Revelations by President Yoweri Museveni’s son Lt-Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba that a rebel group accused by Rwanda of fomenting sour relations between the two countries had a footprint in Uganda could finally yield the next step in mending ties.
But that will depend on whether his public comments are also the official government position.
In a Twitter post last week, he specifically made reference to the possibility of Rwanda’s exiled general Kayumba Nyamwasa, a founding member of the Rwandan opposition party RNC, which is based in South Africa, having operations in Uganda.
“General Kayumba and RNC, I don’t know what problems you had in Rwanda with the mainstream RPF (Rwanda’s ruling political party/RDF (Defence Force)? But I warn you not to dare use my country for your adventures!”
Rwanda alleges that RNC operates and plans attacks from Uganda, an allegation that Kampala has repeatedly denied. Lt-Gen Kainerugaba’s tweet was seen in some quarters as an admission that the group had indeed impacted Rwanda-Uganda relations.
Since his visit to Rwanda in January, Gen Kainerugaba, in a series of tweets, has explicitly expressed his desire to see the normalisation of relations between both countries, and continues to adulate President Kagame, who he continues to refer to as “uncle.”
For instance, the tweet posted on February 19 seemed to lift the veil on the allegation by Rwanda that Uganda is a haven for groups seeking to overthrow the Kagame government, even though Uganda’s Foreign Ministry continues to deny it.
Yet, in an interview with NTV Uganda aired on February 18, Uganda’s State Minister of Foreign Affairs Okello Oryem suggested that Uganda is considering establishing a law that treats Rwandan dissidents on its land as criminals.
Mr Oryem argued that the law will address the long-standing accusation that Uganda offers a safe haven to Rwandan fugitives.
“We are working round the clock now. The wheels of the law move very slowly, and the wheels of bureaucracy move even slower. I can assure Ugandans that we are working as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with security and the Office of the President to see how we can move these things and get the border open as it used to be,” he said.
Lt-Gen Kainerugaba is the Commander of the Uganda’s Land Forces and Senior Presidential Adviser on Special Operations, so his job is not routine management of the country’s foreign policy.
But he admitted: “The illegal and criminal activities of RNC in Uganda in the past were driving us to a stupid war! All those who were involved in that deceitful enterprise will be found!”
That statement came amid rumours that President Museveni’s brother, Gen Caleb Akandwanaho (aka Salim Saleh), who Rwanda sees as an enemy, was scheduled to visit Kigali as part of the normalisation of the relations between the two countries. But Uganda’s Foreign Affairs ministry issued a statement saying that there was no such planned visit.
Ismael Buchanan, a political analyst and lecturer of political science at the University of Rwanda said Muhoozi’s tweets are seen as authoritative and powerful.
“His tweets about RNC are even more significant because they are matters of security and he is the Commander of the Land Forces of the Uganda People's Defence Force and special adviser to President Museveni. This is, however, not a guarantee of change unless action is taken. Rwandans in Uganda might still need to take caution but the tweets have a positive impression on Rwanda. But previous actions by both countries started with his tweets,” he said.
Political analysts have not ruled out the rumoured trip by the President’s brother, noting that, given Kainerugaba’s personal close relationship with Gen Salim Saleh, dialogue is possible.
Rwanda has insisted that elements opposed to the establishment are being harboured and supported by some security officers in Uganda.
As a condition to thawing of relations, Kigali has given conditions, including the banning of Self Worth Initiative, the nonprofit it accuses of coordinating RNC’s rebel activities in Uganda and freezing of investments belonging to Rwandan businessman Tribert Rujugiro, which include Meridian Tobaco Company in West Nile. These are alleged to bankroll RNC activities.
Kayumba was in the Rwanda government until February 2010, when, during a summit in Kigali for Rwandan envoys, he fled through Uganda after falling out with President Kagame and the Rwandan Patriotic Front leadership.
He eventually sought asylum in South Africa. Rwanda believed the general was facilitated by the security apparatus in Uganda. Many Rwandans have also gone to Uganda as refugees and have been accommodated in refugee camps.
A couple of years before, former Inspector-General of Police Gen Kale Kayihura and others were accused of illegally extraditing such refugees to Rwanda against the international protocol on treatment of refugees. One of the extradited was a former bodyguard of President Kagame, Joel Mutabazi, who was later charged with illegal possession of arms, terrorism, spreading harmful propaganda about the Rwanda government, murder, conspiracy to murder, and formation of terrorist groups. Mutabazi had alleged that he was being persecuted in Rwanda, deserted the Rwanda Defence Forces (RDF) and fled to Uganda, where he had registered as a refugee.
Uganda rejects claims it removed the military officer due to pressure from Kigali. Further, Kigali asked the Ugandan government to remove the country’s head of the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence, Maj-Gen Abel Kandiho, who was accused of commanding operations that target Rwandan nationals in Uganda. Gen Kandiho was removed from the post, initially sent to South Sudan, then shortly after redeployed to the police force. He is also sanctioned by the US government for alleged torture of suspects in custody.
The general’s diplomatic visit to Kigali at the end of January in which he held private talks with President Kagame, was followed by an announcement by Rwanda that it would open its common border with Uganda at Gatuna/Katuna, which had been closed since February 2019.
The opening date was January 31. But, come that day, there was only partial reopening of the border, with only cargo trucks and returning residents and tourists allowed to cross to either side, much to the frustration of ordinary citizens travelling. As of February 24, the land border remained closed to ordinary citizens from both countries.
When The EastAfrican team visited the Katuna/Gatuna and Kyanika/Cyanika border posts on February 19, there was little vehicular and foot traffic crossing from either side.
Jacob Simiyu, Public Relations Officer of Uganda’s Internal Affairs Ministry, told The EastAfrican on telephone that it’s only logical for Ugandan Immigration to advise Ugandans against crossing over to Rwanda when “we know that they are going to be returned or detained at the border for some time.”
“Allowing Ugandans to cross over to the other side means giving ourselves the task of going to rescue them,” one Immigration official at the Kyanika/Cyanika border post told The EastAfrican.
Mr Simiyu insisted that Uganda’s borders have always been open and that Rwanda is the one that should be put to task to explain why there is no free movement of people across its borders.
Officials in Kigali maintain that while arbitrary arrest of Rwandans in Uganda appears to have “slowed down” in recent weeks after Kainerugaba’s visit to Rwanda, relations remain frosty because the outstanding issues remain unresolved.
Moreover, bilateral talks are yet to resume, and there is no indication as to when they might start.
Emmanuel Bugingo, chair of Rwanda’s parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, Cooperation and Security, told The EastAfrican that despite recent progress, outstanding issues remain.
“There are still unresolved issues and Rwanda’s stand and requests are clear. Change is only guaranteed when we see action being taken,” he said.
Yet, in Kigali, Muhoozi is seen as a man with goodwill, but also keen to project power and influence to nurture his political ambitions.
They point to the fact that the visit to Rwanda and the subsequent intent to restore relations between the two countries is a personal project which, if successful, could improve his image as a budding statesman.
“Muhoozi’s actions are outside the official framework (agreed in Luanda). He has his own future plans. It remains to be seen if he will succeed but so far nothing much has changed except that the arbitrary arrests of Rwandans in Uganda by security agencies appear to have slowed down...” said a Rwanda government official who has taken part in security meetings on the issue in the past.
Recently, Alain Mukuralinda, Rwandan deputy Government’s Spokesman, told Rwanda TV that Uganda was yet address all of Kigali’s grievances.
“It does not mean that cases of beatings, torture and deportations of Rwandan nationals are over. It does not mean that the people based in Uganda, who want to destabilise Rwanda, have stopped. We hope it is a good move towards stopping all that,” Mr Mukuralinda said.