Why Muhoozi’s Kigali dinner served more than cake for Uganda, Rwanda
Rwanda and Uganda appear to be on course to bury the hatchet despite a lingering history of tension and conflict, including allegations of espionage, political interference and support for hostile rebel groups.
This week, Rwandan President Paul Kagame and First Lady Jeannette Kagame hosted Uganda’s first son General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, who celebrated his 49th birthday in Rwanda signalling thawing relations.
Kagame’s hosting of Muhoozi – who is increasingly positioning himself as a successor to his father President Yoweri Museveni – has renewed optimism for lasting peace between the two countries whose relationship over the last decade has largely been hot and cold amid counter-accusations of espionage and economic sabotage.
“You can have peace but at the same time, you may not be friends. This time I think we have both – we are friends and we are at peace. Thanks to you General Muhoozi for your role in this and for your conviction and for being that bridge we used to cross from one side to another,” President Kagame said during the exclusive birthday dinner held on April 24.
This recent visit feeds into what many in the region term the signs of improving relations between Uganda and Rwanda, which had stalled since 1999 when the Ugandan and Rwandan armies clashed in Congo, but came to the climax 20 years later when, in March 2019, Rwanda closed its border with Uganda for almost three years.
Rwanda had cited security concerns, accusing Uganda of supporting exiled Rwandan opposition figures hostile to the Kagame government, including multi-million businessman Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa who owns businesses in Uganda.
Uganda accused Rwanda of infiltrating its security.
General Muhoozi is credited with negotiating the rapprochement between President Kagame and President Museveni leading to the reopening of the border in March 2022.
Muhoozi has been relentless in pursuit of reconciliation between the two countries, pledging that Rwanda’s enemies will no longer find a safe haven in Uganda.
“General Kayumba and RNC, I don’t know what problems you had in Rwanda with the mainstream RPF/RDF. But I warn you not to dare use my country for your adventures!” Muhoozi tweeted on February 19, 2022 soon after his visit to Kigali.
Exiled in South Africa
Former Rwandan Lt Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa, who is exiled in South Africa, is accused of forming a rebel group called P5, which is under the Rwanda National Congress (RNC.
A report by a UN Group of Experts, dated December 31, 2018, revealed that Nyamwasa was recruiting fighters and getting ammunition from Burundi, Uganda and the DRC.
To political pundits, despite Gen Muhoozi’s numerous visits to Rwanda, this one was special, given his entourage.
His team comprised bush war hero and his father’s comrade for decades Maj-Gen Jim Muhwezi who is expected to create a link between Museveni’s generation and Muhoozi’s and Norbert Mao, president-general of the Democratic Party and Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs, who has stationed himself as the driver of Museveni’s transition to the new generation.
Mao has been selling the idea of power transition to another leader as the gist of his engagement with President Museveni, telling the youth to prepare for a peaceful transition of power in 2031.
His reference to 2031 has been interpreted to mean he is preparing the ground for a Muhoozi presidency.
Therefore, his appearance in Kigali this week seemed to imply that if he is going to be an architect of that transition, then he has to be introduced to the anchor of the relationship between Uganda and Rwanda, President Kagame.
President Kagame seemed to acknowledge this on his last visit to Uganda last year.
“If bringing Uganda and Rwanda together needed you (Muhoozi to be in the midst of it, then thanks be to God. We are having difficulties between our countries but I was always convinced these were going to be temporary. The ties that bind us are deep,” he said.
Political scientist Fred Golooba-Mutebi believes the time of tensions is over because none of the countries can afford disruptions in their development agenda.
The need to improve relations with Uganda’s neighbours is not accidental, especially at a time when large oil reserves in western Uganda are on the verge of being tapped.
The entry of DR Congo into the East African Community also presents important trade opportunities.
Indeed, security analyst and former spy in Museveni’s security apparatus Charles Rwomushana points to the Congo factor in the newfound friendship, which President Kagame hinted at during Muhoozi’s birthday dinner.
Rwomushana says the two countries may have decided to bury the hatchet, for now, for the sake of the operations in Congo, since they are again meeting in Congo, with very high stakes in security, trade and infrastructure development.
“Gen Kagame and Muhoozi may have discussed serious issues concerning the operations in Congo, in which the ministers Jim Muhwezi and Norbert may not have been involved,” he says, noting that it was easier for Museveni to send his son for serious discussions instead of diplomats because of the trust the two leaders have in him.
Indeed, during a dinner at State House Entebbe Uganda last year, President Kagame said: “Muhoozi went through friends, got my telephone number, sent me a message and we talked. I accepted. He then asked, ‘Can I visit you?’ I said, ‘Come’.
“I was absolutely aware and convinced that even in my strongest belief in Muhoozi, the President of Uganda (his father definitely must have been behind the message. I was not under any illusion that his was Muhoozi operating on his own.”
Rwomushana says if Muhoozi’s birthday celebration in Rwanda was merely a party, Museveni’s relatives would have attended, but this was an opportunity to discuss serious issues without attracting the attention of outsiders.
“If President Museveni met with Kagame, the international community and media would be waiting for a communique on the discussions made, but if Muhoozi goes for dinner, it is just taken as a private function,” he says.
Prof Solomon Muchwa, an international relations and security studies scholar, says Rwanda is more interested in reviving its relationship with Uganda because it cannot afford to have unfriendly elements in the Uganda leadership or security apparatus.
He says Rwanda and Uganda would have gone to war in the past three years of animosity if it was not for the restraint on both leaders, given their historical connections.
“Many of the fugitives and officials in Rwanda grew up in Uganda, have families in the country and very deep connections and business interests,” he notes.
The history of both countries’ armies is based on the same origin, ideals, goals, and ideologies, but personalities in Kampala have been accused of feeling superior to their former colleagues in Rwanda.
The animosity went beyond the feelings when the accusations became common leading to arrests of Rwandans in Uganda and closure of the border by Rwanda.
Political analyst Nicholas Sengoba says, “Whenever Uganda has a problem, they keep talking about people who are being helped by a foreign country. And many people believe that this ‘foreign country’ is Rwanda.”