It had been on the cards for a while but when it happened, President Yoweri Museveni’s four-day visit to Rwanda on July 29 still had elements of the elite in Kigali groping for perspective.
It appeared as if, in one masterstroke, the principals’ behind-the-scenes manoeuvres had left their lieutenants scrambling to catch up.
“I really don’t know what to make of it but anyway it always depended on Museveni. Let’s see what comes out of it and whether it will be durable,” commented one
highly placed official in Kigali.
At a press conference in Kigali, Uganda’s Foreign Minister Sam Kuteesa was at pains to project the visit as a routine event between two friendly neighbours.
“I have not seen enemies that visit each other,” he quipped at one point in response to journalists probing for details.
This mood of scepticism was in sharp contrast to Safina Kabera’s optimism; Kabera, an executive secretary in Nyagatovu village 70 kilometres east of Kigali, saw in the visit the possibility of an easier co-existence between ordinary folk like her on both sides of the border.
Speaking Luganda, which she says she picked from Ugandan traders who frequent the two capitals, she said: “We are excited to be hosting two heads of state; I hope this show of friendship does not just stop at the level of the big men. I hope it opens the door to free movement of people.”
Coming after several visits in the past where he would occasionally even skip lunch to rush back home, Museveni’s latest visit was significant in the choice of metaphors to paint a new future.
His pilgrimage saw him formally pay homage to the first leader of the Rwanda Patriotic Front, the late Fred Rwigyema, when he visited the Heroes Corner, the cemetery in Kigali where his remains are interred. He also toured the genocide memorial in Gisozi where the massacres are rendered in grim detail.
A two-day break at President Paul Kagame’s country home allowed the two men and their families to reconnect at a level that could not have been achieved through stiff protocol.
At a banquet hosted in his honour on Sunday, it was evident the visit had succeeded beyond measure.
Both men acknowledged the contribution of each other to their country’s liberation struggle, Museveni even hinting at a formal way of recognising the Rwandan contribution to the five-year bush war that brought him to power.
“You supported us when it mattered most,” Kagame said while Museveni conceded, “Along the way there were some issues and misunderstandings, which we have overcome. We must get moving.”
If he were looking for inspiration, Museveni also found it because in a subtle manner, the Rwandans made every effort to show him what they have been up to over the past decade and a half — working hard to pull their citizens out of poverty and restoring basic infrastructure.
Besides spending a night in a spotlessly clean city where streets are brightly lit, a whirlwind tour took him to a free trade zone where basic infrastructure such as roads and utilities are being installed, a primary school that is making the best of ICT and a model village showcasing Rwanda’s agricultural and land reforms
In Kanombe, where he joined his host in a symbolic participation in the monthly voluntary clean-up exercise known as umuganda, Museveni came face to face with a different reality — a state that works and a country where contractors generally deliver on their obligations.
At some point he struggled to find perspective: “Do you have as many thieves in Rwanda as we have in Uganda?” he asked his host before he announced a $300,000 pledge to the school.
In Nyagatovu Model Village in Kayonza District 70km east of Kigali, Rwanda showed off one of its novel innovations – land consolidation, which has helped make service delivery easier while increasing food security.
The hamlet where 63 of a planned 150 households are so far complete boasts electric power and safe water as well as a community health centre.
Recognising the discipline behind such accomplishments, Museveni had only one message: “Thank you for being good citizens who listen to your government,” he told residents who had gathered to receive him.