The bitter exchange of words between Kigali and Dar over the past two weeks is a pointer to longstanding subterranean tensions between the two countries.
The spat, an unexpected setback for regional diplomacy, was triggered a fortnight ago after Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete suggested that Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame consider direct talks with rebels of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
He also urged Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni to talk to the Allied Democratic Forces and the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda, as well as asking DR Congo’s President Joseph Kabila to talk to the M23 rebels and other forces that have established havens in eastern Congo.
President Kikwete raised the issue of dialogue with the FDLR and the other armed groups during a special meeting of Heads of State from the Great Lakes Region in Addis Ababa.
It had been convened by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on the sidelines of the 21st AU Summit to discuss the Regional Oversight Mechanism of the Peace, Security and Co-operation Framework for the DRC and the region.
The FDLR is a sensitive issue in Kigali because of its role in the 1994 genocide as well as the continual security threats it poses to Rwanda, even if, according to Defence Minister Gen James Kabarebe, its strength has been significantly cut down from 150,000 to 2,000 people.
The Kagame regime is also unhappy with what it feels is the “flippant” manner in which the international community has treated the issue.
“Appreciation in the region and beyond of what happened in Rwanda in 1994 is unequal. The sad fact is that people forget and people would like to forget what happened in Rwanda, in particular,” one source told The EastAfrican.
The US blacklisted FDLR as a terrorist organisation in 2005, nearly 10 years after the genocide. In April this year, it added its overall commander Sylvestre Mudacumura to its war crimes programme, under which it offers up to $5 million for information leading to the arrest of designated foreign nationals accused of crimes against humanity, genocide, or war crimes.
While the Kagame administration sees the FDLR as the last holdout of the people responsible for orchestrating the 1994 genocide in which Rwanda lost up to a million lives, it suspects that Tanzania, where many of the suspects initially fled, is indifferent to the threat they pose to Rwanda’s long-term security.
Although the inspiration for President Kikwete’s remarks remains unclear, regional observers have begun linking them to events surrounding the arrest of Gen Stanislas Nzeyimana aka Bigaruka Izabayo, a top FDLR commander.
As the story is told, Gen Nzeyimana went to Tanzania apparently on the invitation of elements within Tanzania’s military for consultations regarding the deployment of the Tanzanian component of the would-be intervention brigade.
While there, intelligence operatives picked him up as he was out visiting friends in Dar, mistaking him for Mudacumura, FDLR’s overall commander, who carries a $5 million bounty on his head.
Upon clarification that he wasn’t Mudacumura, Gen. Nzeyimana was set free. It is then claimed that agents from Rwanda’s Directorate of Military Intelligence abducted him as he crossed through Kigoma en route to eastern Congo through Burundi.
In April, about the time all this happened, Brig Gen Joseph Nzabamwita, Rwanda’s military and defence spokesman, would neither confirm nor deny to The EastAfrican whether Gen Nzeyimana was in Rwandan custody. He, however, hailed his arrest as a “great step” in fighting terror in the region.
Alain Mukuralinda, spokesperson for the Rwandan National Public Prosecution Authority, told The EastAfrican about the same time that Gen Nzeyimana had been arrested and handed over to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda that sits in Arusha, Tanzania.
Interestingly, though, neither the ICTR nor its successor, the International Residual Mechanism, has pending charges against Gen Nzeyimana. Meanwhile, Tanzanian authorities have remained silent over the whereabouts of Gen Nzeyimana.
Kigali has insisted it won’t talk to any entity that still harbours genocide ideologies and plans to carry out another genocide. Many people in Kigali have dismissed President Kikwete as an apologist for genocidaires like FDLR and demanded a retraction.
Tanzania’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, Bernard Membe said in parliament last week that the remarks made by President Kikwete were in good faith and did not need an apology.
“Rwanda has issued a statement opposing the advice by President Kikwete that this was the right time to hold peace talks with the country’s rebels, most of whom are in DRC forests and against whom the government has unsuccessfully fought for nearly 17 years,” he said.
“President Kikwete will not apologise because his statement was based on facts. We ask Rwanda to take this advice. Our president cannot apologise for the truth.”
In turn, Tanzania has not only dismissed such suggestions, but a curious post by a “concerned citizen” on the Tanzanian government’s official blog, lambasted Rwanda for behaving “like a spoiled child — untouchable and overly sensitive to everything even the slightest suggestion of censure.
“Rwanda has a tendency of not taking kindly any form of criticism whether from within or without. And its leadership comes across as snobbish and delusional. May be the Western countries’ plaudits about its so-called success story have finally got to the heads of Rwandan leaders so much that they think they know it all,” read the post.
Interestingly, the blog post, which went up on the evening of May 31, had been deleted by the following day. It is not clear why Tanzania’s Ministry of Information, Youth, Culture and Sports, which hosts the blog, allowed the post in the first place.
Although both Presidents Kikwete and Kagame were in Japan at the beginning of the month to attend the Tokyo International Conference on African Development, a week after the Tanzanian leader made his remarks, Ugandan diplomats dismissed reports that President Museveni had been roped in to defuse tensions.
James Mugume, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told The EastAfrican there was no such mediation on the cards.
“I was in that meeting [in Addis Ababa] and we were talking about the importance of dialogue. President Kikwete did not say what you media people claimed he said, so I really don’t see why there should be mediation,” Mr Mugume said.
Analyst said the current spat amplifies the risks attendant on the coming deployment of a UN combat force in eastern DR Congo, to which Tanzania has contributed troops along with South Africa and Malawi.
As a matter of fact, during discussions on the Concept of Operations for the Neutral International Force, which eventually morphed into the UN Intervention Brigade, Rwanda insisted the first target of attack had to be the FDLR.
But the 3,000-strong offensive force — the first UN force of its kind — has been mandated to target, neutralise and disarm especially M23 rebels who mutinied from government in April 2012, and whom Rwanda has been accused of backing. The brigade has engendered mixed reactions; Rwanda, sources say, was surprised by Tanzania’s early enthusiasm to contribute troops to it.
As Kigali and Kampala see it, given the nature of its tasks, the force faces the risk of escalating the very problem it is designed to contain — a concern that 19 NGOs working in eastern Congo have raised in a May 23 letter they sent to the UN Secretary General.
“We must... make sure that there is a signing of the Kampala agreement so the Intervention Brigade is there to monitor its implementation and attack only those groups that violate or refuse to abide by the terms of the agreement,” noted sources involved in the talks.
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Although the Kampala talks have progressed in fits and starts, The EastAfrican has been told the process is nearing the end.
“Each side made its main presentation and the facilitator drew up a compromise position from the two. Both sides went back to consult on what the harmonised draft should look like and we are waiting for them to return,” a source at the talks told The EastAfrican.
The M23 delegation has announced it will be returning to the talks on June 9 whether the Kinshasa delegation shows up or not.
Additional reporting by Edmund Kagire