Relations between Rwanda and Uganda have soured in the last few years. The reasons for this are known, although some refuse to acknowledge them. In the past few days, rumours, disinformation and outright lies have made the situation even worse.
We have also been hearing belligerent noises from some leaders and media in Uganda.
Going to war may not be the most appropriate way to reset relations. Addressing the issues that have brought the two countries to this point is.
Quarrels between neighbours, be they individuals or countries, are not uncommon. In normal circumstances the neighbours share responsibility, although not necessarily equally, and the causes can easily be identified and solved.
However, when only one of them is deliberately acting to draw the other into a quarrel or even a fight, responsibility falls squarely on that one. That is called provocation.
And when the party not keen on the quarrel points out to the other the not-so-neighbourly acts and requests that they stop but is ignored, that exacerbates the provocation and is evidence of ill-intention.
That unfortunately is what is happening in the relations between Rwanda and Uganda. There is no principled quarrel between the two. In fact all that Rwanda has done is to ask for good neighbourliness.
While all this has been known, it has taken the partial restriction of heavy trucks at the Gatuna border and their diversion to other border posts to bring them into the open. In this sense, the Gatuna border issue has probably been a good thing.
First, it has helped reveal Uganda’s continued refusal to engage with Rwanda to resolve issues the latter has raised and which are known to both.
Second, it has brought into the open the real issues underlying the sour relations that until now have been kept in official diplomatic dealings between the two leaders and government officials. It is no longer possible to pretend ignorance of the issues or to evade them.
President Paul Kagame told the National Leadership Retreat in Gabiro on Saturday 9 March that he had had several meetings with Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni regarding these issues.
He said that he had raised the question of the arrest of Rwandans in Uganda, their detention and torture in illegal or unknown places, and denial of access to family or legal services. In some instances they had been returned without charge and dumped at the border.
The current situation at the border, according to him, was not the real problem between the two countries. It was simply an excuse. The actual issue was the free movement of people which Uganda was obviously impeding.
He had also raised the question of the presence of the Rwanda National Congress (RNC) in Uganda and its collaboration with government officials and institutions in harassing Rwandans and in plans to destabilise the country.
Third, the border issue has provided a basis for the resolution of whatever problems exist between the two countries. President Kagame has laid that basis by detailing the attempts he has made to have these matters sorted out, providing the facts and correct information, and bringing it all out into the open.
No one can hide behind ignorance or the lack of facts.
This is a good opportunity for President Museveni to resolve any issues between him and President Kagame or between Uganda and Rwanda. His Rwandan counterpart has done him a favour and showed him a way out. He has no excuse not to act.
President Kagame has made him another offer: friendship. He said Rwanda is a friend and ally to those ready and willing to reciprocate the offer. That should dispel any lingering thoughts of any ill-intentions against Uganda or Museveni personally and remove the threat of war.
Will President Museveni take up the offer? That, of course, depends on why he has allowed these problems to persist in the first place. If one were to take a positive view, it would be that he should grab it with both hands. He cannot argue with the facts President Kagame presented or pretend that the issues do not exist.
But that is perhaps overly optimistic. It is difficult to see Museveni reverse course purely because of this. He may only do so if other factors are brought into play.
In the first place, despite his professed faith in the virtues of regional integration, destabilisation of neighbours seems to be a key component of Uganda’s foreign policy.
Integration is only meaningful as long as he is the main man, and that often means weakening others.
Secondly, trust and truthfulness appear to be rare commodities among Ugandan leaders.
Thirdly, the security establishment in Uganda is heavily invested in relations with the RNC and other anti-Rwanda elements to quickly change tack.
Fourthly, raising the spectre of war with Rwanda, even if it does not actually happen, appears to be an important consideration in Uganda’s domestic politics.
It is a useful distraction at a time when Museveni’s long stay in power is increasingly being challenged. It also helps him mobilise national support.
Already, normally critical voices have either been silenced or brought to rally behind him against an external enemy. They have now turned their attention on Rwanda.
Still, one remains hopeful that reason will prevail and that Kagame’s offer will be accepted.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.