On May 13, 2015, then Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete was chairing a special meeting of East African leaders in Dar es Salaam to find solutions for political protests that had broken out in Burundi.
Tanzania has always had a soft spot for Burundi since former Presidents Julius Nyerere and Nelson Mandela were the guarantors of the 2000 Arusha Peace Accords – a transitional peace treaty which brought the Burundian Civil War to an end.
As East African leaders deliberated on the situation in Burundi, President Kikwete received a message on his cell phone.
Kikwete’s body language left many wondering what could have gone wrong.
“He was visibly unsettled,” recalled an official who attended the meeting, emphasizing, “We all knew there was something that had gone wrong.”
Kikwete, who had earlier served as the country’s Intelligence Chief and Foreign Affairs Minister, told his guests: “Please excuse me, I will be right back.”
It later became clear to all that a coup was underway in Burundi. Heavy explosions could be heard in the city Bujumbura.
Kikwete returned to brief EAC leaders that high ranking military officers in Burundi had announced the execution of a coup. He clearly stated that such a military move would not be tolerated by Tanzania.
Kikwete needed to save Nkurunziza, who was his guest at the time of the coup, and at the same time avoid a political catastrophe in his own country where opponents would capitalize on his failure to protect the Burundi democracy which Tanzania’s forefathers had guaranteed.
At the time, relations between Tanzania and Rwanda were at their worst. Many thought the two countries would go to war.
Tanzania had helped President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo to crush the M23 rebel outfit, which UN investigators said, was an extension of Rwanda Defence Force in Kivu.
Kikwete had gone ahead to expel tens of thousands of Rwanda from his country, citing security concerns.
As tensions ran deep, it was a matter of time for Tanzania to display its military and intelligence prowess in the face of what a senior official described as a “total provocation.”
Uganda, Tanzania Act
Tanzania had an ally in Uganda’s President Museveni. Having trained Burundian forces and also participated in the 2000 Arusha Accords, Museveni’s government could not look on as Nkurunziza’s regime disintegrated.
One of the reasons was a country in turmoil would be exploited by militants to spread terror in the region. This would even make it difficult for governments to jointly mobilise funding for huge infrastructure projects.
Secondly, a regional war would keep away the much-needed Foreign Direct Investment and tourism revenues.
Thirdly, another civil war in Burundi would lead to untold bloodshed and destruction. It also would revive the culture of coups in a region where thousands lost lives to fight ruthless dictators.
Uganda and Tanzania joined hands to defeat the perpetrators of the coup. Special Forces units were put on high alert to prepare for military action.
Nkurunziza, with support from Tanzania, managed to return to his country under heavy military escort. He was received by cheering crowds.
Most of the coup leaders who had failed to hold ground, fled to Rwanda, fuelling widely held fears that Kigali masterminded the coup d’état.
While the coup plotters said they feared for their lives, Bujumbura publicly accused Rwanda of interfering in Burundi’s internal politics.
Asked at a press conference in Kigali in 2016 why he was providing sanctuary to Burundian dissidents, Kagame responded: “We would be happy to return these people if only at the same time we are not accused of doing other things.”
“It’s easy to make people pack and send them back home. But the implications are far-reaching. It’s not that simple. There are a few things to be talked about.”
Rwanda had also accused Burundi of training and arming the Interahamwe.
Rwanda-Uganda Ties Collapse
With Uganda on the side of Burundi and Tanzania, it was difficult to retain strong ties with Rwanda.
Kigali took Uganda’s position as betrayal since Kagame’s government was certain that Burundi was training rebels to destabilize Rwanda.
The situation rapidly got out of hand with Rwanda accusing Ugandan army officers of facilitating the movement and training of Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa’s militants in Minembwe, Eastern Congo – about 142 km from the Burundi border.
Uganda denied the charge and promised to investigate the matter. Nevertheless, Rwanda was never satisfied that Uganda would do something about it much as some of the suspects were arrested.
Museveni Assassination ‘Plot’
As of Wednesday, there was considerable fear the Great Lakes region could soon witness a fresh armed conflict as Rwanda and Burundi continue to prepare their forces for action. Uganda maintains a heavy deployment of Mountain Warfare Brigade soldiers along its western border.
Matters have been worsened by reports that rebels loyal to Rwanda planned to shoot down a plane carrying President Museveni as it landed in Bujumbura where he intended to attend the COMESA Heads-of-State Summit.
According to African Intelligence, a magazine that focuses on Great Lakes Region, the French Intelligence tipped President Museveni of the plot to strike his plane.
“The Comesa Summit was held on July 18 in Lusaka. It was initially scheduled to take place in Bujumbura from 1 to 10 June but was canceled at the last minute,” the report reads in part.
The subscription-only magazine said Museveni “apparently cancelled his trip to Burundi after the DGSE (France’s external intelligence agency) informed him that there was the threat of an attack against his plane. The French reportedly warned him that rebels in the pay of Rwanda had obtained the flight schedule for the presidential plane and were planning to hit it with a missile strike.”
It added: “Although the French president Emmanuel Macron met his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame in Paris on 23 May to mark a thawing of diplomatic relations, the tone was rather more glacial in late June when the Rwandan Minister of Defence, Gen James Kabarebe, gave a speech to a select gathering of bigwigs from the ruling RPF.”
“Kabarebe used the opportunity to criticize France for its support for Uganda and accused the French of helping the UPDF to train a mountain division as part of its cooperation accord with Museveni’s government. Total, the largest investor in Ugandan natural resources, is also involved in financing the refinery and pipeline to export Ugandan crude oil from Hoima to the Tanzanian port of Tanga.”
Rwandan officials we contacted on condition of anonymity dismissed the charge as “propaganda from our haters”.
The UPDF Defence spokesperson, Brig Richard Karemire, said “We have more to do in galvanizing regional and continental integration than burning our valuable time scrutinizing such stories.”
The President’s press secretary, Don Wanyama said he had never heard of any such trip, adding, “Never seen anything like it in the president’s schedule.”
Asked if the defence forces were interested in the report, Brig Karemire responded: “Nevertheless, we take note of such writings and competent offices may or may not interest themselves with the same.”
Officials said Uganda is also concerned by what appears an attempt by Rwanda to undermine its security by peddling fake news using Twitter and a Kenyan newspaper website, www.standard.co.ke not to mention news sites such as Virunga Post.
Some of the Twitter handles and Bots, which are followed only by Rwandans and share pro-Rwanda content, include @KalindaMwene, @KamyaSsentamu and @south_princess1 among others.
“We don’t know whether they intend to manipulate Ugandans or are expressing their concerns through the media. We have diplomatic channels they can use to communicate their issues,” said an official who spoke to us on condition of anonymity.
“Fake news heavily influenced the decisions of Americans in the last presidential elections. It’s something we are not taking lightly.”
Last week, ChimpReports understands, the Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza dispatched a high-level military delegation to Kampala.
The purpose of the trip was to update the Ugandan leadership on steps being taken to consolidate the country’s security in the wake of an armed rebellion and attempted coup three years ago.
The delegation also intended to create more awareness about the increased security challenges reportedly posed by its neighbor, Rwanda.
Burundi believes Rwanda could help militants to carry out raids in Bujumbura.
In fact Burundi a few years ago decided that all buses carrying passengers from Kigali must stop at the border. All the occupants disembark the buses from Kigali and are subjected to physical checks before crossing the border where they will board buses from Bujumbura.
On the other hand, Rwanda is convinced Burundi is helping to train and provide supplies to Kayumba’s fighters and other militia groups determined to topple President Kagame.
A group of fighters recently claimed responsibility for raids in Rwanda but Kigali quickly dispelled the notion that the country was under any rebel attack.