Rwandan President Paul Kagame, the hero from the former Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), who led the fight against the Interehamwe militias that murdered at least 800 000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, is turning out to be an anti-hero for democracy in the East African country, and his sour neighbourly relations are proving a destabilising influence in a region already beset by civil war and poverty.
Critical press in Rwanda is muzzled while political opponents are regularly jailed or “disappeared”, while there have also been political assassinations abroad.
“Political opposition leaders have been intimidated and silenced, arrested, or forced into exile. Civil society groups, local and international media, international human rights organisations, and political opponents cannot operate independently or criticise government policy,” said Human Rights Watch (HRW).
But the latest tensions to flare up between Kigali and its neighbours involve the deteriorating relations between Uganda and Rwanda.
Communities on the Ugandan-Rwandan border at Katuna are bearing the brunt of the continuing political stand-off between Kagame and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni which has also taken military overtones with soldiers from both countries straddling their respective borders.
In February, Rwanda suddenly closed the crossing, leading to queues of cargo trucks, some with rotting perishables, and businessmen, merchants and students turned back by Rwandan soldiers, the East African reported.
Once allies who supported each other’s rise to power, Yoweri and Museveni are now hostile to each other as accusations and counter-accusations of espionage, political assassination and interference fly back and forth.
Relations between the two East African countries soured during the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) campaign when open warfare between their two armies erupted in the city of Kisangani, leaving hundreds dead between 1999 and 2000.
Kagame has, in fact, instigated several conflicts and interfered in Congolese politics for the past two decades.
Prior to February’s escalation the border crossing between the countries was was more theoretical than practical as children crossed for school, workers moved freely and trade thrived.
But now the stalemate is threatening neighbours, economic integration and regional stability. Trade has been negatively impacted with food prices in Rwanda jumping, while Uganda’s land access to export markets in the DRC have been severed.
Kigali once again upped the ante in March when it accused Kampala of abducting citizens and supporting rebels who it alleged were planning to overthrow Kagame’s government.
Museveni responded by admitting to meeting with but not endorsing anti-Kagame rebels, before asserting that there are Rwandans sent to spy on Uganda. Some of them have been detained by military courts before being deported.
“What is wrong is for Rwandan agents to try and operate behind the government of Uganda,” Museveni wrote to Kagame in March.
Another former Rwanda ally turned enemy is Burundi. Following the 2015 controversy and political crisis that erupted following President Pierre Nkurunziza’s third-term in office, the government of Rwanda demonstrated a sustained support towards Burundi’s political opposition.
Closer to home, South Africa has had its share of run-ins with Rwanda subsequent to the politically-motivated murder of Kagame’s former comrade-in-arms and intelligence chief-turned-critic Patrick Karageya in a Johannesburg hotel by Rwandan agents.
Derogatory remarks made by Rwandan government officials towards South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Lindiwe Sisulu after she met with opposition figures in Johannesburg led to the temporary recall of South Africa’s envoy to Rwanda at the end of 2018 for consultations.
However, Kagame is unlikely to reform, partly due to his successful governance and transformation of Rwanda’s economy, the fact that he is a darling of the West, and the African Union turning a blind eye to his excesses.
And showing no signs of backing down in April during a ceremony marking the 25th anniversary of Rwanda’s genocide, a bellicose Kagame threatened that anybody who “wants to mess with us, whether from here or from outside, I want to say: We will mess up with them big time.”