It had become traditional to check in with him every time, I visited Kampala. He is a person that I have the privilege to call a friend. Once in a conversation, he looked at me and said, “I think for this crisis to reach its epitome and force all parties concerned to resolve it. These things - illegal detention and torture - should happen to someone like you.” I was a bit confused. But he insisted and clarified “You are popular - on social media - and, you have vocal individuals on both sides (Rwanda and Uganda) who like you. We would make so much noise for our governments to act.” I didn’t want to overthink about it because that statement was really loaded. So, I slept on it.
It was at the resurrection of the current crisis.
Months later, the same person, while we were in a meeting, he said, “let’s thank Nelson for his courage. I know being here isn’t an easy thing to do.”
In few months, the shift had happened - we no longer needed what I would call a “popular” person to create a sense of “warning and urgency” while being submitted to “inhuman treatment” to bring our leaders to the table. The crisis was a lived reality.
Despite this, media coverage of Rwandans dropped at the border - after months of nowhere about - physically harmed and emotionally traumatized - accusing Ugandan intelligence services of illegally detaining and torturing. Or, the publication of the list of Rwandans detained in ungazetted jail and denied legal access.
The crisis remained a topic in a small cycle of pundits, intellectuals and analysts highly connected - and mainly it was sided - Rwandans were the majority to comment and discuss the issues.
The crisis becomes a matter worthy of discussion in Uganda after the government of Rwanda decided to close the Gatuna border for construction without giving prior notice. Something, Uganda interpreted as the closure of the border.
In the same meeting, a colleague asked me to comment on the situation. In my one year of living in Uganda, I have tried to stay away from “Rwanda - Uganda” crisis conversations. For two reasons: my security and the anxiety it causes. But again, I’m just a simple man trying to earn my living far from home what can I really say.
In April, I went home for Kwibuka, contrary to what my friend said that I’m ‘courageous’, my people in Rwanda said, that ‘I was stupid’. Well, it is true that there is a thin line that separates stupidity from courage.
April is a month that brings me many emotions and memories. I wasn’t equipped to receive comments that made me feel like I live in ‘Afghanistan’. At the same time, I understand why such alertness. In this crisis, only one side has experienced and suffered bodily attacks and has visible victims. It is Rwanda.
In Uganda, as my friends said to me this crisis, “It is just that” - to use today’s millennials term: “can’t relate.”
In between grieving, mourning and remembering my beloved ones, victims of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, I had also to explain, how “abuse” and “torture” isn’t a special treatment reserved for Rwandans only in Uganda. But if you look closer, it is something that happens to many Ugandans (in Uganda). But how to explain that without minimizing the pain of those who have suffered such inhumane treatment? And, how to say it without making it sound like something that should be accepted in our relations.
Back to Kampala, I felt alienated and in dystopia. The discussion on the crisis is centred around economic issues, and “perceived” security issues. Contrary to the government of Rwanda that has made its problems with Uganda public. The Government of Uganda has not accused Rwanda of anything other than complaining about the border closure. This has left a hole - which analysts and pundits try to fill with speculations.
The lack of information, especially from Uganda side has made this crisis - look alike a “positional” conflict rather than an “interests” one.
Thus analysts and commentators started to frame the crisis in terms of “two strong men” or “ egos” and, abstract “ideologies/ political systems”. This framing is wrong as it reduces the crisis to two men - we become countries with no aspirations or interests.
This framing takes away our power to discuss and acknowledge each other fears and aspirations. That in most cases, influences how we formulate our policies, who we are having a relationship with and what kind of relationship.
Empathy is an important human value and emotion, and the conversation online - that centre two men or state positions - doesn’t activate this emotion. Thus, this leaves us citizen powerless, ignorant and at the mercy of limited information - borderline propaganda. Rather than empowering us to regard each other's rights and advance equitable care.
A year in Uganda, as a Rwandan has been the most exhausting - emotionally. The thought of “people will make noise - via twitter” created more anxiety rather than security. Simply because the friends who will make noises, will do so because it hit home. Not because they recognise a structural problem that causes harm to hundreds of Rwandans and Ugandans.
No-one should be detained, tortured and denied legal access. It doesn’t matter if the victim is a Rwandan or Ugandan - this crisis should have offered us an opportunity to be outraged together, be as loud possible together. After all, like Audre Lorde said, "There is no such thing as a single- issue struggle because we do not live single- issue lives."
Analysts and pundits want us to believe that it is the ‘egos of the two men’, and/ or our different political systems that are failing us. They want us to take sides - in their framing.
But it is mainly the failure of the most talented and intellectual members of our society that has failed to activate our “empathy”, to tap into our ‘ubuntu’, humanity to create common outrage for change.