Uganda: Minister Oryem claims Kampala not backing any side in Rwanda-DRC dispute

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Tuesday, 28 June 2022 10:29

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni speaks during an interview at his farm in Kisozi settlement of Gomba district, in the Central Region of Uganda, January 16, 2022. Picture taken January 16, 2022. REUTERS/Abubaker Lubowa

Uganda’s rapprochement with Rwanda is continuing at a time when the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) diplomatic spat with Rwanda over the Mouvement du 23 Mars (M23) rebels continues unabated. Uganda’s state minister for foreign affairs, Okello Oryem tells The Africa Report that Kampala is taking a neutral position, but sees Rwanda as a closer ally than the DRC. 

Tweets by Lieutenant General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, a presidential son and commander of Uganda’s land forces, indicated that Uganda might side with Rwanda. His father, President Yoweri Museveni, backed Rwanda during Nairobi talks on 20 June on the formation of a regional force that will be deployed in eastern DRC.

This has left Kinshasa wondering if Kampala should be trusted.

Three days after the stormy talks in Nairobi’s ended with the DRC rejecting Rwanda’s request to be part of the regional force, Museveni travelled to Kigali by road through the Katuna border, reopened by Rwanda in March this year after three years of closure. He flew from Kampala to the border point on a military helicopter.

Museveni received a rousing welcome in Rwanda as the convoy drove to Kigali. Hundreds of Rwandans lined up on the road to cheer him. It was the kind of cheering that he no longer gets in Uganda, where soldiers instead line up on streets, especially in Kampala, before his convoy passes by.

“I thank our Rwandan brothers and sisters for the warmth not only during my stay but also during my departure from Kigali to Katuna,” Museveni tweeted on Sunday after returning to Kampala. It was the first time that Museveni was visiting Kigali since 2017, when he attended Kagame’s swearing-in ceremony.

The rousing welcome “was surprising,” a diplomat who had been part of Museveni’s advance team in Kigali tells The Africa Report. Uganda-Rwanda diplomatic relationship has experienced good and bad times since 1999, when their armies fought in Kisangani after falling out with the DRC’s Laurent Désiré Kabila, who they had helped to capture power.

The surprise welcome is in sharp contrast to a previous episode, in 2005, during an era of escalating tensions between the two countries. Back then, Rwandan security at the same border point turned away a third of Museveni’s bodyguards, angering Kampala. Museveni was heading to Kigali to attend a Common Market of East and Southern Africa meeting.

Kagame, who had been slated to visit Kampala days later for a conference on agriculture research. never turned up, without communicating, leaving ministers and a presidential motorcade to wait for hours at the airport in vain.

“We are neutral”

Uganda’s state minister for foreign affairs Okello Oryem tells The Africa Report that Museveni’s rousing welcome by Rwandans should not be misunderstood, especially by the Kinshasa government, which is already questioning Uganda’s neutrality. He warns against “simplistic ways of viewing things” in the context of the current geopolitical tensions in the region.

Asked about views emerging in Kinshasa that Uganda is siding with Rwanda, he says: “Some of these comments being made without careful consideration by these individuals is very unfortunate.”

Oryem says Uganda is not backing anyone in the ongoing conflict between Kinshasa and Kigali. The DRC accuses Rwanda of supporting the M23 rebels, who have held the border town of Bunagana for two weeks. Rwanda, on the other hand, accuses the DRC of working with the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda, whose members include people who participated in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.

Our sister publication Jeune Afrique recently reported that Museveni sided with Rwanda during the Nairobi meeting. Oryem says: “I don’t recollect Uganda supporting the deployment of Rwanda troops in DRC.” He adds that ministers were asked to leave the meeting mid-way as heads of state continued with the deliberations.

Caught in the middle

Oryem says Uganda cannot take sides between DRC and Rwanda. Both countries are strategically important. However, he indicates that Rwanda is closer to Kampala. “The leadership in Rwanda is literally in our living rooms, whereas the leadership in Kinshasa is approaching our veranda and the next step is to be in our living room,” he says. But the relationship between Uganda and Rwanda also recently hit a rough patch, with Rwanda having reopened its border with Uganda in March of this year after a period of progress.

Despite the neutrality claim, there is no indication that Kampala is making efforts to reach out to Kinshasa to allay emerging questions about its position. Following the capture of the Bunagana border post two weeks ago by the M23 rebels, there were claims from the Congolese army that Ugandan soldiers subtly aided the rebels.

On 14 June, the speaker of the DRC national assembly, Christophe Mboso, said that members had refused to ratify a treaty the government had signed with Uganda for cross-border road construction and security. Mboso said Lt. Gen. Muhoozi betrayed the DRC when Rwanda and the DRC signed a defence cooperation agreement in May.

Rwanda and DRC are key Ugandan trading partners

Rwanda, DRC and South Sudan are Uganda’s leading export markets. Unlike Tanzania and Kenya, where Uganda has a widening trade deficit, it has a trade surplus with the three countries. Uganda had a $400m surplus with South Sudan in 2021 and $300m surplus with DRC the same year.

However, trade between Rwanda and Uganda has not normalised three months after the border reopening. Uganda’s monthly exports to Rwanda are valued at less than half a million dollars, according to data from the Bank of Uganda. Before the border closure in 2019, monthly exports were worth $20m.

A government official in the spotlight

One key development in the Kampala-Kigali rapprochement has been the arrest of Obed Katurebe, an information officer at the Uganda Media Centre, the principal government communication institution, who Rwanda accused of running a Facebook page that was being used to criticise Kagame.

Following Muhoozi’s second visit to Kigali in March, Rwandan government spokesperson Yolande Makolo tweeted that a number of issues still needed attention, including Katuberebe, who was spreading “hateful media propaganda”. Katurebe dismissed the allegations before his arrest.

The Ugandan authorities arrested Katurebe at the start of May, a week after Kagame’s visit to Kampala for a birthday dinner hosted by Museveni in honour of Muhoozi’s 48th birthday. It is Muhoozi’s shuttle diplomacy that opened the doors for the rapprochement.

It is also reported that Muhoozi ordered the arrest of Katurebe, who family sources say is being held in a safe house run by the military intelligence division of the army.

This will not be the last twist in the complicated relationships between Rwanda, the DRC and Uganda as insecurity in eastern Congo rises on the international agenda.

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