Uganda-Rwanda rivalry enters ‘beautiful’ tech and trade phase

Wednesday April 21 2021

The Uganda-Rwanda border remains closed, the two having apparently agreed to go separate ways. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGAH | NMG


Ten years ago as Uganda conducted one of its many presidential election campaigns that end predictably, General Yoweri Museveni dismissively said that defeating challenger Colonel Kizza Besigye was like chewing a small samosa for break tea.

We laughed.

But with hindsight, the man must have genuinely been bored with the contest, for electoral contests in Uganda are not Museveni’s most worrying battles. His real battle is about Africa, starting in the region, and the big challenger is in Kigali.

The current war between Uganda and Rwanda has entered its beautiful phase. The first phase started four decades ago when ethnic Banyarwanda, who played key roles in the 1981-86 bush war, were suspiciously being taunted by other Ugandan fighters for being “non-Ugandan”.

In the second phase when they attacked Rwanda in 1990 to start a four-year war that ended in genocide.

A chunk of Banyarwanda are indigenous Ugandans like Somali Kenyans, and even more integrated owing to widespread intermarriages. So the Rwandan rebels captured Rwanda but remained with Uganda as well!


The so-called infiltration of each other’s security forces started the third phase of the war between the two republics which hit a climax when their armies fought in Congo, the infamous Kisangani battles after their joint project of ousting Mobutu and installing the Kabilas got messed up.

The fourth phase followed overt diplomatic action to restore friendship but at the same time, a cold war intensified, sometimes spilling to the public like when a top diplomat at Rwanda’s embassy in Kampala was arrested over an amorous encounter, raising eyebrows over when enforcing private morality became a government priority.

That was in the early 2000s and as fallouts in the RPF started, some dissenters fleeing Rwanda were passing through Uganda, infuriating Kigali. Others re-resettled, in reality admitting that they were more wired in Ugandan culture than Rwandan.

The fifth phase took the public by surprise. Uganda was hosting a UN refugee summit, brandishing its record of ideal refugee destination that resettles refugees rather than keeping them in camps, when it was accused of re-fouling Rwandan refugees.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is believed to have had a list of scores of Rwanda asylum seekers abducted by the very security forces meant to protect them, and forcefully handed over the Rwandan state that they were fleeing from.

The sixth phase was really the climax when a couple of years back Kigali closed the common border. It was bad, with both Kigali and Kampala eating humble pie in ultimate humiliation as Kinshasa, you heard right — Kinshasa — over which they earlier fought, mediating between them. The Uganda-Rwanda border remains closed, the two having apparently agreed to go separate ways.

And quietly, the two sister states slip into the pleasant seventh phase of their fraternal war, which is technological and over trade.

For over a decade now, Uganda and Rwanda have been developing their transport technologies, to which many did not pay attention for long. But now as the world’s automakers set deadlines for terminating the production of fuel engine vehicles with their related pollution already recognised as a killer pandemic, it all begins to make sense.

Africa is the world’s next big market. Last month, Volkswagen virtually declared war on Tesla, hitherto leader of electric vehicle manufacturing, much the same way John Kennedy declared in 1961 that he would beat the Soviets to the moon.

VW is already in Rwanda to make vehicles. But Uganda, in its deceptively disorganised appearance, has been at vehicle design and building for a while now, in a technology transfer deal with China.

For a year now, the Entebbe-Kampala route has had locally designed and built electric buses plying the 40-plus kilometre route daily, ferrying airport workers to the capital. In June, the Commonwealth summit will take place in Rwanda, and as usual, climate change will pre-occupy the leaders who will meet in Kigali.

Rwanda will not miss the opportunity ensure that Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting delegates moving around in clean energy means.

The race for the continental market of tomorrow’s vehicles is on. As Uganda and Rwanda race against each other, they must keep glancing over their shoulder to see what the bigger boys South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya are plotting.

Unlike the shooting wars and nabbing spies in Kigali and Kampala, here comes one battle that we are set to enjoy because even we civilians shall take part in the action!

Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail:[email protected]