Kikwete and Kagame in friendlier times.

CRISIS IN THE GREAT LAKES 1: For Rwanda It’s Back To 1996… And For Tanzania It’s Back To Uganda 1982

HOW MUCH worse can the crisis in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) become? And how bad could the present “hostilities” between Rwanda and Tanzania, both members of the East African Community (EAC) get?

In THE BEGINNINGS: 15 Stories That Could Kill Or Make Africa Of The Future we outlined the main factors that might shed some light to the evolving crisis in the Great Lakes region.

The quick answer to both questions above, is that it can get much worse.

If there are any folks in the region who know that, it is the Ugandans who learnt some hard lesson in the DRC some years ago. Small wonder then that Uganda has called an emergency meeting of the 11 member countries of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) on the crisis for Wednesday, September 4, in Kampala.

A statement from Kampala on Sunday pretty much told it all: “Following the deteriorating situation in the eastern DRC, particularly in the recent days resulting in the death and injury of peacekeepers from the Force Intervention Brigade, Uganda as chair of the ICGLR, felt it was very urgent to convene an Extra- Ordinary Summit on September 5, 2013. The UN is also expected to be represented in the summit.”

UruguayanUN troops in DRC. The UN says M23 is the one shelling Rwanda to draw it into the war- Kigali is furious and hears echoes of the past (AP Photo/Karel Prinsloo)

Uruguayan UN troops in DRC. The UN says M23 is the one shelling Rwanda to draw it into the war- Kigali is furious and hears echoes of the past (AP Photo/Karel Prinsloo)

South African and Tanzanians are among the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) troops killed. Rwanda has been accused, and has strenuously denied, that it is behind the M23 rebels who have been fighting allied FIB and the Armed Forces of the Republic of Congo (FARDC) forces near Goma.

We might not have to wait long to see Rwanda’s military openly active in DRC, because in the last few days it has been amassing troops at its border with the DRC.

Their move follows several incidents in which mortar shells and bombs have been fired from inside DRC into Rwanda, killing at least four people and injuring several others. Rwanda blamed the FARDC.

The UN, however, said the shells were from the M23 rebels who were trying to provoke Rwanda into getting directly involved in the conflict. It was a familiar pattern in the Great Lakes Tragedy. When I spoke to a source in Kigali, he couldn’t believe that the UN, which believes that M23 is a puppet of Kigali, was actually suggesting that Rwanda was shelling its own territory. He was livid.

Whatever the truth here is, it was puzzling that the UN was putting itself in the same position as its ill-fated peacekeeping operation in Rwanda in 1994  during the genocide – seeming to find an excuse to do nothing.

Rwanda troops head to the border with the DR Congo. We have been here before, and it didn't end happily.

Rwanda troops head to the border with the DR Congo. We have been here before, and it didn’t end happily.

For those with a sense of history, Kigali was again being handed the same opportunities that dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s army gave it in 1996 to invade and eventually overrun Kinshasa. Frequently in 1996, rebels whom the Rwanda Patriotic Front  (RPF) government said were among the elements that carried out the genocide in 1994 and killed nearly one million people, kept shelling the northern parts of the country.

Then units of Mobutu’s army crossed and ransacked the border areas of Rwanda. In much the same way as we are seeing today, the Rwanda Patriotic Army (now the Rwanda Defence Forces) rolled out big guns and amassed troops at the border. Then it shelled DRC non-stop for nearly 24 hours…and started the march to Kinshasa. The rest is history.

For the Rwandese former refugees, mostly Tutsis, and those who are known as survivors, these are touchy issues. However, to complicate matters, if one looks at the fine print, for the Rwanda refugees who were in Uganda, the recent decision by Tanzania President Jakaya Kikwete’s government to expel 20,000 Rwandese refugees and people of Rwandese descent from the

Tanzanian troops return from peacekeeping in the Comoros. Until now it had avoided getting its hands dirty in the volatile Great Lakes region. (Photo YOUSSUF IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images)

Tanzanian troops return from peacekeeping in the Comoros. Until now it had avoided getting its hands dirty in the volatile Great Lakes region. (Photo YOUSSUF IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images)

northwest of the country, has some uncanny similarities with the actions of Uganda president Milton Obote’s government in attempting to chase Rwandese from the western part of the country (mainly the Ankole region) from late 1981 to 1982.

While Obote might have been partly trying to appease the powerful Ankole wing of his Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), the blowback was massive. Many Rwandese Tutsi refugees, since they couldn’t return home, joined Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) rebels in droves. It is that movement that brought many Rwandese who are Big Men and women back home today, into the Museveni resistance. And in turn, it ensured that once Museveni won the shooting war and took power in 1986, that they would in turn use their resources and numbers in the Uganda army, to launch their own return-home war – which they did in October 1990. The classic Butterfly Effect.

In 1981, though, as Obote rounded up Rwandese refugees, Tanzania’s army, the Tanzania People’s Defence Forces (TPDF) was still in Uganda, having helped an array of Uganda rebel groups, among them Museveni’s Front for National Salvation (FRONASA), topple military dictator Idi Amin in April 1979.

Museveni’s guerrilla war started in February 6, 1981, barely two months after a disputed election on December 10, 1980. The TPDF, especially in securing the city against hit-and-run attacks by Museveni’s rebels, got involved in that war on the side of the Uganda army in the early stages. In June 1982, Uganda and Tanzania announced that the TPDF would begin withdrawing from Uganda.

In any event, by that time the embryonic elements of the Rwandese rebellion, had already had their first clashes with the Tanzanian army in Uganda between late 1981 and 1982 as part of the Museveni insurgency. A clash in DRC between Rwanda forces and Tanzanian troops (in FIB), should it ever come to pass, would there not be so new. It could be said to be a reacquaintance after 31 years.

But this background wouldn’t be complete without another small but significant detail. After the TPDF helped kick out Amin in 1979, the head of its military intelligence operation in Uganda briefly at one point was a go-happy senior officer. Today, he is president of Tanzania – Jakaya Kikwete!

For Kikwete as a TPDF officer, the Uganda campaign must have been personal in ways it wasn’t for president “Mwalimu” Julius Nyerere, and his successors Hassan Mwinyi and Ben Mkapa, who remained fairly indulgent toward Museveni and more accommodating of the RPF after it took power. That is why, in a pique of small-minded anger, when Museveni’s government scrapped April 9 as Liberation Day (which honoured the TPDF’s role in fighting Amin), the Mwinyi and Mkapa government’s could shrug it off, but it soured relations somewhat between Kikwete and Museveni when the former became president in Tanzania in 2005.

GREAT LAKES CRISIS PARTS 2, 3 AND 4 TO BE CONTINUED…

 

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