Inside Story: Why Rwandan President Kagame Agreed to Reopen Border with Uganda- ChimpReports
Shortly before traveling to Rwanda, UPDF Land Forces Commander, Lt Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba was chauffeured to State Lodge, Nakasero.
Muhoozi, who previously commanded the elite Special Forces, had an appointment with President Museveni.
High on the agenda was the frosty Uganda-Rwanda relations.
Muhoozi, who doubles as Senior Presidential Advisor in charge of Special Operations, had earlier briefed Museveni on the progress of normalising ties with Rwanda.
When Muhoozi arrived at State Lodge, he found Museveni being interviewed by New Vision journalists.
With a touch of humour, Muhoozi ‘commanded’ New Vision journalists to avoid writing about his impending trip, leaving the scribes choking on laughter.
ChimpReports had earlier broken the story about a top army officer’s impending trip to Kigali.
Officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak freely said Museveni blessed Muhoozi’s meeting with President Kagame.
The Special Forces Command received instructions to prepare for Muhoozi’s journey to Rwanda.
ChimpReports understands Kagame had personally assured Muhoozi of maximum security during the latter’s visit.
“I’ll personally be in charge of your security,” Kagame told Muhoozi.
Indeed, Kagame deployed the presidential Republican Guard under Brigadier Willy Rwagasana to secure Muhoozi’s entourage.
On the morning of January 22, Muhoozi woke up so early to enable him to prepare adequately for his Kigali trip.
In Entebbe, Muhoozi met a diplomat who briefed him on the Uganda-Rwanda relations before flying on a chartered Uganda Airlines flight to Kigali.
As the aircraft landed at Kigali International Airport, Rwagasana and Rwanda Defence Force spokesperson, Col Ronald Rwivanga were ready to receive Muhoozi.
Rwivanga, a close associate of Kagame and former commander of operations and training in the Republican Guard, studied with Muhoozi at St Mary’s College, Kisubi.
Accompanied by a small security detail of Uganda’s Special Forces commandos and Ugandan diplomat Anne Katusiime, Muhoozi moved in an armored convoy to Radisson Blu Hotel & Convention Center.
Moments later, Muhoozi was subjected to a COVID-19 test which came out negative.
All guests of President Kagame are subjected to COVID-19 tests.
Muhoozi was then led to the president’s office known as Urugwiro Village where he met with Kagame.
The Ugandan general and First Son was wearing a red tie which reflects strength, power and passion.
The meeting lasted about two hours after which Kagame hosted Muhoozi for a luncheon.
Details of the duo’s conversation remain secret.
However, according to diplomats, army officers and senior political leaders who spoke to ChimpReports during a weeklong investigation, the talks focused on reviving relations between the two countries.
Muhoozi had a great friendship with Kagame when the latter was still Uganda’s deputy head of military intelligence.
It is said Muhoozi’s friend, a one Byusa, lived with Kagame in Kololo, Kampala.
Muhoozi regularly visited Byusa at Kagame’s residence, the main reason the Ugandan army officer describes Kagame as “uncle.”
Now a businessman in Kigali, Byusa regularly visited State House Entebbe to spend time with Muhoozi.
Additionally, Kagame attended wedding ceremonies of President Museveni’s children.
Kagame was also among the original combatants who attacked Kabamba barracks with Yoweri Museveni on February 6, 1981.
To Muhoozi, he did not see why the two countries would come closer to an armed conflict despite sharing a strong bond spanning decades.
Relations between Uganda and Rwanda had blossomed until 2017 when President Museveni appointed army officer Brig Abel Kandiho as head of military intelligence.
Rwanda perceived Kandiho, a seasoned spymaster who tracked down the masterminds of the July 2010 Kampala bombings using an abandoned sim-card, as anti-Rwanda.
Kandiho, who was deployed at the Internal Affairs Ministry before assuming the position of CMI boss, had spent years conducting in-depth intelligence work on Rwanda’s sleeper cells in Uganda and DR Congo.
Kigali knew Kandiho, whose late mother was Rwandese, was a stumbling block to their security operations in the region.
Kandiho’s appointment to head the powerful CMI in addition to Philemon Mateke whom Museveni brought to Cabinet in 2017, caused unease in Kigali.
RPF Historicals say Mateke was a close friend of late Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana.
It is alleged during the RPF war, Mateke who was then a powerful figure in Kisoro region, always tipped Habyarimana on the location of RPF fighters and their bases.
This is said to have partly helped Habyarimana crush the first phase of RPF resistance in a space of weeks.
The appointments of Kandiho and Mateke came months after Kagame had publicly endorsed Museveni for president in the 2016 elections.
“If you asked me about my preference,” said Kagame at a press conference in Kigali in December 2015, “I have been working well with the incumbent (Museveni) and their leaders. I wish him well.”
Kagame expressed hope that Ugandans would “choose a leader that would work for peace, stability and development.”
When Museveni visited Rwanda in December 2012, he was hosted to a state banquet at Kigali Serena hotel where Kagame described Museveni as a “senior RPF officer” in appreciation for his contribution to the liberation of Rwanda.
Moreso, Kagame regularly told Ugandan officials in Runyankore that, “Akuheire omuganda tari kushushana nakuraganitse” – literally translated as, “a bird in hand is better than two in the bush.” Kagame meant he was better off working with Museveni who supported their RPF struggle than any other person even if they were promising heaven on earth..
In Kigali, officials said Kagame considered himself the ‘Foreign Minister in charge of Uganda’ due to the sensitivity of the bilateral ties.
Therefore, Kigali was stunned by Museveni’s decision to appoint Mateke in Cabinet as well as Kandiho to lead CMI.
In Uganda, officials say Museveni rewarded Mateke for mobilising support for NRM in the 2016 elections in which the president was competing with Kigezi top shots, Amama Mbabazi and Kizza Besigye.
Matters worsened when Uganda refused to hand over traffic rights to RwandAir for the Entebbe-London route.
Since Uganda didn’t have an airline, RwandAir, which is operated by the Rwanda government, had requested for the rights so it could pick passengers from Entebbe for direct flights to Britain.
Uganda’s objection angered Kigali. Uganda said it intended to operationalise its aviation policy by reviving its national carrier – Uganda Airlines.
The Ugandan passengers were Rwanda’s cash cow. The introduction of Uganda Airlines took away this precious business from RwandAir.
Rwanda was earning about $200m annually from Ugandans flying Rwandair to Nairobi, South Africa and other countries.
Kigali was also enraged upon learning that Uganda intended to prioritize construction of the Standard Gauge Railway line to South Sudan before connecting to Rwanda.
Officials told ChimpReports then that Uganda wanted to prioritize the SGR route to South Sudan and North eastern DRC for economic reasons. Before war broke out in South Sudan in 2013, bilateral trade with Uganda had hit $1bn.
Yet, Rwanda’s trade with Uganda amounted to about $200m.
Under the Northern Corridor Integrated Projects Initiative (NCIP), member states had agreed to interconnect their power lines to share energy – with Uganda and Rwanda inking a deal to construct a network from Mbarara through Mirama to Shango in Rwanda.
Due to power shortage and the need to rapidly industrialize its economy, Rwanda had proposed to fund the transmission project in Uganda to its border.
However, Ugandan officials turned down the idea, saying Kampala would fund the connection.
In Kigali, intelligence officials believed this was a deliberate plan to frustrate Rwanda’s development projects. Kigali sent a protest note to Kampala.
Ugandan Energy Ministry officials told Rwanda that the project was delayed by Isolux, a Spanish company contracted through an international tender to set up power substations in Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda due to financial challenges.
In August 2017, Rene Rutagungira, a retired Rwandan soldier formerly attached to Rwandan General James Kabarebe’s office was picked by Ugandan security services from a bar in Old Kampala.
Rutagungira, who had for long been suspected of conducting espionage and assassination missions inside Uganda, was put under surveillance for about an hour before being dragged out of the club by Kandiho’s operatives.
To Rwanda, Kandiho had officially opened war on Rwanda. Efforts to pressure Uganda to release Rutagungira did not bear fruit. Kigali wrote several diplomatic notes but Uganda was not moved.
Security used forensic experts to obtain leads from Rutagungira’s phones, leading to hundreds of raids and arrests of suspected Rwandan spies. Kigali said the arrested Rwandans were ‘innocent civilians.’
Rutagungira was later charged before Makindye Military on charges of kidnapping Lt Joel Mutabazi – a former Israel-trained Republican Guard commando.
Kandiho was confident of Museveni’s support considering the president was under fire from human rights activists in Europe over the illegal repatriation of Rwanda refugees by Ugandan authorities. It’s said Kandiho uprooted Rwanda’s sleeper cell network in Uganda.
As if this was not enough, Kigali accused former security minister Lt Gen Henry Tumukunde of working with Rwandan dissidents especially Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa to topple Kagame.
Tumukunde denied the claims, saying he didn’t even “have Kayumba’s telephone number.”
Angered by Uganda’s decisions, Kabarebe opened a war on Uganda, abusing Ugandan generals at public fora. He described Uganda as an “enemy country” and warned Rwandans against “Guhuna huna” (scavenging) in Uganda.
Fall of Kayihura
In Uganda’s system, then IGP Kale Kayihura was seen as an ally of Rwanda. During the Kisangani clashes between Uganda and Rwanda forces, Kayihura served as Museveni’s special envoy to Kigali. During the RPF war, Kagame would sometimes travel to Uganda to meet President Museveni. Kagame would reside at Kayihura’s residence in Kampala.
But Tumukunde’s associates used propaganda to undermine the police chief until he was fired.
Before his removal from office, Kayihura met Muhoozi Kainerugaba at Kampala Serena Hotel where they discussed the ‘concocted’ evidence against the police chief to frame him in the assassination of AIGP Andrew Kaweesi.
With Kayihura, Rwanda’s main link to Museveni, kicked out of office, Kigali was worried. Rwanda also believed that Gen Salim Saleh wanted Kagame out of power.
Kigali alleged that Philbert Rujugiro, a wealthy Rwandan tobacco businessman and critic of Kagame was Gen Saleh’s business partner in the $20m tobacco factory in Arua, Northern Uganda.
Rujugiro partly financed the RPF war that brought Kagame to power. The duo fell out with Kigali seizing the businessman’s multi-million dollar properties in Kigali.
Kigali said Rujugiro fell out with Kagame because the businessman wanted to use his state connections to engage in illicit activities including tax evasion, a claim the tobacco dealer denied.
In Arua, Rujugiro’s factory directly employs over 352 workers and empowers 15,000 small farmers that supply the facility, leaving the Ugandan government struggling with high youth unemployment levels with no choice but to support the businessman.
Kigali was also uncomfortable with Uganda’s close relationship with France whose armed forces were training and equipping the Mountain Division to operate in mountainous regions.
Kigali officials suspected France was training Uganda’s Mountain Division as part of preparations to attack Rwanda.
Kagame flies to Uganda
To diffuse the tension, Kagame flew to Entebbe where he met Museveni.
The bilateral relations appeared to have normalized but this was short lived.
Museveni kept the army officers whom Rwanda accused of helping RNC dissidents and allowed Rujugiro to operate in Arua.
It also emerged that Charlotte Mukankusi, a diaspora-based Rwandan dissident who claims her husband was killed by Rwandan security services, had obtained a Ugandan passport.
Rwanda also leaked information that Eugene Gasana, Rwanda’s former Permanent representative to the United Nations, had met Museveni.
Gasana, who literally took charge of the welfare of Kagame’s kids while they were studying in the United States, is now protected by the U.S. Federal Police after falling out with Kagame.
Museveni responded that he ‘accidentally’ met Mukankusi and Gasana at Entebbe.
The President said he mistook Gasana for someone he thought he knew and that Mukankusi was part of Gasana’s entourage.
As tension hit peak levels, Rwanda quickly assembled troops at the common border with Uganda.
Kagame closed the border and blasted Ugandan authorities for mass arrests of Rwandans.
Kampala said it was uprooting Kagame’s sleeper cells. In a letter which leaked to the media, Museveni told Kagame that his problem with Rwanda was the latter’s espionage activities in Uganda.
Kigali moved fast to remove all Ugandan nationals from executive positions in government bodies. Ugandans and Rwanda who attempted to use illegal border crossings were gunned down.
At a meeting held at the RPF headquarters, Rwandan officials decided that all Ugandan goods must be blocked from accessing the Rwandan market.
Rwandan wholesale dealers were directed by security services to cancel orders for cement, steel, agricultural inputs, cosmetics and grain among other products from Uganda.
As a precautionary measure, Uganda reinforced its military positions with heavy and long-range artillery in the mountainous south western Uganda.
Uganda also shopped for hundreds of new armored battle tanks to defend the country in case of an attack.
UPDF’s war jets were put on standby and special operations commandos deployed near the Rwandan border.
The most fortified infantry base was in Kisoro where troops rehearsed battle plans almost daily in preparation of a surprise military attack by Rwanda.
One early morning, Ugandan soldiers in Kisoro were told to prepare for combat action.
“We swiftly ran to the parade where we received instructions to be ready for military action in defence of our country. It was around 3:00 am. It appears Museveni had received reports of a possible pre-dawn surprise attack by Rwanda. We were told to wait for the final instructions. However, at 5:00am, we were told to stand down,” recalled an army officer who preferred anonymity to speak freely.
In Uganda’s corridors of power, Uganda accused Rwanda of orchestrating a cyber campaign against Museveni and his family members.
The cyber campaign was spearheaded by then Information Minister Olivier Nduhungirehe who was later sacked.
Kampala also said it had obtained ‘compelling’ evidence implicating Rwanda in supporting the terrorist Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a claim Kigali officials have dismissed as “groundless.”
Kampala further accused Kigali of undermining Uganda’s foreign policy. For example, Rwanda contested for the position of Judge at the international Court of Justice held by Ugandan Justice Julia Sebutinde.
Sebutinde’s second term had already been endorsed by the African Union Commission but Rwanda still fronted Dr Emmanuel ugirashebuja for the job.
Ugandan diplomats led by Amb Adonia Ayebare spent months of sleepless night canvassing support for Sebutinde who eventually won the race.
Reports also indicated that Rwanda tried to influence Uganda’s 2021 election outcome by supporting the opposition.
In his election victory speech in 2021, Museveni did not mention the country he accused of “meddling in Uganda’s internal affairs” but officials said he was referring to Rwanda.
As Uganda and Rwanda edged closer to war, Angola and DRC President Felix Tshisekedi appealed for calm.
Angola mediated the conflict. During this period, it is alleged Rwanda made serious allegations against Uganda.
Museveni sent then senior Presidential Advisor in charge of Special Operations, Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba and Kandiho to Luanda to make Uganda’s case.
Museveni also deployed Amb Adonia Ayebare as his special envoy to always reach out to Rwanda to deliver the former’s messages and root for peace.
However, the relations remained frosty with Rwanda using bots and online platforms to hit hard at Museveni, Muhoozi and Uganda’s independent media.
Ugandan analysts, journalists and columnists who defended Uganda’s interests were branded spies and stooges while Muhoozi was given weird nicknames. A Rwandan blog described Gen Saleh as a ‘Somali.’
The arrest of Rwandans in Uganda continued.
Muhoozi’s trip to Kigali came on the backdrop of UPDF deployment in DR Congo.
Uganda used heavy long-range weapons and warplanes to attack ADF bases in DR Congo, an operation which analysts said was also aimed at sending a warning to Rwanda.
There are several reasons being put forward to explain Kagame’s change of heart on the border.
Muhoozi’s close associates say he is so intent on reviving good relations with Rwanda which could have convinced Kagame to partially reopen the border.
“I know of no one in Uganda who could be the best envoy to @PaulKagame and meaningfully discuss the issues between Kigali and Kampala other than my brother @mkainerugaba!” said Mwenda, a close friend of Muhoozi.
Mwenda, who has been pressuring Uganda’s top authorities to normalise relations with Rwanda, added: “First he believes this relationship is of great strategic value for both countries and for Africa. Second, Muhoozi is the best suited envoy to Kigali because he also believes the President does not necessarily have malign intentions against Uganda. So he knows he can talk to him and find a solution to the tensions that have been tearing our countries apart.”
The investigative journalist and businessman added: “Finally I know President Kagame trusts Muhoozi as a genuine friend of Rwanda and also as someone who looks up to him as a hero and mentor. So this was a meeting of people that respect and admire each other. I am optimistic this is a good first step to mending our relations!”
But officials in Rwanda say Kagame also wanted to reopen the border for his personal interests including hosting the Commonwealth heads of state meeting (CHOGM) in June 2022.
CHOGM was due to have been held in Kigali in June 2020 but was postponed twice due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Kagame didn’t want a bad reputation of hosting Commonwealth countries when the border with his closest neighbour was closed,” said a source, adding, “Good relations with Uganda, Burundi and other neighbors bolsters the Rwandan president’s image when hosting CHOGM.”
Additionally, a possible armed conflict with Uganda would have caused another postponement of CHOGM yet Kagame needs foreign exchange as Rwanda grapples with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the country’s economy.
In 2020, Rwanda said it hoped to seal investment deals worth $700m during the CHOGM.
Lastly, UPDF’s entry into DRC to fight IS-linked ADF terrorists and build roads left Kagame with no option but work with Uganda.
DRC is home to several Rwandan militia fighting Kagame’s government.
Reports that Rwanda intended to deploy ‘police’ forces in Goma to conduct ‘joint counter rterroiism operations’ with DRC security personnel touched off deadly riots in the city.
Rwanda needs the goodwill of Ugandan officers operating in DRC to contain the rebels seeking to oust Kagame.
Following his meeting with Kagame, Muhoozi returned to Uganda where he briefed Museveni on the Kigali talks.
It was decided that the CMI leadership be replaced, leading to the transfer of Maj Gen Kandiho to South Sudan and his deputy Brig Henry Isoke to the State House Anti-corruption Unit.
Many Rwandans refugees living in Uganda saw Kandiho as their guardian against illegal and forced repatriation to Rwanda.
“We don’t know who will protect us now,” said a refugee who has lived in Uganda for the last two decades.
The transfer of Kandiho shocked many in security circles and sent mixed signals among officers who have been countering threats posed by suspected Rwandan agents.
But other sources said Kandiho expected to be transferred as he had already spent five years on the job.
“Every officer knows after five years, you are due for reassignment,” said an elderly general who has worked with Museveni for over 30 years.
Word that the border would be reopened sparked celebrations in Kigali. Videos of excited crowds celebrating the news in Kigali’s Nyabugogo bus park went viral on social media.
Thousands of Rwandans bought bus tickets to travel to Uganda only to be informed later they could not travel.
It appears Rwandan authorities feared Uganda media houses which had camped at the border to film the border reopening. A mass movement of Rwandans to Uganda would have been bad optics for the Kigali government.
Rwanda has since partially opened the borders, allowing only the movement of trucks.
It remains unclear when Rwanda will allow her people to move freely across the border to trade, visit their relatives, and attend social functions in Uganda.
Nevertheless, the partial reopening of the border was welcomed by people from all walks of life.
The positive development saw CHOGM confirmed for June 2022 in Rwanda.
The endless bickering and tensions between Uganda and Rwanda were scaring off potential investors in both countries.
Uganda also was able to see oil companies Total Energies and CNOOC make their final investment decision to invest $10bn in oil production activities in the Albertine region including construction of the East African Oil Pipeline.
The revival of bilateral relations also shone new light on the diplomatic abilities of Muhoozi and Amb Ayebare, with many describing them as peacemakers who used persuasion to elicit a positive response from Rwanda.
Museveni also won in a sense that a conducive atmosphere has been created to achieve EAC regional integration which he recently said was a matter of life and death in securing Africa’s strategic security.
The small businesses at Katuna border also celebrated news of the reopening of the border.
But the real celebration will occur when Rwanda allows her people to freely cross the border to Uganda to visit their relatives and friends, trade and enjoy the revived bilateral relations between the two countries.