Rwanda and Burundi fired back on Monday against US claims of “blatant power grabs” by the presidents of the two Great Lakes countries.
And in addition to lashing Washington, the Bujumbura and Kigali governments attacked one another. Each accused the other of supporting rebel forces intent on destabilising legitimate authority.
The remarks by the Rwandan, Burundian and US representatives during a United Nations Security Council debate were unusually undiplomatic.
A Rwandan minister directly warned the US ambassador to the UN not to speak critically of President Paul Kagame. And a senior Burundian official told the Security Council that “it is absolutely unacceptable that some appoint themselves as judges over our countries.”
The two diplomats' angry rejoinders were triggered by US Ambassador Samantha Power's claim that “democratic processes are being deliberately undermined” in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo as well as in Rwanda and Burundi.
Citing an “accelerating trend” in the Great Lakes region, Ambassador Power charged that in each of those four countries “leaders make increasingly blatant power grabs to remain in office” while closing media outlets, arresting critics and intimidating civil-society groups.
She was referring to decisions by Mr Kagame and Burundi's Pierre Nkurunziza to seek third presidential terms in defiance of Washington's calls for political transitions in both countries.
The US has also previously criticised the conduct of the recent election in Uganda that enabled President Yoweri Museveni to extend his 30-year tenure.
The State Department has additionally urged DRC President Joseph Kabila to respect a constitutional provision barring him from seeking a third term.
In her comments to the Security Council session on the Great Lakes, Ambassador Power acknowledged “the epic scale of the achievements by President Kagame and by the Rwandan people” since the 1994 genocide.
But the US envoy added that “the continued absence of political space — the inability of individuals and journalists to discuss political affairs or report on issues of public concern — poses a serious risk to Rwanda’s future stability.”
“Rwanda can achieve lasting peace and prosperity through a government centred on the principle of democratic accountability, not centred on any one single individual,” Ambassador Power declared.
That prompted Rwanda Minister of State for Cooperation Eugene-Richard Gasana to suggest that the US envoy should not “confuse her name with her assignment.”
“Ms Power,” he said, “doesn't have power over Rwanda.”
Mr Gasana called the US criticisms of Mr Kagame “unacceptable.” Referring to the Rwandan leader as “this very precious man” and “our hero,” Mr Gasana turned toward the US delegation in the Security Council chamber and admonished its members, “Don't ever dare, ever, to treat him that way.”
Alain Aime Nyamitwe, Burundi's minister for external relations, said in response to Ambassador Power's criticisms of his country that “some talk today in 2016 as they used to refer to African countries in the 1950s, giving orders to fully sovereign nations.” Burundi, he declared, is “not a colony of anyone.”
Although united in their umbrage over US allegations, the Rwandan and Burundian representatives also exchanged barbs.
Mr Nyamitwe charged that Rwanda is supporting armed groups seeking to overthrow President Nkurunziza.
Mr Gasana rejected that claim, and said the Burundi government is ignoring slaughters of its own citizens and is “working with” the group responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
Contrary to “rhetoric used in the council,” Mr Nyamitwe insisted that Burundi's security situation is improving.
He cited a recent decree by President Nkurunziza pardoning 2000 prisoners. Two radio stations shut down in the wake of an attempted coup last year have been allowed to reopen, he noted.
Ambassador Power had referred to these initiatives as “encouraging,” but she noted that only 158 prisoners have actually been released and that three other radio stations closed by the government have not been allowed to resume operations.
“We will welcome and support constructive steps when we see them,” she said in regard to Burundi, “but rhetoric is not enough.”
On Uganda, the Obama administration cabinet member also mixed praise with censure.
She cited Uganda's contributions to the African Union force in Somalia, and said Uganda acts as “a generous host to more than 500,000 refugees.” But the government is failing to ensure democratic accountability, Ambassador Power added.
Prior to and following last month's elections, Ugandan security forces “detained opposition figures without legal justification, harassed their supporters and intimidated the media,” she told the Security Council.
“President Museveni’s actions contravene the rule of law and jeopardize Uganda’s democratic progress, threatening Uganda’s future stability and prosperity,” Ambassador Power asserted.
No Ugandan representative took part in Monday's debate, and the country's UN ambassador, Richard Nduhuura, did not return a message requesting comment on Ambassador Power's speech to the Security Council.
DRC Foreign Minister Raymond Tshibanda N'Tungamulongo did participate in the six-hour council session, assuring UN delegates that “continued reforms are underway to consolidate democracy and rule of law” in his country.
Ambassador Power had suggested earlier in the debate that “there is no credible reason that the DRC election would not occur on schedule” in November.
Mr N'Tungamulongo responded that “my country does want to hold them on time.”
He added, however, that the elections must take place under “conditions that can guarantee transparency and credibility and, above all, peace.”