KAMPALA, Uganda – The East African nation of Tanzania — long a force of quiet power in the region and a voice of restraint and non-interference in other countries' affairs — is embroiled in a potentially ugly feud with Rwanda and its press after Tanzania's president urged Rwanda's government to negotiate with a Congo-based Rwandan rebel group.
Since those comments last year on the sidelines of an African Union summit Rwanda's government has rebuked President Jakaya Kikwete, suggesting he sympathizes with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR rebel group. Rwanda insists there can be no negotiations with rebels whose members are accused of taking part in the 1994 Rwandan genocide that saw more than 500,000 people killed.
Now the Rwandan press also has entered the fray, reporting that the Tanzanian president is holding secret meetings with dissidents opposed to Rwanda's president and even offering them safe haven. One account, vehemently denied by Tanzania's government as "malicious, dangerous" lies, charges that Kikwete has been holding secret meetings with the fugitive leaders of the FDLR rebel group.
This is unfamiliar territory for a country that tends to avoid the kind of virulent conflicts frequently seen in other parts of Africa's Great Lakes region. And despite mediations by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, tensions remain with Rwanda.
In January, after the online newspaper News of Rwanda reported that Kikwete had been meeting with FLDR leaders such as the fugitive Lt. Col. Wilson Irategeka, Tanzania's embassy in Rwanda released a strong statement condemning reports that "create an impression that Tanzania is working with enemies and groups opposed to" Rwanda's government.
"President Kikwete is deeply hurt by these lies and his humble advice to the editors of this publication is to stop fabricating untrue claims which potentially could create and fuel animosity and confusion among the people of our two neighboring and friendly countries," the statement said. "The Embassy of Tanzania in Rwanda does not take lightly these allegations by the News of Rwanda given the position that this publication occupies in Rwanda."
Rwanda lacks a strong independent press, and its newspapers are believed to avoid sensitive issues such as national security unless the reporting supports the view of the government or the military. Despite Tanzania's strong denial, News of Rwanda continues to publish detailed accounts of what it says are Tanzania's close ties with rebels and dissidents opposed to Kagame. The Rwandan government-owned New Times newspaper also has recently reported that some Rwandan fugitives are hiding in Tanzania, where "they are coordinating their activities" against Rwanda's government.
"Much of the Rwandan media is either controlled by the government or toes the government line, especially on political and security issues," said Carina Tertsakian, the Rwanda researcher at Human Rights Watch. "This has been noticeable in the coverage of Rwanda's increasingly tense relations with Tanzania, for example."
Relations may also be stressed after Kikwete offered last year to contribute troops toward a robust brigade of U.N. peacekeepers who helped Congolese troops to oust the M23 rebels from eastern Congo. Rwanda, which denied supporting M23 despite U.N. expert reports citing evidence to the contrary, is widely believed to want a buffer force against attacks from FDLR rebels.
Bashiru Ally, a political science lecturer at Tanzania's University of Dar es Salaam, said the country's leaders historically have avoided conflict with neighbors and that Kikwete's advice to Rwanda's government was likely given "in good faith."
"Our political culture for a long time has been that we need to maintain good neighborliness," he said. "That is the common thread in the country. Tanzania has no history of isolating itself from others." Most Tanzanians, he said, are generally wary of getting into conflict with neighbors.