The Kampala-Kigali feud is bad (1): Majority report

Sunday June 16 2019


By Moses Khisa

We had Kisangani One and Two. That was close to 20 years ago. At that time inter-state proxy wars were a very common phenomenon: Sudan against Uganda, Chad up against Sudan, Eritrea versus Ethiopia (these two actually fought directly), Rwanda and Uganda versus Congo, and further afield Liberia against Sierra Leon, etc.

The times have since changed, and quite dramatically. It is no longer fashionable, nay acceptable, in the norms of global geopolitics to engage in inter-state war, sponsor proxies or successfully fight a guerrilla war.

Otherwise, it is likely we could have had a Gatuna One, and Two could be on the way as relations between Rwanda and Uganda yet again went down the drain in recent months.

As the author of the minority report is wont to argue, there are matters of statecraft at play away from the gaze and imagination of the ordinary Rwandan or Ugandan. We have heard strong accusations and strident denials of arrests and harassment made especially by Rwanda against Uganda; these may well be valid.

And claims of malign intelligence activities by Rwanda in Uganda could be well-founded never mind the history of individuals in the latter’s intelligence and security agencies ‘cooking’ stories to justify budgetary allocations.

That said, borders between Rwanda and Uganda are not just matters of state sovereignty and territorial integrity, they are in fact more importantly about people’s lives and livelihoods. The sociocultural linkage is deep and unbreakable. For communities on either side of the border, crossing over is an age-old routine. Families and close relatives straddle the colonially created demarcation.


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Bonds of friendship and familial relations are arguably stronger and more extensive than we have with other neighbouring countries.
From a business perspective, business and commerce between the two is hugely critical for the two economies that are at any rate very small in absolute terms. Closing the border under rather bewildering circumstances and inhibiting free movement of people, services and goods can have enormous knock-on effects difficult to quantify.

Whatever the merits of State security-related concerns, the principals in Kampala and Kigali can do well to think of the Rwandan and Ugandan caught in the cold-war crossfire, yet totally unconcerned and does not even know about State-matters.

But are the causes of the simmering tensions and deteriorating relations issues of national security or they more narrowly are about regime survival and in fact personal interests? Or it is actually more of clash of egos at play and cheap attempts at proving points? Does the average Ugandan or Rwandan care that much about who is spying for which side and who is undermining which government? Most unlikely.

As I previously noted in these pages, I almost ran afoul of the rather gratuitous and swirling suspicion. At Kanombe International Airport last year, I got held for a while with quite a bit of unusual questioning, including any connections to the Ugandan government never mind that I was on appointment to interview a senior Rwanda government minister for purely academic purposes.

I nearly told my curious questioner at the airport that I actually wish the regime in Kampala had been kicked out of power yesterday because I believe it has been leading our country the wrong way! But just imagine for a second how many ordinary folks, whether businesspeople or those with friendship and family ties, are caught in the web of mean-spirited ping-pongs as to who is doing wrong to whom, between the rulers in Kampala and their historic, political kindred across in Kigali.

Those preoccupied with matters of the State from which they derive their privileges need to appreciate that there are majority citizens who pay taxes that fund the holders of State power and who too have lives to live.
Arguably even more important, the people of Rwanda and Uganda are inseparable and depend on each other in ways that are over and above the motions of government and interests of states. Nothing could be truer and clearer in this world!

Dr Khisa is assistant professor at 
North Carolina State University (USA).