The Rwanda-Uganda tension is a Museveni manufactured crisis

The nine Rwandans who were illegally deported from Uganda making their way to the Sub-Registry of the East African Court of Justice near the Supreme Court yesterday. This is the second group to petition the regional court over the mistreatment they suffered at the hands of the Ugandan security operatives. / Courtesy

Rwanda is expected to feature greatly in Uganda’s election campaigns. This is apparently the strategy President Museveni sees as the sure way of retaining the presidency in that country.

Ordinarily, he should be telling Ugandans about the progress that has been achieved under his more than 33-year rule. But he is not going to do this. If anyone was ever in doubt regarding his planned strategy heading into the 2021 elections, this doubt was removed by Kahinda Otafiire, his minister for justice and constitutional affairs, who last week launched Museveni’s nomination in Western Uganda with Rwanda central to his high-flying rhetoric. 

Some have wondered what Museveni has to gain from his hostile stance towards Rwanda.

While his stance has served different purposes for over two decades, the present crisis is purposely to achieve one thing: to get him re-elected for a seventh term. In politics, when incumbents have trouble at home and cannot defend their domestic record, they turn to a foreign enemy. If they don’t have one, they create one. This way, the people can be rallied around their leader instead of opposing him. 

This has been the target for the past two years or so when Museveni began to bait Rwanda by scheming with the Rwanda National Congress. Rwanda initially ignored the embrace between Museveni and Kayumba Nyamwasa.

But Museveni understood that as the election season gets closer, he would provide more overt support to the RNC and that eventually, Rwanda would have to pay attention, and possibly do something about it. In turn, he would have gotten Ugandans where he wants them: behind him. 

Otafiire is only implementing the final phase of the strategy. Otafiire told a small gathering during a rally in southwestern Uganda that, “The NRM team is winning and should not be changed in 2021. But the team is under attack. Even fellow Africans don’t see the captain’s contribution. Instead, they want war; they close borders.”

This is a thinly veiled attack on Rwanda, suggesting that even the political opposition in Uganda has connived to with the enemy against ‘the Captain,” a similar reference to Museveni’s rhetoric of “removing the bean weevils,” that are used by the same forces.  

If Museveni is successful in selling this rhetoric to Ugandans, then the opposition is in for a rough election season: He is psychologically preparing Ugandans for the violence he intends to wreak on the opposition in the belief that it is a small sacrifice to pay if the country is to be protected from foreign forces that want to take over. 

Kahinda Otafiire told the small crowd that what is happening between Uganda and Rwanda is “a small conflict” that has elicited a disproportionate reaction from Rwanda. He was telling them that Rwanda is the aggressor, “when your brother’s cows eat your crops, you don’t butcher them or turn to war,” he continued to incite the crowd against Rwanda.

He failed to tell the crowd, however, that when you have a 'little conflict' with your brother, you don’t torture his children. 

Museveni trusts Otafiire as a propagandist. Which explains why he is the one out there doing the trial phase to try to gauge whether the electorate will warm to the anti-Rwanda rhetoric and deliver the 2021 electoral victory. It is also no coincidence that the trial phase was taking place in southwestern Uganda. 

This is where the effects of the Uganda-Rwanda crisis is most felt. The border economy on Uganda’s side has virtually collapsed as a result of Rwanda’s advisory against its nationals from visiting Uganda due to state-sponsored insecurity against them.

The residents around the towns of Kisoro and Kabale have been piling pressure on Museveni to do whatever he can to normalise relations with Rwanda; it can be expected that this pressure will loom large as the elections get closer and the residents begin to understand that they have something of value to trade against Museveni: their vote. 

Museveni cannot cede to their demands to normalise relations with Rwanda. He is caught in a catch-22: He is losing substantial support in his former stronghold as the inhabitants suffer the impacts of the crisis, yet he needs the crisis in order to manipulate the country to vote for him.

The solution, therefore, is for him to incite the border residents further so that they turn their animosity away from him and towards Rwanda; or, he will have to sacrifice them and say to hell with their votes. The potential for radicalisation is what Otafiire was testing. 

The Uganda-Rwanda tension is a Museveni manufactured crisis that he needs for political victory. The problem is that if it works, he will turn to it again in the pre-election period leading to 2026.  At that point, Rwanda will be the gift that keeps on giving. As for the crisis, don’t expect it to end for as long as Museveni sees political mileage in it.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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