The fact that South Sudan, Somalia and Sudan have applied to join the East African Community (comprising Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda) was unthinkable even as the 1970s ended. The forces pulling East Africa were either southward, when for example Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, Uganda’s Milton Obote, and Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda formed the famed “Mulungushi Club,” or were toward Central Africa from the Congo.
Recently though, Burundi and Uganda’s first-mover roles in Amisom, the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia; Rwanda’s long-running involvement in peacekeeping in Sudan’s Darfur region and now on the South Sudan-Sudan border; Kenya’s entry into the Somalia conflict and its billion-dollar economic projects with South Sudan and Ethiopia have made the countries in the Horn critical for the region. They could have the final say on what the East African Community as an economic bloc eventually becomes.
Twenty-five years ago, no one would have bet on this outcome. Somalia had not yet collapsed; that only happened at the end of 1990 when military dictator Siad Barre lost power. The military junta in Ethiopia, led by the cruel Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, was still clinging to a bigger country, but losing to the allied forces of the Tigrinya People’s Liberation Front led by current Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, and the independence movement, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front by the current leader of Eritrea, Isaias Afewerki.
Earlier, in 1977, the first East African Community had collapsed. A year later, the region learnt that however troublesome and inept a regional grouping was, it was better to have a bad one than none at all. Freed from EAC constraints on peaceful co-existence between neighbouring states, in mid-1978 Uganda’s military ruler Gen Idi Amin sent his army into western Tanzania, where they occupied and trashed the Akagera Salient.
Tanzania was caught unawares, and with a rusty army only began to push back against Amin’s forces in November of that year. Together with forces from several Ugandan exile groups, the Tanzania People’s Defence Forces (TPDF) eventually came all the way to Kampala and ousted Amin in April 1979.
Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni was living in exile in Tanzania and led a rebel group called Front for National Salvation (Fronasa), one of the groups that fought alongside the TPDF. A great admirer of the venerated Tanzanian president of the time, Julius Nyerere, echoes of the TPDF can be heard in the present Uganda army, the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), which grew from Museveni’s victorious rebel army that took power in January 1986.
In 1986, when Museveni became president of Uganda at the head of a victorious rebel army, the region was being pulled in two directions. The big continental group was still the Organisation of Africa Unity (OAU). It had a strict non-interference charter, and probably would not have sent an aggressive peacekeeping force into Somalia as its successor African Union, which was re-engineered from the old one in 2002, did.
The focus of the OAU in the 1970s and 1980s was the “liberation” of Angola, Mozambique, and Cape Verde from racist Portuguese rule; Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia, from a White minority government that had unilaterally declared “independence”; and South Africa – and Namibia – from apartheid oppression.
One of the most important organs of the OAU was the Liberation Committee, based in Dar es Salaam. Then there was a group of nations that shared borders with the countries ruled by apartheid regimes in the South, or were involved directly in helping topple them, called the “Frontline States.” It was formed after Zimbabwe and Mozambique became independent and comprised Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Tanzania was the leader.
The South African army then was several times superior to what any other nation on the continent could muster, so it harassed the frontline states with air raids and frequent ground attacks almost at will. Most countries in East Africa, the Horn, and Southern Africa — and indeed most of the rest of Africa and the progressive world — were emotionally or practically drawn into the anti-apartheid struggle. The few exceptions in Africa were Kenya, Malawi, and Morocco. Though Kenya then was the leading economy in the region, its ideological disagreements with Tanzania (which was “socialist” under Nyerere while Kenya was “capitalist”) meant it was partially isolated.
Any regional institutions involving Uganda and Tanzania would have had to circumvent Kenya.
The pull of the south was strong and became more so when the military wing of the African National Congress, Umkhonto we Sizwe, relocated from camps in Angola to Uganda and Tanzania in 1988 and 1989. This followed a deal to end the war between apartheid South Africa and Angola over the latter providing bases for Umkhonto we Sizwe. However, Nyerere, who didn’t think much of multiparty politics, retired in 1985 as Tanzania began to return to competitive politics. And on February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years and South Africa started down the road to democracy and ending apartheid.
Tanzania, scarred and still exhausted by the war against Amin, and the high cost it paid for Southern African liberation, started to become more inward looking. Kenya was paying the price of years of misrule and Kanu despotism. Though sections of the economy were still resilient, it was sclerotic and didn’t have much political clout on the continent.
With the outbreak of a near-hysterical obsession with all things South African and Mandela, it was soon clear that the ANC in power would be a different organisation from the one that pan-Africanists and radicals rallied behind during the anti-apartheid struggle. Afraid to be aggressive in foreign policy, lest it was accused of having apartheid government-era imperial ways, and unsure how to deal with countries that only a few months back were shielding its exiled members, the new South African leaders didn’t engage much politically with the continent beyond its Southern African neighbourhood. And with that, the possibilities of SADC covering a larger area ended.
Tanzania, however, remained with one foot in SADC, in part because it had been so deeply involved in the region’s liberation.
Museveni, the leader who had the strongest hand to play out his regional ambitions, was a little lonely, and started to focus on East Africa. By 1990, he was three years into fighting a rebellion in the north by the Lord’s Resistance Army, led by a character called Joseph Kony. The world was still many years from taking full notice of Kony then. Khartoum, seeking to punish Museveni’s government for supporting the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army, adopted the LRA as a foil to the Kampala regime.
The president of Tanzania was a short, mild-mannered gent named Ali Hassan Mwinyi. He was an easy man to do business with, and he was less threatening to the Moi regime, which dreaded an alliance between a still “socialist” Tanzania and a government in Kampala that was mouthing leftist rhetoric, but at the same time carrying out extreme free market reforms.
After the frosty early years, Kampala opened up to Kanu-linked businesses. The suspicions melted, and Nairobi started to view the Museveni government as sensible and pragmatic.
Museveni claims credit, and perhaps rightly so, for rebooting the EAC. If nothing else, he spoke about its revival almost from the moment he came to power. With Mwinyi in Tanzania and a business-friendly leader in Kampala, Moi became comfortable enough, enabling a meeting to take place in Arusha of the three of them on November 30, 1993 where they signed the Treaty for East African Co-operation, and established a Tripartite Commission for Co-operation. The rebirth of the East African Community was on.
However, a major distraction that was to shake up the region was forming in near-Central Africa — Rwanda to be precise. Rwandan refugees — and children of Rwandan refugees — who came to Uganda between 1959 and 1961, had joined Museveni’s National Resistance Army rebels. Many joined early in 1981, when Museveni started the war. But a large number joined from 1982 when the government of Milton Obote evicted both real and imagined Rwandans from their lands and homes (and refugee shelters) in 1982In their thousands, they – including a tall slender man called Paul Kagame, known for his strict ways — helped install Museveni in power. Now they wanted his government to return the favour, and help them return home and reclaim their citizenship.
It was not to happen immediately. It seems a long time ago now, but the Uganda of the early Museveni period did things unheard of in Africa then. Uganda pioneered “public sector reform,” or the massive retrenchment of civil servants. It was the first country in Africa to fully remove foreign-exchange controls, and to begin tearing down and selling off parastatals. It was also among the first to remove fuel subsidies, and let the market set the price at the pump.
In 1984, Uganda’s GDP growth rate was 0 per cent — about where Kenya’s was to drop to in the last years of Kanu rule. In 1985, it was 3 per cent. By 1987, it had risen to 4 per cent, and was 8 per cent in 1988.
Museveni and Uganda were the most happening thing in this part of Africa. You could not turn a corner in Kampala without bumping into a breathless World Bank or IMF official. So the sobriquet “darling of the West” was coined for Museveni. The economy continued its rise, with growth climbing to 12 per cent. A giddy Museveni went to a conference in Japan and claimed that no economy in the world equalled Uganda’s.
He was not able to nurse the aspirations of the Rwandan exiles fully. In 1988, two years before the big 1990 invasion, a group of Rwandan officers in the Uganda military went rogue, picked up a few guns and “invaded” Rwanda. Uganda sent in army units who arrested the group and brought it back to Kampala.
In the meantime, Museveni was elected chairman of the OAU. At the end of September 1990, bathed in adulation by the West, he went to address the UN General Assembly.
However, two more years since the aborted 1988 invasion, and the Rwandans decided they had waited long enough. With Museveni in New York, the Rwanda Patriotic Army/Front broke loose and set out on the morning of October 1, 1990 — when Museveni was to address the General Asssembly — to fight the Juvenal Habyarimana government at home. This time, they were too many to stop.
In Kenya, at this time Moi was beginning to sense that he would not hold the multiparty tide back much longer, and soon he would have to exit. How would he be remembered?
Moi became a little more enthusiastic about redeveloping the EAC. Kenyan businesses and elites, held back by a stunted economy, began to see regional co-operation that paved the way for expansion into neighbouring markets, as the saviour. In Nairobi, the Nation Media Group, sensing a shifting of the regional sands, set up a team to establish a weekly paper, The EastAfrican, that would be the public voice for reviving the EAC.
However, there was a small wrinkle. On Rwanda, Museveni and Moi were not reading from the same script. Though that was a problem, they were able to overcome it because in Sudan, their interests coincided. Kanu, and especially the Rift Valley establishment, had close links to the leadership of the SPLA.
At the same time Kenya, having had its first “Somali problem” in the 1960s with the Shifta wars, was also aware that the Somalia collapse needed to be dealt with.
However, fixing Somalia wasn’t very sexy those days. Museveni and Moi — or people close to Moi — had a few friends in common who would help change the outcome of regional politics later. One was Museveni’s brother in-law John Kazoora, a conservative and urbane man, and accomplished political fixer. Kazoora was key to smoothing relations between the Kampala and Nairobi State Houses.
Then there was Tiny Rowland, a British tycoon and chairman of the Lonrho conglomerate. When Museveni was still in the bush and needed transportation, occasionally Tiny Rowland would lend him his private jet. Tiny was also a close friend of Mark Too, who was Moi’s special envoy. Too was very close to the SPLA leaders, especially John Garang. As the regional leaders were working on restarting the EAC, Too and Tiny flew into South Sudan to meet Garang with a proposal from Moi — the prospect of talking peace with Khartoum.
A few months earlier, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had ended in a humiliating defeat for Moscow in 1989. Many young Muslim radicals who had gone to Afghanistan to help fight the Soviets, were now at a loose end. One of them, Osama bin Laden, packed his bags and eventually ended up in Khartoum, where he established a new base for Mujahideen operations. He bought a house on Al-Mashtal Street in the affluent Al-Riyadh quarter and a retreat at Soba on the Blue Nile.
The action was about to return to East Africa and the Horn, but the drama the region was about to face wasn’t evident. The war was on in Rwanda, but it was no longer so hot. After the first commander of the RPA, Fred Rwigema, was killed and the rebels, who were in disarray, were cobbled back together by Kagame, the expectation was that the power-sharing deal being negotiated in Arusha would resolve the war.
In Uganda, Museveni started to prepare for a new constitution, and the first election of his rule a few years ahead in 1996. What could possibly go awry? Turns out, a lot, because all these events were about to collide in East Africa. – TO BE CONTINUED.
Additional research by Christine Mungai.
-Also published in the regional weekly The East African (June 4-10, 2012).
© email@example.com & twitter@cobbo3