By Grace Kamugisha
Ever since the death of President Peter Nkurunziza two weeks ago on June 8, Uganda’s leadership has been trying to exploit sentiments of the new leadership in Burundi into hating the Rwandan leadership. From country to country in the region, it seems that trying to dictate and control how other leaders should think, behave, and relate with their neighbours is the foreign policy core of Uganda; it turns into enemies those who who refuse to be Kampala’s sock-puppets. But just because Uganda’s manipulative foreign policy succeeded with Nkurunziza doesn’t meant it will succeed under President Evariste Ndayishimiye’s presidency.
It seems Museveni believes he cannot have influence over Burundi without sowing antagonism between Rwanda and Burundi. President Ndayishimiye’s speeches as well as his inauguration message was around restoring good relations with neighbors. However, this seems to have worried the leadership in Uganda, which immediately began to de-campaign Rwanda and “reminding” that country’s new leadership that Rwanda is “evil.” State House-linked blogs, such as Sarah Kagingo’s – a former press secretary to president Museveni and a close Salim Saleh associate – Soft Power wrote on June 18 a rambling article titled, “Kagame should give Nkurunziza a chance to rest in peace.” It aimed at negatively spinning President Kagame’s condolences after the death of Nkurunziza, “On behalf of Gov’t and my own behalf I sent condolences to the Gov’t and People of Burundi for the passing of President Nkurunziza. God Bless.” The entire piece was dedicated to trying to prove that President Kagame wasn’t genuine in his condolences. Out of all the presidents of the region and beyond who sent condolences, only President Kagame’s were scrutinized and judged as unauthentic. Other blogs and Facebook accounts linked to Uganda’s Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI), such as RPF Gakwerere and Seruga wrote along similar lines, removing any doubt this was a coordinated effort based on instructions of Uganda’s top leadership.
Museveni’s unfortunate influence over Nkurunziza
As President Nkurunziza moved towards his third term, he began to make calculations about those he thought would support him and those he thought wouldn’t. President Museveni agreed to support his third term ambitions on condition that he joined him in his agenda to destabilize Rwanda. As domestic and international pressure mounted against Nkurunziza’s third term ambitions, he accepted to join in this project as a shared agenda. Initially, he accepted to use his country as a safe passage for recruits from Uganda going to Minembwe, DRC; at the time the training center of Kayumba Nyamwasa’s Rwanda National Congress (RNC).
In addition to state facilitation of recruitment, Uganda’s authorities designated a minister to coordinate the different Rwandan armed groups, but mainly RNC and FDLR. Museveni’s Minister of State for Regional Cooperation, Philemon Mateke, has been named by various captured members of those Rwandan terror groups as the liaison between them and President Museveni. According to court testimony by Theophile Abega and Nkaka Bazeye – intercepted senior FDLR representatives – the 14-15 December 2018 RNC-FDLR meeting at the Kampala Serena Hotel was, for instance, chaired by Minister Mateke. They also revealed that the RNC was represented at the same meeting by Kayumba Nyamwasa’s brother-in-law, Frank Ntwali, who is also the RNC’s Commissioner for Youth.
Testimonies of other rebels who have been captured by the Congolese army (FARDC) and repatriated to Kigali to face justice have implicated Uganda’s security forces – CMI, Internal Security Organisation (ISO), and, to a lesser extent, Uganda Police, as facilitators of recruitment of anti-Rwanda rebels mainly in areas inhabited by large numbers of people of Rwandan origins, for example Kiboga, Isingiro, Mubende, and Nyakivale refugee camp. Major Habib Mudathir, who before his battlefront capture was in charge of training in the RNC, is among those to have testified to Uganda’s state involvement in such recruitment.
In December 2017, 46 RNC recruits were intercepted at the Kikagati border on their way to the DRC through Burundi. The young men were interrogated by immigration officials who had noticed that they were traveling on forged documents. In panic, the intercepted young men revealed they were RNC recruits who had been coached to lie to immigration officials that they were going to Burundi for a “religious pilgrimage.”
In a 28 March press conference at Entebbe state house, President Museveni, in the presence of his Rwandan guest President Paul Kagame, admitted that his CMI had facilitated the movements of these RNC recruits. “A group of Banyarwanda were being recruited through Tanzania and Burundi to go to Congo. They said they were going for church-work, but when they were interrogated it was found the work wasn’t exactly religious. It was something else,” President Museveni confessed, as he would do again almost a year later in a letter to President Kagame regarding meeting RNC representatives Charlotte Mukankusi, head of diplomacy and Eugene Gasana “accidentally” as well as Tribert Rujugiro, the chief financier of the terror organization. Indeed, it was discovered – and later acknowledged by Uganda after a year of denying – that in order to facilitate her travel to meet Museveni, Mukankusi had been issued a Ugandan passport.
Once the recruits had set on the journey to the jungles of the DRC, they would be received by senior Burundi officials before proceeding to their destination in Minembwe, DRC. Senior army officials, would travel to Kampala for consultations to consolidate their shared agenda to destabilize Rwanda.
Gen Gervais Ndirakobuca, head of the Burundian SNR intelligence agency, was in Kampala twice in November 2019; a visit reciprocated a month later by Colonel Kaka Bagyenda, head of Uganda’s ISO.
The 31 December 2018 UN experts report on the Congo confirmed the existence of this rebel recruitment corridor and network for the “P5” coalition and mentioned Kayumba Nyamwasa as it’s leader.
As Nkurunziza faced more pressure to end the crisis at home, Museveni also made more demands on him in order to maintain his support. In addition to the safe passage of anti-Rwanda recruits, Nkurunziza started allowing his territory to be used as a rear base for attacks inside Rwandan territory. On a number of occasions, FLN rebels would attack locations in the Southern Province in the dark of the night and then withdraw to Burundi. Yet again, it was the captured rebel leader of the FLN, Calliste Nsabimana (self-named “Major Sankara”) who told court that, before his capture, he had been in contact with Abel Kandiho, the CMI head. He further confessed that it was indeed his rebel outfit that was responsible for the December 2018 attacks that claimed nine lives and destroyed property in the Southern Province. On May 23, 2019, he pleaded guilty in the Gasabo primary court to 16 counts relating to attacks on the Southern and Western Provinces.
“In Uganda, I personally had a solid relationship with the army officials since we had worked with Captain Sunday at RNC. We sent our delegation which was supposed to get armed and political support – which we got,” Nsabimana said.
Museveni was willing to recruit and host meetings of Rwanda’s enemies. However, for obvious reasons, he did not want to assume himself the risk of giving them a rear-base to use in their attacks on Rwanda, instead somehow managing to get Nkurunziza to do it as the FLN repeatedly launched incursions into Rwanda, withdrawing to Burundi. Rwanda did not pursue the attackers all the way to Bujumbura to deal with their sponsor as it did with Mobutu Sese Seko in 1996 because it understood Nkurunziza had allowed himself to be dragged into these risky incursions by Kampala. With “friends” like Museveni, then, who needs friends?
It is hoped that the new leadership in Burundi will prioritise the interests of Burundians after many years of prioritising Museveni’s. Museveni should in turn just leave President Ndayishimiye alone to set his own tone and choose his own allies based on the interests of Burundians.