When friends fall out, it is the rumour-mongers who benefit

Friday November 9 2018

Even when governments choose to remain

Even when governments choose to remain tightlipped on important matters such as these, there will be no shortage of skilled clairvoyants and analysts with the ability to read the contents of sealed envelopes. 

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Believing that I knew what was going on, a friend in the media called and said: “Sam Kutesa was in Kigali recently. He was carrying an envelope from President Yoweri Museveni for President Paul Kagame.” Mr Kutesa is Uganda’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. “What do you think was in the envelope?” he asked.

Until then, I had been somewhat distracted. So I knew nothing about the visit or the said envelope. I told my interlocutor that I couldn’t possibly be of any help. Rather than end the conversation, however, he pressed on. State House Entebbe had briefed the media about the visit and even handed out some photos. He described the briefing as “unusual”.

I am not familiar with the ins and outs of media briefings. I therefore said nothing in response. He then asked about relations between Rwanda and Uganda and how good or bad they are currently.

That Rwanda-Uganda relations have been troubled for some time now, is no longer a secret. What remain unclear are the real reasons behind the tensions.

As with other watchers of the two countries who do not sit in meetings where such things are discussed, all I have heard in conversations with Rwandans over some months now, is that “things are not good.”

Some Rwandans for whom Uganda was always seen as a second home now go as far as claiming that they can no longer go there because “it is not safe.” Pressed to explain why they feel that way, they roll out a whole list of reasons. Specifically, they accuse the government of Uganda of “harassing Rwandans.”

They also cite reports, many of which have appeared in print media on both sides of the border, of arrests and detentions, sometimes even torture.

Apparently, Rwandans visiting Uganda risk being picked up by security agencies on suspicion of being spies or state agents looking to commit illegal acts in Uganda. And then there are reports about the government of Uganda acting in bad faith with regard to would-be Rwandan insurgents operating out of Kampala.

There is also talk, so far unconfirmed, of a recent seizure by the Uganda police of a consignment of minerals belonging to a Rwandan company that was destined for export via the Kenyan port of Mombasa.

Meanwhile, in Uganda, the key issue seems to be that the country’s sovereignty has been “repeatedly violated” by Rwandan security agents.

According to the Kampala grapevine, they go in and kidnap refugees, compromising Uganda’s much-prized reputation as one of the best countries to be a refugee in.

There is a level at which all this gets to sound like rumour-mongering. For one thing, both governments have been unwilling to trade accusations openly. Indeed, the last time the two principals met in Uganda, the takeaway message for their respective publics was that there was really no problem, and that any issues that needed sorting out would be sorted out through the relevant channels.

That was several months ago. And yet little, if anything, seems to have changed. Which is why when Kutesa carried that envelope to Kigali, it elicited so much excitement and speculation.

The one question we do not ask often enough, however, is how we got where we are.

There is a time when, without fear of contradiction, I used to tell whoever cared to listen that Rwanda and Uganda were each other’s firmest and most reliable allies.

There is so much shared history, going well beyond mere neighbourliness. And there are so many common ambitions at both the regional and continental level.

Working closely in pursuit of common interests and to resolve whatever irritants emerged, always seemed to be the logical way to proceed, and indeed the way the two sides dealt with each other. And then, for reasons that remain mysterious, the trust that obviously underlay the once robust relations between the two sides somehow dissipated.

Kutesa’s recent trip could have been in the spirit of mending fences and returning to the good old days. But was it? So far, the two governments have been keeping their cards close to their chests.

Unfortunately, this is the best way to create openings for rumour-mongering and speculation. But, of course, even when governments choose to remain tightlipped on important matters such as these, there will be no shortage of skilled clairvoyants and analysts with the ability to read the contents of sealed envelopes.

After so many days of puzzling over what was in the now famous envelope, the final verdict is that it contained “nothing” that addressed the real issues.

Apparently Kampala was out to grab a photo opportunity they could use to say that, “See, we have tried; it is the Rwandans who are being difficult.”

True or not, it shows how much remains to be done to restore necessary trust.