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Uganda spy case puts strain on relations with Rwanda

By Christina Okello

In Uganda, up to nine people, including senior police officers, are being investigated for allegedly kidnapping the former bodyguard of Rwanda's President Paul Kagame. A Rwandan ex-general and a Congolese national have also been charged with espionage in connection with the case. It's feared the arrests could put new strain on relations between Kampala and Kigali.

Four years after the mysterious disappearance of Lieutenant Joel Mutabazi in Uganda, questions still linger about the extent to which Ugandan law enforcement agencies were involved, and even more so over the role played by Rwanda in that kidnapping.

Now Ugandan authorities are taking action.

On Friday 27 October, senior Ugandan police officers were arrested and paraded before a military court, along with an ex Rwandan army officer and a Congolese national.

The suspects are accused of conspiring to kidnap Joel Mutabazi and another Rwandan security officer, Jackson Kalemera, in 2013, and handing them over to Kigali without their consent.

Both Mutabazi and Kalemera are considered opponents by the Kagame regime. The former was later given a life prison sentence.

"What is happening here is that on our side we are just clearing up our house, which is in line with the expectations of the Rwandese government," Uganda's Foreign Minister Henry Oryem Okello told RFI on Monday.

"We are not doing anything that will antagonise our relationship. We are just cleaning up our house to ensure that matters that had hung on our leadership are honest, transparent, as before."

Nonetheless, the case has sent shock waves throughout Uganda.

Cops in military court

"I think the story surprised a lot of people," Charles Mwanguhya, the bureau chief of the weekly paper the East African told RFI.

"It's not every day you have a massive arrest of top Ugandan police officers, and they appear in a military court, and when they appear in a military court they're being charged with matters relating to a neighbouring country which in this case is Rwanda, a very close neighbour of Uganda but one that has had issues up and down," he said.

"We're surprised also that René appeared with the police officers that have been arrested, I don't think many people suspected that he would be part of that group."

René Rutagungira is a former Rwandan army officer. He's not been seen in public since 5 August, when he was dragged from a night club in Kampala by four men, believed to be members of Uganda's secret service, without any reason being given.

His family claim that the head of Uganda's Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence or secret service, Captain Agaba is responsible for his disappearance.

Rift with Rwanda

"He told me he was receiving threats from South Africa," Eric Rutagunguira, René's brother told RFI.

"The threats came from the Rwandan opposition party there called the RNC, which is led by Rwandan ex-general Kayumba Nyamwasa," he said.

"They contacted my brother and called him to join their party. My brother refused. Since then, he's been receiving death threats over the phone. He told me his life in Uganda was in danger, because Kayumba Nyamwasa is a friend of the head of Uganda's intelligence service."

The case has not only baffled the Ugandan public but also come as news to Rwanda's Ambassador to Uganda Frank Mugambage.

He told the Eastern weekly that he was surprised to find that Rene and the Ugandan police officers were even in court, let alone a military one, and surprised also by the charges being brought against them, notably the espionnage accusation.

"The government of Uganda feels that these police officers in collaboration with Rene worked outside the established procedures," explains Charles Mwanguhya, who reckons the kidnapping and court appearance of René Rutagungira will put a strain on Ugandan-Rwandan relations.

"This is a matter that should have been resolved through diplomatic interactions between Kigali and Kampala. The fact this hasn't happened would raise questions about what is actually going on that we don't yet understand," he said.

Long overdue

"To me, I think it's long overdue," David Himbara, a Professor of International Development in Toronto, Canada, told RFI.

For him, the case is yet another example of Rwanda's interference in the domestic affairs of another country.

"I think they should go back to 2011, with the death of Charles Ingabire."

Ingabire was a journalist who fled Rwanda to seek refuge in Kampala before being murdered.

"That's when things really began to evolve," says Himbara. "It seems to me that Rwanda has this view that Uganda is an extension of its own territory where it has a free hand to go and kidnap people and kill people."

Rwanda's ambassador Frank Mugambage was not immediately available for comment to respond to these accusations that Kigali is breaching Uganda's sovereingty.

Difficulties at home

Beyond putting strain on diplomatic relations, David Himbara argues that the timing of these arrests is also bad news for Rwanda, as it deals with difficulties both at home and abroad.

"At home President Paul Kagame is a man who claims he won elections by 99 percent," he said. "If he's so popular, why does he go and arrest Diane Rwigara [a staunch critic of Kagame], her mum and her sister, supposedly for instigating an uprising. If you are popular and winning elections by 99 percent, what uprising then are these people going to incite?"

For Himbara, Paul Kagame stands to be further isolated in the region and weakened at home due to this case

But on the diplomatic front, Uganda's Foreign Minister Henry Oryem Okello has downplayed any rift with Kigali.

"I can authoritatively tell you that these are small things that cannot in anyway strain, damage or dent the strong and solid relationship that we have with the Rwandese government," he said.

"And if there is any chance that this relationship is threatened, we will take measures to avoid that."

All to play for

Ugandan authorities are also eager to avoid any fallout at home.

Especially because the arrests by the army of senior police officers, who are close to Inspector General of Police Kale Kayihura, has created panic about possible rivalry between Kayihura and President Yoweri Museveni.

Charles Mwanguhya says it's likely to have political repercussions in Uganda, at a time when the President is trying to pass a controversial bill to remove age limits from the constitution, which has sparked public outcry.

"The police under the leadership of General Kayihura is trying to contain the fallout. Anybody would imagine that you would want your police chief to be as comfortable as possible to deliver this for you."

Except Museveni is doing anything but he reckons. "If you can make a decision to allow your police chief to be exposed like he has been by having some of his loyal lieutenants arrested and being charged in a military court on crimes as serious as kidnap and espionnage, then it might say something more that we need to study more closely."

The suspects, including René Rutagungira will be back in court on November 20th, and the stakes are high not only on the diplomatic front, but will be watched closely for its impact at home in both Kampala and Kigali.

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