Uganda Seeking Inroads to Compete for Regional Influence

Uganda Seeking Inroads to Compete for Regional Influence

The continued closure of key border crossings between Rwanda and Uganda has prompted both nations to seek alternative trade prospects and influence amongst their neighbours. For Uganda, recent efforts have centred on Burundi and the DRC, with infrastructure agreements and plans for military cooperation directed at offsetting Rwanda’s recent diplomatic gains with their eastern neighbour. 

In 2019, Rwanda’s government closed the Katuna border crossing with Uganda, redirecting haulage vehicles on a 110km diversion, before closing further border points and curtailing trade between the two neighbours. Initial justifications for the closure centred on renovations to the crossing, but quickly came to encompass allegations of mistreatment of Rwandans in Uganda. This was accompanied by accusations of Ugandan support for groups hostile to the Rwandan government in Kigali. Despite numerous summits and meetings between the Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, and his Ugandan counterpart since then, the border crossings remain closed. In the absence of tangible progress, Uganda has sought alternative routes for trade.

Ugandan Overtures 

In May, President Yoweri Museveni’s government signed two significant infrastructure deals with neighbouring states. The first was agreed with Burundi, Rwanda’s long-time regional rival, during a state visit when President Museveni hosted Burundi’s President Ndayishimiye. The agreement was for new roads built to circumvallate Rwanda and reconnect Uganda to Burundi. The second was signed just two weeks later, with an agreement for three roads from Uganda’s border into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), costing $334.3 million. Whilst these agreements are driven by an economic rationale and desire to ensure the continued flow of goods (Uganda made $197m from exports to Rwanda in 2018), there are also considerable political ramifications, especially in the context of the ongoing regional rivalry between Uganda and Rwanda.  

Perhaps the clearest explanation  of these tensions is relations between both nations and the DRC. Historically, Rwandan and Ugandan troops came to blows whilst operating in the country, having previously been allies. More recently, while President Kagame has strenuously denied the presence of Rwandan troops in the eastern DRC, he has proven quick to accuse Burundi of similar incursions. This complex web of claims and counter-claims has contributed to a souring of relations between the four nations. 

Since the election of Felix Tshisekedi to the presidency of the DRC, however, relations between Kinshasa and Kigali have rallied. So far, growing cooperation between the two nations has largely focused on the military sphere, constrained by Congolese cynicism about Rwanda’s intentions. Yet, even this limited cooperation has courted controversy. The deaths of two notable rebel group leaders hostile to Kigali, killed in operations conducted by the DRC in the east of the country, raised questions about the extent of Rwandan military involvement in Congolese territory. 

With reconciliation burgeoning between the DRC and Rwanda, there has been considerable urgency placed on Uganda to also restore its ties, before a new balance of power unfavourable to Kampala is  established. Hence, the signing of agreements for roads, which are clear and tangible demonstrations of Uganda’s relationship with its neighbour. Unsurprisingly, given the debate which swirls around Rwandan military engagement in the eastern DRC, Uganda has also sought agreements which will permit overt military cooperation between Ugandan Defence Forces and the DRC’s troops –  the main priority being  the security of the territories through which the new roads will run. In securing these agreements, Kampala can not only protect its investments, but also present a challenge to Kigali, drawing attention to Rwanda’s transparency (or lack thereof) in its dealings with the DRC. 

Rwanda Readjusting

Whilst Uganda seeks to restore balance to the regional equation, Rwanda has not been idle. Along with attempts to foment stronger ties with the DRC, Rwanda has also sought to capitalise on its investments elsewhere in the region. A case in point is the recent windfall from Rwanda’s sending troops to the Central African Republic (CAR). Deployed to confront an alliance of rebel groups seeking to disrupt the December 2020 elections, Rwanda’s “protection force” succeeded in holding back the rebel forces and, given his subsequent electoral victory, preserving President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s position. In extending such assistance, President Kagame continues to pursue a strategy described as “court[ing] French-speaking Africa for alliances while playing a crucial role in the English-speaking Commonwealth bloc.” In the case of the CAR, the results have quickly become apparent. 

In January, Rwandair announced twice-weekly direct flights between Kigali and the CAR’s capital, Bangui. Following on, in April Rwandan investors were fêted in Bangui with announcements of generous tax holidays in return for investment in the country. Success in the CAR may also underpin Rwanda’s willingness to seek out alliances elsewhere on the continent by proffering troops for deployment in Mozambique. By combatting the insurgency raging across Cabo Delgado, Kigali has the opportunity to garner influence in another sphere of Africa. 

Prospects For Success

In the race for regional influence between Kigali and Kampala, Uganda is unquestionably lagging behind. Whilst these infrastructure agreements are significant declarations of intent, they will require time and commitment of resources to bring to fruition, whereas Rwanda may already be enjoying the fruits of its labours in the CAR and DRC. On June 26th, President Tshisekedi hosted President Kagame to sign further agreements, including a “memorandum on gold mining cooperation” which could prove highly lucrative.

However, there are avenues open to Kampala which Kigali will not be able to exploit without a significant volte-face, such as forging stronger alliances with Burundi. As the African Union seeks to encourage ever greater intra-African coordination in matters of trade and policy. States with larger pools of friends stand to reap far greater benefits. 

Ultimately, the winners of this regional rivalry may well be those countries with whom Uganda and Rwanda seek greater sway. Burundi’s previously ostracised regime will benefit greatly from Ugandan patronage, and be better placed to counter Rwandan allegations. Meanwhile, adroit management could see boons from both parties for the DRC, providing much needed resources to address the chronic instability in the country’s east.

About Author