President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda ended a four-day state visit to Rwanda on Monday. By all accounts it was a successful visit.
The Ugandan president’s visit had aroused much speculation in the media, not least because of the reported sour relations between the two countries in recent times.
Those relations were at the heart of the talks the two presidents held, both said at a joint press conference on Monday. Both refused to say whether ties between their countries had been strained and been mended in the four days they had been together, preferring instead to say that the visit was meant to cement long historical links between them. But they did not say they had been excellent, either.
President Museveni came closest to admitting that all had not been well between them. He said that although there had been cooperation in the past, along the way there had been misunderstandings, but which had now been resolved (transcended was his word).
But if the atmosphere at public events the two presidents attended is any indication of the outcome of the visit, it must have exceeded expectations. Their public pronouncements were filled with unusual warmth – certainly not felt in recent times. Both spared no effort in lavishing praise on the other for singular accomplishments. They recognised each other’s contribution in liberating the other’s country. President Kagame publicly acknowledged Museveni’s role two years ago when he decorated him with Rwanda’s top honours..This was Museveni’s first public admission of the role of Rwandans in the NRM struggle to liberate Uganda.
Does the public warmth signify a definitive thaw in what the media has characterised as frosty relations? And was it matched by candour in private? The mood, as President Paul Kagame advised a journalist, would seem to indicate that was the case as both presidents appeared satisfied with the visit.
There are other signs which seem to support this reading of the mood. First, the Ugandan President’s visit was not your usual sort of state visit marked by pomp and ceremony, official meetings and carefully worded diplomatic statements that give nothing away. Of course these were there – the usual meetings between officials of both delegations and the inevitable communiqué at the end. But there was much more.
It was more informal, like a visit between neighbours or friends, admittedly who had not seen each other for quite a while.
The two heads of state had long periods of private talks – stretching for nearly two days – where they were mostly alone. This was the perfect setting for candid reassessment of relations – without their aides advising caution or restraint, or the fear of leaks and unencumbered by official decorum.
It is therefore reasonable to assume that they put everything on the table – well, nearly everything.
Secondly, half the time President Museveni spent in Rwanda was at his host’s country home in Muhazi with their spouses and other members of their respective families. The relaxed family setting – no timetable, no deadlines – lent flexibility and a personal, softer and intimate touch to diplomacy and may have been responsible for the warmth both men displayed in public, and the outcome of the talks.
Thirdly, it is believed that President Museveni’s visit was made after the prompting of private individuals. It is understood that younger official and non-state negotiators convinced the two men that it was about time they met and sorted out some sticky issues.
If this is true, it is a significant shift in the way diplomacy, and possibly politics, will be conducted in the region in the near future. It would mean that a group of relatively young people carrying no historical baggage of ill-will are sufficiently concerned about the direction our relations are taking and are ready to step forward and redirect them.
This generation, brought up in a different environment from the older generation, well-educated, widely travelled and techno-savvy are more forward-looking and have a broader outlook and are more likely to seek solutions where their elders place obstacles. They are more cosmopolitan and less parochial and therefore more likely to accommodate differences of opinion. They have no hurt egos to massage, no scores to settle or points to prove, but careers to build. More importantly, because of all this, they are more integrationist than their elders.
If there is any significance from the Museveni visit, it is this: the emergence of a new generation, impatient with the way an inward looking, insular, scheming and divisive older generation manages state affairs and inter-state relations.
We should not be surprised if this intransigent old guard, weighed down by past animosities or perceptions of their self-importance are shunted aside and a younger, more open-minded generation begins to exercise more influence.
It may be an unintentional outcome but an invaluable dividend of the just ended state visit.