Rumours of war: When the smoke clears, what’s emerging is more like a game of chess

Saturday February 16 2019

By 2013, the East African Community seemed finally to have grown weary of Tanzania’s gloomy-faced, never-ending stance of a reluctant resident in the house.

In April 2013, Uhuru Kenyatta was sworn in as Kenya’s president, and the laidback Mwai Kibaki drove off into retirement. Almost immediately, a flurry of movements to inject steroids into the EAC started.

However, only Uhuru, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and, as if half in slumber, South Sudan’s Salva Kiir were making the running. They were meeting every few months, talking grand visions of their countries connected by railways, crisscrossed by oil pipelines, new power lines, and sharing a digital infrastructure.

The EastAfrican dubbed them the alliance the Coalition of the Willing (CoW), and the name stuck, much to the annoyance of the East Africanist bureaucrats who thought it was harmful to the bigger EAC project.

It fizzled out soon, but it did move the integration project forward. For starters, Uhuru had to devote a lot of political and financial resources to the International Criminal Court case against him and Deputy President William Ruto. But, mostly, it was the September 21, 2013 attack on Nairobi’s upscale Westgate Mall by Al Shabaab militants, in which 71 people were killed, that was to shape the next two years of Uhuru’s administration.

It led to Kenya moving deeper into Somalia, where it had sent troops in October 2011 to beat off the Shabaab, the rise of the securocracy and the relegation of the economy wonks to the back burner.


The rise of the securocrats in Kenya, however, was to have the salutary, though unintended, effect of weaving the region more tightly together. In Uganda, Museveni scrambled to send the army to Juba, the capital of the world’s newest nation, to save the Kiir regime from being overrun.

In Rwanda, Kagame was tending to a different inflexion. Rwanda continued its climb as the Central African and Middle African mini-power and financial hub, and an important pipeline for the Kenyan capital in the region. It was a process that reached tipping point with the World Economic Forum on Africa meeting in Kigali in May 2016.

Meanwhile, in the old EAC heartland, Tanzania, in late 2015, John Pombe Magufuli, the Bulldozer, was elected president. Before he exited his brief sojourn at the top as Africa’s new anti-corruption poster boy and put on his authoritarian robes, it became clear that Magufuli was going to be hidebound, and nowhere as travel-happy as his predecessor Jakaya Kikwete, who was uncharitably nicknamed Marco Polo.

The region looked for signs of whether Magufuli would be warmer to EAC. His first foreign visit was to Rwanda in April 2016, five months after assuming office. There was a lot of presidential handholding, and Kagame gifted Magufuli with cattle.

It looked like Rwanda-Tanzania relations had been smoothed, a low point having been reached when Kikwete called for dialogue between Kigali and the rump of the forces that committed the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and are holed up in eastern DRC, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). The Kagame government went ballistic.

A Kagame-Magufuli bromance would weaken Museveni’s hand as he sized up Rwanda.

There are analysts who take the view that Museveni’s decision to shift the oil pipeline from Kenya to Tanzania might not have been based on economic considerations, but was swung by strategic conditions -- to pry Magufuli from Kagame’s embrace. If that were his calculation, it seemed to have worked, if only to get Magufuli to sit on the fence.

In the process, however, Museveni probably handcuffed Tanzania to the EAC project in ways that make it extremely difficult for it to ever walk away, and revert to a monogamous relationship with only the Southern African Development Community.

But there is a more regional geopolitical significance in Uganda’s oil policy. Its venture partners in the oil development are Tullow Oil, French giant Total and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation.

French factor

Rwanda, despite several attempts to normalise, has always had a rocky relationship with Paris, which it blames for aiding the Juvenal Habyarimana regime it fought against in the early 1990s, but more damningly, for training, arming and even directing, in some instances, the extremist Interahamwe militia who killed at least 800,000 people in the genocide, most of them Tutsis.

Attempts to bury the hatched under Nicolas Sarkozy see-sawed, and stalled when he lost the election in May 2012, and French judges maintained their pursuit of Rwanda Patriotic Army – now Rwanda Defence Force – officers accused of shooting down Habyarimana’s plane as it prepared to land in Kigali on April 6, 1994, killing him, Burundi president Cyprien Ntaryamira, and the French crew.

Emmanuel Macron’s election in May 2017 opened a new window for Paris-Kigali rapprochement, but it seems that, in Rwanda’s calculation, this was complicated by its understanding that Museveni had bought himself an advantage with France in his oil deals.

Museveni himself had a spot of bother with the French. As a friend of former Central African Republic strongman François Bozize, who led the country from 2003 to 2013, he found it rather awkward to go into deep embrace with the French.

Bozize fled in March 2013, as the country descended into chaos and rebels closed in on the capital Bangui. Initially, he took off to Cameroon, through DRC, and eventually spent a lot of time in Kampala. Bozize was accused of arming some of the rebels who continue to wreak havoc in CAR, and some in Paris blamed Museveni for enabling him.

Museveni seems to have ironed out those wrinkles. In any case, France trains the Uganda People’s Defence Forces Alpine Brigade based in the Rwenzori Mountains, a specialised unit that carries out reconnaissance over the mountain at the border with DRC.

Rwenzori shares the same mountain range as Virunga National Park, and thus potentially offers Uganda with a superior Alpine brigade the possibility of marching to the border of Rwanda largely undeterred along the DRC stretch of Virunga.

For Kigali, at a minimum, this possibility called for getting France to adopt a position of neutrality. We don’t know whether this was coincidental, or essential, but Kigali moved early to cultivate the Francophone countries in West and North Africa as part of its actions to dissolve lingering French hostility.

Morocco re-entry

In October 2016, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI visited Rwanda, in his first trip to East Africa since his coronation in 1999. It was also one in a series of initiatives by Morocco to return to the African Union. Morocco had pulled out of the AU’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, in 1984, after a majority of members recognised Western Sahara, which Rabat claims as its territory.

In a viral photo, Kagame was shown dropping King Mohammed off at the airport in a Range Rover.

Morocco’s return to the AU was supported by most Francophone countries in West Africa, although opposed by rival Algeria and other radical countries on the continent. In the event, it prevailed and was readmitted in 2017. Algeria was reportedly miffed at Rwanda’s role in helping Morocco win readmission, but it stood Kigali in good stead with Francophone Africa.

Later in 2017, it emerged that Rwanda’s feisty foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, was throwing her hat into the ring in the battle to be the next secretary general of the International Organisation of the Francophonie, the Paris headquartered organisation that brings together 54 countries and regional governments, representing 274 million speakers of French around the world. It looked like a quixotic quest at the start, but gathered steam.

The AU, with Kagame as chairperson, threw its weight behind Mushikiwabo.

On October 12, 2018, she sealed it, winning the SG post for a four-year term at the Summit of Francophonie in Yerevan, Armenia. With that, Kagame had covered his flank from the main diplomatic risk he would have had in a tango with Uganda.

Kagame's tough line and Museveni's legacy

In December, after more than a decade without appearing in military uniform, Kagame showed up at a military exercise in combat fatigues, talking tough and warning that Rwanda was more than capable of dealing with its “enemies,” in what observers read as a reference to Uganda and Burundi.

While he was AU chair, his hands were tied and the view of Kigali was that its adversaries took advantage to mobilise. With barely two months to run on his clock, he was stepping out and throwing away the shackles. He has kept up the tough line.

Yet, for all these belligerent moves, both leaders are not reckless gamblers. Rwanda is largely a good story, mostly in the news for very good reasons, despite criticism of its “unfree” political system. It hosts endless big conferences; it is the least corrupt country in East Africa; it leads in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings, it’s a world leader in state effectiveness, in women’s representation in politics and government; has one of the cleanest and greenest cities in Africa as its capital; and has recorded the world’s sharpest drop in infant mortality of modern times. The list is endless.

Museveni, in his 32nd year in power, second only to Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie in the wider East Africa, has an eye on his legacy. Most of his achievements in turning the country around, and leading what just over a decade ago was the hottest economy in Africa, have been squandered through growing repression, rank corruption, incompetence and the wear and tear of long rule.

He needs oil, whose production has, for the ninth time, been pushed out to 2022. The IMF says that with crude oil reserves of 6.5 billion barrels, about 2.2 billion of which are recoverable, Uganda has the fourth-largest oil wealth in sub-Saharan Africa. When this oil begins to flow, Museveni can buy his legacy, give insurance to his political loyalists, and possibly leave in a colourful parade.

But geography has played a trick on the oilfields. They are in the west of the country, in the Albertine region, near the DRC border.

A determined Rwanda can easily sweep through the Kivu region on the DRC side, mobilise pro-Rwanda Banyamulenge militia, and/or fly over and flatten the oil fields, putting paid to oil production for another decade as age catches up with Museveni. He is therefore unlikely to risk a direct confrontation, unless he is assured of quick victory, and will work through low-intensity support for anti-Kigali proxies in eastern DRC.

It is also worth noting that Museveni has a pan-African side to him that sometimes can act as a moderating influence on his behaviour diplomatically.

He sees himself as a Bismarckian figure, riding around fixing a broken Africa. That sometimes tempers his more dangerous militaristic ambitions, for which he invariably seeks a “revolutionary” justification. Thus, while many subjective factors, and what the reggae men call the “noise all about,” may speak to an EAC in poor health, overall the objective factors have never been better – even where they may not seem so.

Thus, in 2017, in the midst of Kenya’s bitter and divisive election campaign, the opposition in Tanzania and Kenya’s ruling Jubilee accused President Magufuli of meddling in the country’s election and backing opposition candidate Raila Odinga.

Where’s the saving grace in that? One may well ask.

Raila is a friend of Magufuli, yes, but the accusation that the Tanzania president would go as far as trying to help him win an election was remarkable, because it was the first time either Tanzanian or Kenyan politicians had accused a staunch CCM Tanzanian of loving anything Kenyan too much! It suggests connections that we often don’t see in public politics.

Still, with all that, it may well be that the EAC’s fate will be determined not by itself, but by what China does in the region, the rising superpower rivalry up the road in the Horn, the outcomes of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s reforms in Ethiopia, and how Kenyan money behaves.

Part 1 - Invisible hand that drives East Africa integration: As the East African Community prepares to mark the 20th year since its revival, in the series, we assess the things that hold the bloc together that could also break it.

Part 3 - Terror breeds solidarity: We examine why the East African project will one day be thankful to Al Shabaab, the wars around the region, the business of peacekeeping, and Kenyan bankers in Juba, for its good fortunes.

Part 4 - The East African Century is already upon us: We look at the factors shaping this part of Africa.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of and explainer Twitter@cobbo3