Uganda: Tracing Uganda-Rwanda Relations From Colonial Period

Photo: New Times
Catholic Church (file photo).

French — American political scientist René Lemarchand summed up the situation in the Great Lakes region when he said: "Ethnic polarisation paves the way for political exclusion, exclusion eventually leading to insurrection; insurrection to repression, and repression to massive flows of refugees... which in turn become the vectors of further instability."

It is these political exclusions and insurrections that gave birth to the Uganda-Rwanda alliance that is being threatened with the current fallout between Kampala and Kigali. At the centre of it all are two former rebel leaders and who are now heads of state.

The search for self-preservation under the face of persecution of Rwandan refugees and the need for numbers to bolster a rebel outfit brought together Mr Paul Kagame and Mr Yoweri Museveni in the early 1980s.


The Uganda-Rwanda relations date back to the colonial times. Umwami Mutara III Rudahigwa of Rwanda was a regular visitor at Kabaka Edward Muteesa's court in Buganda Kingdom in the 1950s.

When Umwami Mutara III's successor, Umwami Kigeli V, was deposed after the 1961 UN supervised elections, he sought refuge at the palace of Muteesa in Buganda. It was after the relationship between the central government and Mengo soured that he left the country.

During Kigeli's stay in Uganda, an armed wing of his supporters in Uganda known as Abadehemuka made incursions into Rwanda with no success. Therefore, the 1990 Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) invasion was not the first by Rwandans in Uganda who were trying to force their way back home.

The first wave of Rwandans coming into Uganda was economic refugees. The influx then came during the 1959 genocide, also known as the 'Kazuguzugu war '. It was during this time that current Rwandan president Paul Kagame as a child came to Uganda.

According to The Path of a Genocide: The Rwanda Crisis from Uganda to Zaire, most of those who fled to Uganda settled in Kigezi and Ankole sub-regions.

"As Tutsis fled, the Belgian colonial administrators in Rwanda notified their British counterparts in Uganda, leading to the passing of legal notice number 311 of 1959, which declared Tutsis in Uganda as unwelcome and their stay illegal," the book says.

People such as Milton Obote, Cuthbert Obwangor and William Nadiope in the Legislative Council (Legco) opposed the legal notice.

While challenging it on the floor of the Legco, Obote said: "The reign of terror was so bad that the people of Rwanda wanted to seek safety somewhere. A number of them decided to seek refuge in Uganda. But I wish the House to know that they did not come as ordinary immigrants; they were running away from acts of violence which were the rule of the day in their country."

During his first presidency, Obote opened two refugee centres in Kamwezi in Rukiga County and Kizinga in Rwampara.

However, in 1963 the government having failed to get international support to look after the refugees, decided to send them back home. According to the Africa Research Bulletin of March 1964, "Uganda has no alternative but to send some of these people away, unless Uganda received help".

Those who remained never forgave Obote for not only sending their relatives back, but also sending away their king when he was hosted by Kabaka Edward Muteesa. It was no brainer thus for those who stayed to celebrate his overthrow in 1971 like the Baganda.

The Idi Amin era opened doors for them, with many joining the Secret Service. However, Obote's return in 1980 spelt doom as many, for fear of forced repatriation, decided to join the NRA guerrilla outfit of Museveni that was fighting Obote.

"It was during this baptism by fire that the sons of Rwandan refugees not only fought for their survival, but also gained valuable guerrilla experience, which they would later use for their armed return to Rwanda," writes Scott Mcknight in volume 15 of the African Studies Quarterly of March 2015.

When a section of armed Rwandans from the victorious NRA marched into Rwanda, they took with them Ugandan government arms and ammunition.

They were beaten back by a combined force from Zaire, Belgium and France which backed the regime in Kigali against the invading forces. It became a protracted war. In the chaos that followed the plane crash in which president Juvénal Habyarimana was killed, the RPF rebels took power.

Following their victory in 1994, the relationship between Kagame and Museveni moved from individuals to bilateral relations. The two countries were now faced with a common enemy, Mobutu Sese Seko's Zaire which was hosting Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels the ex-FAR, groups hostile to the regimes in Kampala and Kigali respectively.

As RPF and Ugandan troops marched on eastern DR Congo to hunt down the defeated ex-FAR and ADF rebels, their stay in Congo was further legalised with the creation of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL) to overthrow Mobutu in what came to be known as the First Congo war.

Alliance in doubt

Between 1989 and 1999, the Uganda-Rwanda alliance was put to test. The first test came with the assassination of André Kisase Ngandu, one of the AFDL leaders with strong links to Kampala.

Scott Mcknight says: "Gérard Prunier believes that Kisase Ngandu's assassination was apparently done by Rwandans with Kabila's approval. Kisase Ngandu's assassination was seen as exemplifying just how far Rwanda would go to control the rebels even at the expense of their Ugandan allies."

It was at this point that the alliance started developing cracks, with Rwanda seeing everything in Congo as a nail to be hammered by none other than Rwanda.

Another cause for the bad relationship, according to Mcknight, was the fact that "in general terms, Rwanda's penchant to control its Congolese allies against Uganda's preference to guide the Congolese rebels indeed existed and its existence gradually deepened the rift already present within the Rwanda-Uganda alliance".

Alliance on death bed

In August 1999, the souring relationship between the two allies hit rock bottom. Their differences led to open hostilities when they turned their guns on each other in the eastern town of Kisangani. The following year, two more clashes between the armies of Uganda and Rwanda almost brought the two countries to war.

Despite the tempers cooling, relations between the two were never the same again. Between 1999 and 2019, there have been undertones of diplomatic spats, mostly from Rwanda accusing Ugandan of giving its dissidents rite of passage as they flee the country.

Uganda has also accused Rwanda of harbouring renegades who went on to start the People's Redemption Army. Though the hatchet seemed to have been buried, the suspicions have always been alive, resulting in the current row that saw Rwanda close its main border with Uganda.

Though initially fronted as a simple closure over construction works at the border post, the line has long been abandoned and politics blamed.

[email protected]

See What Everyone is Watching

More From: Monitor

Don't Miss

AllAfrica publishes around 700 reports a day from more than 140 news organizations and over 500 other institutions and individuals, representing a diversity of positions on every topic. We publish news and views ranging from vigorous opponents of governments to government publications and spokespersons. Publishers named above each report are responsible for their own content, which AllAfrica does not have the legal right to edit or correct.

Articles and commentaries that identify as the publisher are produced or commissioned by AllAfrica. To address comments or complaints, please Contact us.