrounded by bemused foreign businessmen: “Those who want to destabilise our country do not know our capacity. Once we mobilise, you can’t survive.”
According to one of Museveni’s most senior diplomats, the dispute has gone beyond mere rhetoric. “My concern,” the diplomat says, “is the state of our regional economic organisations […], just as we are negotiating with the European Union and maybe Britain on the side […] as well as launching our own African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA, see page 8) and a host of other pan-African institutions. We can’t afford to tread water now.”
Kagame’s position as EAC chairman – and running one of the region’s smallest economies – makes his diplomatic position critical. For now, Rwanda is in open dispute with Uganda and Burundi, while there are rumbling discontents in its relations with Tanzania.
Reviewing the state of Rwanda’s regional relationships from the top floor of the ministry of defence in Kigali, President Kagame seems almost eerily relaxed about these growing tensions. Occasionally, he allows himself the odd chuckle when trying to explain why his critics have got it so wrong – as if their errors were just too absurd to merit discussion.
None of these local difficulties have shaken Kagame’s belief in regional economic integration, even political federation, he tells The Africa Report. He was a lead sponsor of the AfCFTA and an energetic chairman of the African Union, trying to shake up its institutions and reform its financing structures.
Having downed an excellent Rwandan espresso in the defense ministry’s waiting room, we launch into the idea of creating an East Africa coffee brand, a sort of caffeinated version of Europe’s multinational Airbus production line. Kagame says he completely agrees with such cooperation. Then there is a pause: “But that only happens if you address many other problems. Nothing is so independent of the other: the business will not be independent of the politics […] and the politics is not completely independent of the economics.”
Give and take
The problem is, he explains, that “we are still stuck in very old politics […] even when we are aware that there are more and better things we can achieve together, but still we take this route that’s old-fashioned or archaic.” We assumed that his use of the first person plural was rhetorical rather than any admission of fault.
Lest there be any doubt about his enthusiasm for ‘new politics’ he continues: “Integration necessarily means give and take, giving away a certain level of sovereignty. […] The old politics plays on sovereignty as if it’s the beginning and the end of everything.”
Giving up sovereignty is a calculated risk. “It begins with political will […] you must bring in the citizens of your country because you need that backing to deal with any threat you envisage.”
All that is much easier in Europe than in Africa, Kagame believes. In Europe, he says, there are parties – conservatives and liberals – that span the continent. But in Africa, the parties and the parliaments are still too fragmented, confined to national identities. “In East Africa, integration has come about as a result of leaders sitting in this room and saying: ‘This is the right thing to do.’ But they forget to mobilise their people to be part of it.”
A lot of Western politicians would argue that this is exactly what has gone awry with the European Union project.
Western problems, Africa’s advantage
That brings us to the effects on Africa of the revival of nationalist and populist politics in Europe and the Americas. For Kagame, the ideal type of democratic politics in the West appears to be crumbling, but that can be turned to Africa’s advantage: “We are in an era where there are these difficulties across the world, but they constitute the best opportunities for Africa, the best we’ve ever had.”
Navigating the emerging multipolar world suits Kagame: “You can try to get the best from whichever side you may choose and what you think may work best for you […] the freedom to navigate, making choices between so many things.”
Like Africa’s nimbler diplomats, Kagame has been able to win friends and influence officials equally in the council chambers of Beijing, New Delhi, Tokyo, Brussels and Moscow. Only in London and Washington DC, which were counted among his most ardent admirers two decades ago, are officials taking a more sceptical line on
Kigali’s governance model
By comparison, navigating East Africa may prove trickier for Kagame. As chairman of the EAC, he has no real problem with the fact that his country has been accused of backing an insurrection in Burundi: “I don’t interfere with [the mediators, Museveni and Tanzania’s former president Benjamin Mkapa]. I’ll make my contribution, and that’s where it will stop. I won’t dictate what should happen in Burundi […]. Let those who are responsible for it deal with it.”
Accusations by Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza against Rwanda are rejected wholesale: “The first problem of Burundi is Burundi itself,” says Kagame. “When you put lies on the table […] they’ll be seen for what they are. And then the East African leaders will decide how to move forward. This is the approach.”
Brothers in arms
The theme of neighbourhood tensions leads us inexorably back to Kagame’s complex relationship with Museveni. Exiled to Uganda after a purge of the Tutsi ethnic group in Rwanda in 1959, Kagame’s childhood was consumed by the political dramas of Milton Obote’s overthrow, the ousting of Idi Amin Dada and the brutal rule of Tito Okello.
It was Kagame and Fred Rwigyema who led the Rwandan contingent in Museveni’s National Resistance Army, which seized power in Kampala in 1986. Although Kagame was appointed head of military intelligence, he and Rwigyema’s main aim was to overthrow the Juvénal Habyarimana regime, which was planning the ethnic cleansing of Rwanda.
At that stage, Kagame was beginning to make his break with Museveni, although the two remained allies. And Uganda’s military help was useful in the battles to seize power in Kigali and defeat the génocidaires in 1994.
Much of the thinking developed in Museveni’s guerrilla campaign – revolutionary committees and decentralisation – resurfaced in Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Museveni’s combination of revolutionary rhetoric about popular power, anti-corruption campaigns, restructuring and devolution – combined with a rhetorical commitment to free-market economics and attracting investment – also shaped much of the RPF’s strategy.
There was a third grand alliance between Kagame’s and Museveni’s forces: the campaign to overthrow Mobutu Sese Seko in what is now the DRC. Initially, they worked alongside the forces of Laurent-Désiré Kabila, but the seeds of conflict over military strategy and the sharing of local resources had been sown.
It was the battle for Kisangani, the diamond town on a bend in the Congo River, that tore Kagame and Museveni apart. They had differed over which local rebel factions to back and how to divide the spoils of war. But, above all, the split was due to the deadly clashes between their forces – seen by the Ugandan forces as a colossal betrayal by their Rwandan counterparts.
From there the personal relationship between the two leaders fell apart, according to the Ugandan diplomat we spoke to. Such is the level of mistrust that there cannot be good-faith negotiations, Kagame told us, adding that Museveni had failed to treat him with respect.
Now, as both men hone their differing plans and strategies for the region, there could be a prolonged stand-off.
Neither side is likely to plan a direct attack on the other, but both sides are testing the limits. The danger, says the diplomat, lies in whether either side misjudges the red lines: there is no obvious face-saving mechanism and no one is willing to risk playing the mediator.
[This article first appeared in the July print edition of The Africa Report print edition]