For close to a decade after their troops clashed in two bloody encounters in the eastern DRC city of Kisangani at the turn of the century, Uganda and Rwanda have maintained an uneasy co-existence.
The bad blood created by that episode led to such tension and mutual suspicion that in a November 2001 letter to Claire Short, the United Kingdom’s secretary for international development at the time, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni said relations with his Rwandan counterpart had deteriorated to the point where Kigali was plotting to overthrow his government.
It therefore took many by surprise when in July 2011, Museveni made an unprecedented visit to Kigali lasting several days, during which he was personally chauffeured by President Paul Kagame and spent several nights at his host’s country residence where they shared homemade yoghurt and talked cattle.
Museveni was accompanied by a huge technical delegation that crafted a number of bilateral agreements to define the relationship that had kept the peace between the two neighbours until a new spat two years ago, when once again relations went into a downward spiral.
To a large degree, the circumstances leading to the current state of affairs mirror what happened back then. As the former comrades-in-arms drifted apart and sank deeper into mistrust, a diplomatic vacuum was created that dissidents across the divide took advantage of.
In no time, relations between Rwanda and Uganda had become hostage to the machinations of these forces who, preying on the perceptions of mutual hostility, could now determine how the two neighbours related.
Only the realisation that they had lost the initiative to dissidents helped Kampala and Kigali to hit the brakes, culminating in Museveni’s grand visit with his erstwhile comrade.
We bring up this piece of history because it is relevant to the current situation. Support for enemy forces has featured prominently in the latest standoff, with Kampala convinced that it is so deeply infiltrated that it launched a crackdown on perceived Rwandan moles. A report compiled by the UN Group of Experts has accused Uganda of arming and providing logistical support to anti-Rwanda elements based in South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Even without getting into what this could mean for regional integration, in an era when information travels across the globe at the speed of light as does fake news, Rwanda and Uganda are sitting on a tinderbox. In such situations, it helps to keep lines of communication fully open.
Under the current configuration, further escalation of this dispute is simply not tenable.
East Africa faces too many urgent issues that are critical to the long-term survival and prosperity of its people to afford the negative fallout from a conflagration between neighbours. Also, the level of interdependence is so high that there is no alternative to finding solutions to differences.
What is encouraging is that so far, the dispute has largely remained at the top, with ordinary citizens able to go about their lives with little interruption.