You know those two relatives you have who make pleasantries at family functions but can’t let go of past wrongs? You just know that as soon as the reunion is over, one of them will start reminding their other relatives about the time the other one “borrowed” money and never paid it back, or bring up that fight they got into 20 years ago that they both claim to have won. Now imagine that each of those relatives led their own country, and you kind of have the situation currently facing Rwanda and Uganda. The two countries’ governments recently held talks to ease tensions that had been building for some time, as each accused the other of persecuting its nationals and fomenting rebellion in the other.
For Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, these were serious charges. In their younger days, Kagame and Museveni were rebels; literally. For much of Uganda’s history, the country was under the thumb of longtime president Milton Obote, who ruled from independence in 1962 to 1971, and again from 1980 to 1985 (in between that, the country had been taken over in a military coup led by Idi Amin, who became everyone’s favorite example to uphold their “crazy African dictator” stereotypes and whose only positive legacy is earning Forest Whitaker a well-deserved Academy Award). Obote fell again in 1985 in a multi-sided civil war that eventually brought a faction called the National Resistance Movement, led by Museveni, to power.
Meanwhile, Rwanda had since its independence been ruled by a party representing its majority Hutu ethnic group, to the political marginalization of the Tutsi minority. Although everyday Hutu and Tutsi lived side by side and even intermarried, at the political level there was deep-seated resentment: the Tutsi had traditionally been the ruling class in he pre-colonial Kingdom of Ruanda, and this minority had been coopted by the Belgians during colonialism. Thus political independence became identified with keeping the Tutsi out of power, leading to waves of persecution that saw many Tutsi flee to neighboring countries, including Uganda. These exiles contributed heavily to Museveni’s NRM forces; Paul Kagame, one such Rwandan exile, was Museveni’s intelligence chief.
Once Museveni came into power, he owed a debt of gratitude to Kagame and the Rwandans who helped him win, but he also realized that it was a political liability to have so many foreigners within his military and security apparatus. He addressed both these issues in one move, by supporting the Rwandan exiles as they formed their own rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, and crossed over the border to fight against the Hutu government. When Hutu extremists resorted to genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994, these rebels stepped up their invasion, took over the country and ended the mass killings. The rebel group turned ruling party has controlled the country ever since, with Kagame calling the shots.
Museveni and Kagame both enjoyed times as darlings to the West. Kagame was seen as the hero who ended the Rwandan genocide, and he successfully played into the regret that the Americans and Europeans developed for turning a blind eye to the slaughter. Kagame used that western/white guilt to garner support from the developed world for Rwanda’s rebuilding efforts, and for Kagame’s own government. The Rwandan President later pivoted to presenting himself as a technocrat seeking to develop and modernize his small country in partnership with the West (I saw him give this pitch in person at a speech he gave at MIT – the tall, thin, glasses-wearing politician plays the role of tech geek very well).
For Museveni, his claim to fame was his government’s tackling of the HIV/AIDS crisis. In the 1990s and early 2000s, as AIDS absolutely ravaged sub-Saharan Africa, Uganda was one of the few countries to make real progress in lowering the rates of infection. This success was largely attributed to the government-backed public health campaign conveniently abbreviated ABC: Abstinence, Be faithful, use a Condom. This campaign was clever as a health strategy and as a PR move: it appealed to both the left (with a common-sense approach to contraception) and the right (with its first emphasis on sexual morality).
In recent years, however, both countries have receded from Western public consciousness. The genocide has faded in the West’s memory, becoming more and more of a historical footnote (and having been supplanted by so many other human rights disasters, from Darfur to Syria). As HIV has become a manageable infection (with the proper resources, at least), the AIDS crisis likewise does not command the same attention it used to. Uganda is not much of a thought at all in the day-to-day lives of many westerners, and when it occasionally pops up, the images are negative: Joseph Kony reigning terror, the Ugandan government passing laws to target gay people, and so on. The stars of both Kagame and Museveni have faded in the eyes of the international community, and the two presidents are hard-pressed to rely on the support of the West to bolster their rule at home.
As that rule has lasted for decades for both rulers, they’ve come under significant domestic pressure as well. The Rwandan government is perpetually concerned, if not paranoid, of internal subversion, well aware of its minority status in the country. While formally adhering to elections, politics is very tightly controlled, and any hint of real opposition is quickly stamped out or suppressed. Uganda, meanwhile, has a somewhat freer political environment; opposition is allowed but still highly regulated under a type of political system that political scientists Steve Levitsky and Lucan Way deem competitive authoritarianism: political competition is real, but the rules are heavily bent in favor of the incumbent government. Nevertheless, Museveni has grown old and the opposition is growing younger, more popular, and less patient for change (a Ugandan pop star has recently taken up the mantle as leading opposition figure; we’ll see if Museveni responds with another rap song).
Meanwhile, Kagame and Museveni have watched (nervously, I would imagine) as political change has swept across their East African neighbors. In the last few years Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo have all seen long time rulers whose parties came to power through rebellion undergo changes of leadership and political reforms. Holding on to power for decades used to be the norm in the region; now, it’s seemingly becoming the exception.
These domestic tensions and regional trends have intensified suspicions within Rwanda and Uganda that the other’s government had hostile intentions. The two countries have indirectly clashed before. They initially cooperated to intervene in the super-complex civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, their huge neighbor to the east, but Rwanda and Uganda ended up backing rival, hostile factions in that conflict. The fact that both country’s interventions were largely aimed at accessing the DRC’s rich natural resources added an economic dimension to their clash.
Now, both Presidents are rightly concerned that the new winds of change sweeping across Africa are not blowing in their favor. As in the days when they were rebels, Kagame and Museveni find themselves in a complicated relationship; they each have the potential to do the other harm, but as internal and external circumstances grow less favorable for both leaders, they also see the need to support one another in what’s becoming an increasingly small club of longtime rulers. The current peace talks between the Kagame and Museveni governments therefore makes sense: they may squabble outside of the family reunion, but they’d both like to be around to make it to next year’s gathering.