Banyarwanda and the Battle of the Corridors (?)

Monday March 18 2019
By Charles Onyango-Obbo

I think so little of the squabble between Uganda and Rwanda, which blew up when Kigali decided to close the Katuna border (in Rwanda Gatuna) to build a one-stop border point, that I won’t dwell much on it.

There’s, however, a telling and interesting story behind the Gatuna/Katuna name. Until 1926, Katuna was part of Rwanda. It became part of Uganda when the Belgians and British cut a deal over the two countries’ border.

Which brings up a question that many puzzled non-Ugandans have asked me – are Banyarwanda one of the “tribes” of Uganda?

Under President Yoweri Museveni’s rule, who is or is not a Rwandan is as emotive an issue as who is or isn’t a Kenyan Somali. Thus, while in the 2009 Kenya census there was an uproar after it reported “too many Somalis,” leading to that specific statistic being quashed, the 1991 census in Uganda also found “too many Banyarwanda,” and their numbers were fudged when it became a hot political potato.

The reality is that, as the wonderful Ramkrishna Mukherjee observed in his book Uganda, an historical accident?, first published before Independence, already by that time Ugandans of Rwandan ancestry (a result of migration, political phenomena, and intermarriage dating back to the 14th century, were probably one of the largest nationalities in the country. Today, that hasn’t changed.

At the end of last year, I asked Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani (author of When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda) where he saw the Uganda-Rwanda (or rather Museveni vs Kagame) jostling going, his answer was concise. “The thing is that Museveni has a ‘Rwandan problem’ [possibly millions of Ugandans who are Banyarwanda]. Kagame doesn’t.”


In other words, as Morgan Freeman (starring as Vice President Allan Trumbull) says in the film London Has Fallen, a direct fight between Uganda and Rwanda would be “opening the gates of hell.” Take a chill pill. Neither Kagame nor Museveni are mad enough (yet) to open those gates.

The other problem is that African conflicts tend to be cast as primal, driven by ancient blood feuds, the egos of crazed autocrats, anything but big geopolitical and rational political issues.

Not so quick there.

In December last year, the CEO of Djibouti's Duraleh Multipurpose Port, Wahib Daher Aden, said something whose significance was lost in the pre-Christmas giddiness.

"Now, as peace is being restored in the country, we are going to restart services for South Sudan,” Aden said, adding, "It is the most efficient port that also serves Ethiopia, and aims at serving Burundi and Rwanda.”

So in the wider East Africa there are three contests about how its economy shall be organised. The question used to be: Along the Northern Corridor, or the Southern Corridor? Now, the third alternative could be sparked by Kenya when it launches the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport (Lapsset) Corridor.

It turbocharged a pivot toward the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. For now, if the standard gauge railway from Mombasa doesn’t extend to Uganda and into Rwanda, before the Isaka-Kigali SGR through Tanzania is built (as looks likely), it’s over. The Southern Corridor will have won the fight.

This matters because Uganda is the anchor hinterland country in the Northern Corridor. Rwanda is the hinterland key state in the Southern Corridor. Go figure.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. [email protected]