News / Africa

Uganda, Rwanda Move to Mend Troubled Relations

Uganda President Yoweri Museveni (R) shakes hands his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame at Entebbe State House, in Entebbe, Uganda, December 11, 2011.
Uganda President Yoweri Museveni (R) shakes hands his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame at Entebbe State House, in Entebbe, Uganda, December 11, 2011.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame has wrapped up a two-day trip to Uganda - where he was given an award by the Ugandan president for inspiring Africa’s younger generation. The trip is seen as a sign of growing rapprochement between two countries.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni cited the leadership of his Rwandan counterpart Kagame as he presented him with a lifetime achievement award Sunday at the annual Young Achievers Awards ceremony in Kampala.

Many here see the award as just one more sign of improving relations between Uganda and Rwanda, after Museveni visited Kigali earlier this year. Relations have been rocky since 1999, when the Ugandan and Rwandan armies, supporting rival rebel factions, clashed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There were several more skirmishes in the decade that followed.

Longtime rivalry

Political analyst Nicholas Sengoba in Kampala said suspicion between the two neighbors runs deep.

“Whenever Uganda has a problem, they always keep talking about people who are being helped by a foreign country. And many people believe that this euphemism of ‘foreign country’ is actually Rwanda and the president of Rwanda,” said Sengoba.

But there was little of that on display at the ceremony and during the speeches, where unity and connections were stressed.

Kagame actually grew up in Uganda, one of thousands of displaced Rwandan Tutsis who fled violence and persecution at home. Joining the Ugandan army, he served as head of military intelligence under Museveni before forming the Rwandan Patriotic Front, or RPF. The RPF then fought its way back into Rwanda during the 1994 genocide.

The Ugandan president on Sunday praised Kagame’s history as a fighter, and commended the RPF for having saved Rwanda.

“At that time we had challenges, and they took that choice of fighting for our country, first of all here in Uganda and later on in Rwanda.  Who saved Rwanda? It was the young people with the right ideas,” said Museveni.

Mending a deep rift

In his speech, Kagame emphasized the importance of unity between the two countries.

"Addressing the Ugandan youth feels very familiar. It is like being home talking to our own Rwandan young men and women. That is because they have a lot in common, but also because their destiny, like that of other young Africans, is intertwined. It is our responsibility as leaders and mentors to encourage them to work together," said Kagame. "The new world order has demonstrated beyond doubt that all countries need to work together to find solutions to their problems. This is even more compelling for us in Africa.”

Sengoba said the timing of Uganda’s improving relations with its neighbors is not accidental. With the large oil reserves in western Uganda on the verge of being tapped, he said that regional stability has suddenly taken on a new level of importance.

“Now that DR Congo has had a very inconclusive election, you can see that the security situation on that side is something to cause concern.  Part of the Albertine area in which we have discovered our oil is bordered by DR Congo. All these efforts at rapprochement with Rwanda, and ensuring that there are good relations with all the other neighbors, one of the issues is mainly preserving and protecting the oil, especially from a very insecure and volatile neighbor like DR Congo,” said Sengoba.

Serious accusations persist

The lifetime achievement award comes less than two weeks after a Rwandan journalist living in Uganda, a vocal critic of Kagame, was shot dead in a Kampala bar. Many exiled Rwandans blame the Rwandan security forces for the killing, under what they say is increasingly authoritarian rule. Reporters Without Borders have said that Rwandan journalists face harassment and arrest, and Amnesty International has accused the government of using its genocide denial laws to stifle opposition.

But the Rwandan president brushed aside such allegations at a news conference Monday in Kampala, preferring to keep the focus on what he sees as his positive achievements. He also suggested he might run for a third seven-year term - something which would require a constructional amendment.

Sengoba points out that for Kagame, better relations with Uganda could help him control his enemies.

“It is really important that President Kagame actually has a neighbor here who would never offer comfort and encouragement to those who don’t agree with him. That is one of the things that Kagame has to gain out of this,” said Sengoba.

Kagame also is expected to attend the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region in Kampala later this week, a summit of leaders aimed at furthering the cause of regional integration.

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