Rwanda Uganda – the politics are personal

The former comrades in arms, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Paul Kagame of Rwanda (his one-time security chief) have fallen out. Never slow to pick up the gun – Kagame in particular – both of them control and supply militias in the region. Now they seem to be heading for another clash with each other – again. 

The two men came together during the chaotic years after Idi Amin was overthrown in Uganda. In 1979 when the Tanzanian army drove President Idi Amin out of Uganda, Ugandan politicians then squabbled among themselves and in 1980, after two more failed and deposed presidents, Milton Obote, Uganda’s first president, was re-installed. The southern Ugandans did not accept him and several armed groups took to the forests and fought guerrilla campaigns against Obote. In 1985 he was overthrown again, by the head of the army, Tito Okello, a northern Acholi.  

While Kampala politicians continued to bicker, Yoweri Museveni stayed away from Kampala and started a guerrilla campaign in southern Uganda to overthrow Okello. He recruited young Ugandans – including many under 14 – was disciplined. Museveni’s “Movement” as he still calls it, was not just an underground guerrilla force. The Kidogos – little kids – were taught guerrilla tactics and fought well but they also followed the curriculum in bush schools. 

The leadership of Museveni’s movement was from western Uganda and included several exiled Rwandan Tutsis. Among them were Paul Kagame and his charismatic frontline general, Fred Rwigema. In the late 1950s and early 1960s their families had fled to Uganda to escape the periodic mass killings of Tutsis by the majority Hutus. They grew up in refugee camps and poor areas of Uganda but they never lost their dream of going home to Rwanda. 

In 1986 they won and Uganda was liberated from the years of chaos. Museveni did not go in for theatrical rule. He was the quiet man. In the early days he would come to London and the Africa journalists would get a call from Professor George Kiyria, the High Commissioner. We would meet him in some modest hotel and seemed to enjoy the conversations, often asking us how he was doing. He knew he could not rule the whole country with people from his own district in Western Uganda, let alone Tutsis from Rwanda like Kagame and Rwigyema. So they decided to go back to their own country. One night they raided the Ugandan arms stores and set off. Perhaps Museveni turned a blind eye to that. Rwigyema’s group crossed the border and attacked the Rwandan army which trained and supplied by France. Rwigyema seems to have abandoned their smart guerrilla tactics they used in Uganda. Instead they charged into Rwanda. Rwigema was one of the first to be killed, almost certainly by French special forces. Kagame, who was on a military training course in America, came hurrying back and immediately took control, leading from the front. Trucks of arms and ammunition also came across the border from Uganda. It was clear that while Museveni pretended Uganda was not involved, he was supplying truck loads of weapons to his Rwandan former generals.

Rwigyema’s death stopped the invasion for a while but when President Juvenal Habyarimana was killed as his plane was shot down near Kigali airport, the population, already indoctrinated with propaganda about the “foreign” Tutsis, turned on them. They killed anyone who looked like a Tutsi. They used bullets, axes, knives, stones and sticks. Women and children were raped and then slaughtered. Many were burned alive. It is estimated that near a million died.   

The French military contingent supporting the Habyarimana dictatorship was driven out of the capital and the remnants of the Rwandan army and the killers were chased westwards into the Congo.  Everyone still talks about the 1994 Rwandan genocide which killed around one million people but when the Rwandan victors chased the Hutus into Congo, it is estimated that more than 5 million people were killed or died of hunger or disease between 1994 and 2003. The world looked the other way. One reason was that the world’s press corps was in South Africa reporting the country’s first democratic election. 

Kagame ejected the French connection with Rwanda and made connections with Britain which had pretty much ignored Rwanda and Burundi since independence. The first time he came with one assistant and stayed in a cheap airport hotel at Heathrow. I interviewed him and suggested people he should speak to in the John Major government. But Britain was slow to provide help.

The Rwandans and their allies then marched across Africa to Kinshasa and drove out the dying Mobutu Sese Seko. Congo imploded. By 1996 there were 13 African “peace-keeping” armies in the DRC, most of them killing and pillaging. The most well organised pillagers in eastern Congo were Rwanda and Uganda sending food, minerals, timber and anything of value to Kigali and Kampala. Other African armies did the same. Uganda’s engagement was more personal and chaotic. Individual generals were shipping minerals and timber across the border and sending them out of Africa.  

Museveni and Kagame needed a puppet in Kinshasa and chose Laurent Kabila, a former revolutionary from the 1960s who ran a bar in Tanzania. Kabila was duly installed and given a bodyguard of Rwandan kidogos to “protect” him.  When President Laurent Kabila refused to do what the Rwandans and Ugandans demanded he was killed by his Rwandan boy bodyguards. He was replaced by his son, Joseph, a pleasant easy going fellow who was not going to rock the boat and lasted until this year. 

There are paradoxes here. Rwanda became a darling of the aid donors, partly because of their guilt at not stopping the genocide and partly because of Kagame’s clarity and decisive leadership that “re-educated” the population and created a formidable spy network. He was not corrupt but spent aid well, building a new city for the capital, Kigali – largely out of wealth from the Congo and guilt money from the donors. Kagame used it well and provided substantial health and education systems. But if anyone questioned his policies, they disappeared. The entire population was taught about the genocide – some said indoctrinating them. The funds for Rwanda were also boosted by the aid agencies who felt guilty about ignoring the genocide. 

But the second victim of the Rwandan genocide was the people of Congo. Some Rwandans remained in terrible refugee camps near the border but others fled westwards pursued by Kagame’s and Museveni’s armies. Their pursuers began to notice the wealth of valuable timber as well as mines worked by local people. The loot began to be taken out eastwards to Uganda and Rwanda. The deeper the armies went into Congo the slower they moved and the longer the supply chains – loot going eastwards, weaponry westwards. 

Other neighbouring African countries began to see the opportunities and sent their armies in under the guise of peacekeeping. The wealth of Congo was at their feet and they grabbed it – especially the Rwandan and Ugandan presidents and their generals. In 1998 Kisangani, the country’s second city, Museveni and Kagame finally fell out and the city became their battle ground. According to UN observers 6,000 shells landed in the residential areas of the city, killing hundreds. The survivors fled as their homes were bombed, looted and wrecked. Neither Kagame nor Museveni would back down. The battle was personal. Both should have been in the International Criminal Court. Instead the US and Europe looked the other way while diplomatically supporting them. 

Is war returning to Central Africa? Firstly the blatant theft of the December 30th election in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) will sooner or later have repercussions. Secondly what will happen if Kagame and Museveni fall out again and bring war back to the region? The combination of these two trends could be the next big man-made disaster in Central Africa. 

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