3 June 2019

East Africa: Uganda and Rwanda's Slippery Slope

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The conflict between Uganda and Rwanda is escalating and, if not arrested, will most likely lead to war. Last week, Uganda claimed that Rwandan troops had crossed into Uganda and shot two people dead. Rwanda said the incident took place on its soil. Given the circumstances, the facts do not really matter. In such tense situations, these incidents only provide propaganda value to partisans on each side to prove their side to be the aggrieved party.

Both sides have deployed their armies across the common border in irritating contact with each other. Mid last year, President Paul Kagame asked me to inform President Yoweri Museveni that Rwanda will never fire the first shot. Museveni has told me he does not want a war with Rwanda because such a war would be stupid. I believe both presidents would like to avoid a war. However, incidents like the one that happened last week can easily and rapidly turn a tense situation into a military conflagration.

Given the circumstances, a war between Uganda and Rwanda is possible and most likely may become inevitable. We always forget that individuals often have defective control over events that lead to war. A war between Uganda and Rwanda would be stupid. But this does not make it impossible. Wars can erupt even when leaders on both sides are committed to avoiding them. One small incident, like what happened last week, can escalate a quarrel to a standoff.

Whenever there is a standoff, a series of statements and incidents can induce leaders to take actions that escalate the situation in order to preserve their reputation of being tough, or to uphold their honour, than stand down and be seen as weak and/or cowardly. And once a country orders its military to be on alert, it becomes ever more difficult to control subsequent events. This is because miscalculations and misunderstandings can easily and rapidly escalate a situation beyond the leader's original intent.

Carl von Clausewitz, the greatest contemporary military strategist and theoretician, argued that war is "the realm of uncertainty." Most of the factors that drive nations to war are based on information that is often not very certain; all too often leaders have to second-guess their opponent's intentions. While each side's plan (which may be purely defensive) can be seen, its intentions cannot be inferred from those plans. So the other side sees defensive plans as offensive and menacing. It is this that escalates the situation from its defensive to an offensive posture.

Secondly, all nations think their actions are benign and wonder why the other does not see the reality as it is. This is the state of mind of Ugandan and Rwandan officials. Yet whatever Uganda plans, believing such action to be innocent, Rwanda would be stupid to take it lightly and vice versa. This is the mechanism that transforms even a moderate situation into a military conflagration.

For instance, Uganda may now also deploy her troops at the border to scare Rwandan security from entering as it claims they did last week. Rwanda may see this as preparation for attack and deploys more. As the two armies stand facing each other across the common border in such an irritatingly close contact, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to avoid incidents like the one last week.

Secondly, when incidents happen in places of tension, leaders in Kampala and Kigali will get different information: Kampala, that Rwandan troops entered Uganda; Kigali that the incident happened on its soil. Leaders in both capitals will make decisions based on information from their officers on the ground that is most likely doctored to create an excuse for their own mistakes. What Kampala will act upon as brazen aggression, Kigali will see it as attempts by Uganda to find an excuse to attack.

All this is taking place in circumstances where Kampala and Kigali are caught-up in mutually reinforcing fears and temptations. Each side fears the other is seeking regime change and is tempted to aid the other's enemies. The presence of troops at the common border increases the suspicions of an impending attack, keeping both militaries under alert. It is hard to imagine how this situation can continue without open confrontation.

Yet the solution to this impasse is extremely difficult to craft. One reason is loss of trust between the two sides. In both capitals, the tendency may be to believe that the problems between the two countries are a result of the machinations of particular individuals. There is a lot of validity in such claims. Yet such assessments ignore the structural causes of tension and individuals are driven, like in ancient Greek tragedies, to act as if driven by fate.

Historically, almost every post-armed struggle government that sponsored a similar successful rebel movement in a neighboring country has ended up going to war with its erstwhile ally. The Soviet Union sponsored the communist party in China and later the two nations went to war. The Chinese Communist Party sponsored the Communist Party of Vietnam and later the two nations went to war. Vietnam sponsored the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia only later invaded that country to remove them from power.

Nearer home, the Eritrean People's Liberation front sponsored the Tigrian People's Liberation Front to capture power in Ethiopia. Later the two nations went to war twice. Rwanda sponsored Laurent Kabila to capture power in Congo DR and later invaded to remove him. Uganda sponsored the Rwanda Patriotic Front to capture power and the two armies fought three battles in Congo. Evidently the current escalation is because of this unfinished business. The Kisangani battles did not resolve the issue of who is militarily supreme: Rwanda believed it won and is therefore the better army; Uganda believes it was just unprepared.

Yet in spite of this, I think a war between the two countries can be avoided. This requires both sides to focus on the dangers to them. It is possible such a war can cause political rapture inside Uganda leading to regime collapse. But this is equally likely for Rwanda. What is most likely - which actors on both sides need to take seriously - is that a war between Uganda and Rwanda would most likely not produce winners but losers on both sides i.e. it can cause the collapse of both regimes. Anyone on either side who believes they can accurately predict the outcome of such a war is mistaken big time.

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