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How Museveni Lost to Kagame in Race For Regional Dominance

17 Min Read

It is without doubt the tension between Rwanda and Uganda is the most complex and most intense political contest in the Great Lakes Region.

Naturally, for a region that is used to a long standing so called “bromance” between Uganda’s President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni and Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, the latest round of clash between the two that dramatically played out last year formed major news coverage for the past two years.

In a region that has romanticised Museveni’s activities and especially bellicose stance over the last 35 years, having emerged as the foremost power welding man, analysts tried to breakdown the likely outcomes of the latest round of political contest between the two.

The contest seemed to have cooled off when the two friends turned foes signed a cease fire in Luanda Angola in form of a MOU by August 2019, but the deal seemingly lacked desired effects as the New Year 2020 beckoned.

In March 2019, as tensions mounted, Kagame accused Museveni of trying unsuccessfully to topple him for the past 20 years, during Rwanda’s annual leadership retreat.

President Kagame was firm in his remarks.

He said that, “No one can bring me to my knees”.

Earlier on in April 2019, Kagame repeated his misgivings against Museveni.  He said, “Those who think we have not seen enough of a mess, and want to mess with us, whether from here or from outside, I want to say: We will mess up with them big time.”

Museveni in his usual chest thump, responded by claiming that Rwanda was bent on destabilising Uganda. “Those who want to destabilise our country do not know our capacity,” adding that “once we mobilise, you can’t survive.”

As a populist reaction, what emerged mostly from the newsrooms of both countries amounted to dooms day scenario for Rwanda.

Museveni who has for long postured himself as the region’s policeman and Godfather, and through a series of propaganda pieces in the media, gave an impression that he would vanquish Kagame, and consistently portraying him as his mentee.

In order to give currency to the perceived doomsday scenario against Rwanda, anti-Rwanda articles increased, even in the mainstream media.

This was happening alingside kidnapping, torturing and illegal imprisonment of innocent Rwandans in Uganda.

Museveni believed Rwanda would be brought to its knees with an assumption that Kagame would eventually beg for mercy.

Here is what Museveni didn’t anticipate. Kagame applied a well calculated response. He closed the border and advised Rwandans to stop traveling to Uganda.

Uganda traders lost business. Uganda had lost its 5th export market.

Uganda beleived that since Rwanda depended on Uganda, economically, and for a falsely perceived political patronage and by extension, thus its survival to make it through its economic ambitions in the future, were at stake.

However, as the New Year 2020 started and going through available economic statistics, despite a few minor setbacks for Rwanda, the contrary emerges.

The situation is that Uganda has emerged as the loser in its contest against Rwanda.

Kagame more specifically has beaten hands down Museveni.

Kagame is clearly a heavyweight player, a global scale.

Kagame’s 5 major forms of collateral damages

In any contest pitting two fighting giants, victory normally comes with its attendant costs.

This is something economists refer to as opportunity cost of war or in military terms referred to as collateral damage.

Economically, opportunity cost is what you forego in order to achieve victory.

While Kagame insisted that his stance against Museveni meant well for Rwandans and larger well-being of the region, there are minor setbacks  that  Rwanda suffered in the contest.

First set back is that trade between the two countries plummeted in the wake of common border closure in March 2019 between the two states.

Available statistics indicate that Uganda lost over $600 million of export revenues to Rwanda and making an almost zero equalizer since Rwanda exports a handful to Uganda.

Many basic commodities that Rwanda needed from Uganda such as cement and related construction materials that formed the key ingredients for supporting Rwanda’s reconstruction efforts as well as wide range of consumer goods including basic foodstuff could not easily reach Rwanda anymore.

Rwanda experienced the pain, but it was temporary. Goods are now secured from other markets and the supply is stable, but it was unbearable for some months.

Secondly, the restriction of movement of Rwandans to Uganda, exposed Uganda as a country hostile to the spirit of the East African Community integration, in terms of free movement of people, but the ordinary people suffered the experience.

The third set back, was the stalemate of “the coalition of the willing”, the segment of East African heads of state of Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda coalescing around championing the revamping of the Northern Corridor, an important trade route for East Africa. It has now died a natural death as a result of the contest.

Uganda deliberately sabotaged the project. Obviously Rwanda was hurt more than Uganda and Kenya. Museveni has never said a word.

The multi-billion dollar initiative, cutting across several levers of the regional economy that was championed by the three presidents suffered a major blow.

Conservative estimates could put the loss for all the three countries at around US$3 billion.

A fourth set back was that, regrettably there were sensational stories of waves of Rwandan civilians arrested, detained  and tortured by Ugandan security operatives in the ensuing standoff.

Reports indicate that more than 1,000 Rwandans were deported from Uganda last year and more than 150 are still in detention in Uganda as at start of 2020. And dozens of innocent Rwandans have suffered gruesome treatment as well, including some people losing their lives.

The fifth set back was that reports started coming out that Uganda’s army was deploying its forces, including detachments of its specialised units along common border with Rwanda.

War was coming to a weaker Rwanda, from the stronger Uganda; they predicted.

Some said that Rwanda’s army was at this particular time around going to bear untold suffering at hands of the UPDF. This dooms day prediction was in reference to the previous open wars that both armies fought in Kisangani at the height of the second Congo wars in 2000.

It is still fresh in the minds of many how the RDF, then known as the RPA, routed UPDF from Kisangani. It has not escaped observers of the Kagame-Museveni bromance that the victory of Rwandan army against Ugandan army in Kisangani, is something that forms bitterness within UPDF top brass.

However, what the dooms day theorists failed to understand was that this was a different kind of contest. It was not going to degenerate into an open frontal military attack as was being peddled.

Kagame was placed in a real painful provocation. Museveni pressed harder. He invited Rwanda’s enemies into Uganda and facilitated them, materially, and morally. They infiltrated Rwanda and killed innocent Rwandans. Damages were suffered. The past two years were a mess in security circles. Resources were deployed to protected the country’s sovereignty and ensure security.

Kagame ordered no bullet be fired whatsoever, but it was such an ugly provocation by all standards. And Uganda remains safe home to the most hostile group of Rwanda’s enemies

Kagame’s major economic victories

A major victory President Kagame scored against President Museveni is that, Rwanda has emerged stronger economically from the standoff.

There were fears that Rwanda’s economy was bound to suffer, especially from the border closure. Contrary to these fears, statistics indicate that Rwanda is stronger than ever.

President Kagame said in his new year address that Rwanda prospered in the economic front.

“We are beginning the year 2020 after a successful 2019.Our country remained safe as a result of our efforts”.

The Africa Development Bank in its 2019 outlook on Rwanda, projected robust growth prospects even as the standoff with Uganda heightened.

Rwanda’s economy is projected to grow at 7.8% in 2019 and 8.0% in 2020, supported by export growth resulting from the “Made in Rwanda” policy, continued public investments such as the Bugesera International airport, and the country’s strong record of implementing reforms to achieve its long-term development goals.

The bank said that inflation is projected to edge up to about 4.0% in both 2019 and 2020, which is lowest in the region that is generally experiencing major economic challenges.

In addition, the bank says that fiscal deficit was projected to reach 4.4% of GDP in 2019 but is set to decline to 3.6% in 2020, reflecting prudent borrowing and increased domestic resource mobilisation.

This is in stark contrast to Rwanda’s neighbours where fiscal deficit is reaching unprecedented levels.

The bank says that, “Rwanda’s economy has enjoyed a good governance buildup that has allowed for great strides toward deeply entrenched and respected good governance principles and toward structural transformation facilitated by broad-based growth”.

Made in Rwanda initiative in high gear

The second major victory of President Kagame’s stand off against Uganda is the made in Rwanda initiative. The plummeting of imports from Uganda for even basic commodities has turned out to be blessing rather than a curse for Rwanda.

When Rwanda preferred to seek local production of such basic commodities that would ordinarily be imported from Uganda such as food, consumer goods or construction materials needed for Rwanda’s boom reconstruction, there were murmurs to effect that such home grown efforts were at best futile for Rwanda.

However, these efforts have served as perfect import substitution mechanism for Rwanda. The move is gradually forming the bed rock for a home-grown development of the nascent manufacturing sector.

A comfortable chunk of the US$180 million Rwanda would ordinarily spend annually in buying Ugandan products is being produced locally.

Another chunk of goods that Rwanda cannot produce is being sourced from neighbouring Tanzania. This move served to deal a huge blow to Ugandan businesses that have been tapping into Rwandan market for the last several years.

The major lesson that the stringent move championed by Kagame has taught Rwandans that after all they can live comfortably without Uganda.

Tanzanian Cement Twiga brand being sold at a shop in Rwanda alongside Cimerwa locally produced in Rwanda.

US$3.8 billion worth of cold-shouldering deals

One of the biggest blows that Uganda suffered in its standoff with Rwanda was the emergence of Tanzania as Rwanda’s new major trading partner.

Rwanda and Tanzania new found romance blossomed when in mid-year 2019 Rwanda signed the standard gauge railway (SGR) deal dubbed, sub-Saharan Africa’s first 570 Km bullet line with Tanzania worth US$2.5 billion.

The Rwanda- Tanzania SGR deal is part of Tanzania 1,475 Km SGR project meant to run from Dar es Salaam to shores of Lake Victoria.

Reports indicate that Tanzanian SGR deal is part of US$7.5 billion worth of projects Tanzania seeks to implement in next 5 years.

The deal effectively dealt a major blow to earlier mooted northern corridor’s 3,000 Km SGR project, linking Rwanda to Uganda, especially the stretch from Kampala to Kigali.

In order to provide proof of how Rwanda gave Uganda a cold shoulder in the SGR projects, plans are now under way to extend the Rwandan SGR component to Rubavu from Kigali.

The Rwandan SGR extension sucks in DRC’s President Felix Tshishekedi, who interestingly has warmed up to another round of new found friendship with Kagame, something that effectively isolates Museveni.

Rwanda added insult to injury on Uganda by December 2019 when it signed a US$1.3 billion deal on Bugesera Airport with Qatar that caps Kagame’s final victory against Museveni in the year 2019.

The Qatar-Rwanda deal is instrumental in the Kagame-Museveni duel in a number of ways.

It seals Kigali’s ambitions to overtake Entebbe as a regional aviation hub.

Secondly, in terms of the battle for the regional skies, seen as strategic to Rwanda’s long term competitiveness, Rwanda’s national carrier RwandAir steals the thunder from all the regional carriers including Kenya Airways and Ethiopian Airlines, hitherto the two dominant carriers in the region and silences without a doubt Uganda’s wobbling start up airline, Ugandan Airlines.

And the game looks like it has just began.

Museveni, after sending his Special Envoy to deliver an undisclosed message to Kagame at the end of last year, he said that he was going to ensure the tension between the two countries is resolved.

Kagame said it was a good gesture, but not enough an act.

The ball is still in the hands of Museveni to take further steps. One, come clean and accept the damage he has caused and clean it up. Two, get rid of the enemies of Rwanda in his house. Three, render justice to the victims of his misdeeds.

Then, a conversation on how to mend the broken ties would be considered. Until then, Rwanda owes Uganda nothing, but a responsibility for it’s uncalled for agression.

As for Kagame, he continues to play in the big league as a heavyweight, and ignoring petty squabbles that undermine the country’s participation in global engagements to secure its grand ambitions.