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Rwanda/Uganda: A Dangerous War of Nerves


President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of Uganda and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda were once called the “new breed” of African leaders but hopes that they can deliver peace and prosperity to their countries are being severely shaken. In early November the two presidents held a crisis meeting in London hosted by the British Minister for International Development, Clare Short in response to the dramatic degradation of relations. The former allies now accuse each other of backing and training armed opposition groups. Each is mobilising his own forces, and unless the dispute is resolved, it could lead to renewed fighting on the territory of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where both countries have significant military and economic interests.

The London meeting was the fourth time this year that the two leaders have sat down to try to resolve their differences. Officially, it went well, leading to the creation of a joint Ugandan/Rwandan verification committee with the participation of the UK as a third party. However, such meetings have never yet managed to dispel the mutual distrust that arose with the outbreak of the Second Congo War in August 1998. Earlier agreements have not been implemented. The hope for better follow through this time lies with the new element of close British involvement.

The quarrel between the former allies is linked to differing strategies on the management of the Congo war, regional leadership rivalries, and competition over Congo resources. It has already resulted in three battles in the Congolese town of Kisangani, in August 1999, March 2000 and May 2000, that caused extensive destruction and the deaths of more than 600 Congolese civilians. Rwanda has accused Uganda of harbouring its dissidents at least since the departure of its Parliament Speaker Joseph Sebarenzi Kabuye for Kampala in December 1999. Uganda declared Rwanda to be a “hostile state” ahead of its March 2001 presidential elections, because it allegedly funded President Museveni’s main opponent, former UPDF officer Colonel, Kiiza Besigye.

Since the London meeting, the joint verification and investigation committee has visited Rwanda and Uganda several times and, with MONUC (the UN observer mission in the Congo), has also inspected alleged dissident training camps in the Congo. These missions have all been accompanied by British officials and conducted to the public satisfaction of all parties. Neither the Ugandan nor the Rwandan people want a conflict, nor would they really understand it. Yet, there are signs that the dispute will not be solved by the verification of military positions or impromptu visits to alleged training sites. Personal rivalry – not only between the two presidents – and regional political leadership in East and Central Africa are involved. Half a dozen determined military figures on both sides have the capacity to take their countries at least to the brink and are under very little control by civilian institutions.

Both parties have been told that any outbreak of hostilities on their own territory would have dire consequences for international financial support. However, the prospect of the leaders replaying their military rivalry again in the Congo’s North Kivu is real.

In order to avoid further conflict, the United Nations and international community should make clear to the parties that a consequence would be sanctions with teeth, including immediate suspension of all bilateral and multilateral aid. The Rwanda-Uganda feud is a major factor preventing a peace deal in the DRC and threatens further the already shattered lives of many Congolese. The dispute also limits post-genocide reconciliation and reconstruction in Rwanda. The two countries must be held accountable for the fragmentation and militarisation of eastern Congo, which has accelerated as a result of their indirect occupation rule. Rwanda and Uganda’s reconciliation must be rooted in an improvement in bilateral relations. It must equally, however, translate into clear progress in the implementation of the Lusaka agreement in the DRC, including unconditional support to DDRRR of their respective “negative forces”, clear benchmarks for their orderly withdrawal from the DRC and support for new institutions created by the Inter-Congolese Dialogue.


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