16 June 2019

East Africa: Tensions Persist Despite Gatuna Border Opening

Photo: Uwanziga/The New Times
Cargo trucks enter Rwanda at Gatuna border. EAC is said to have the highest transport costs globally.

While Rwandan authorities recently opened the Gatuna border post, which was closed in February as diplomatic relations between Kigali and Kampala worsened, it still remains a ghost town.

While Kigali said it took the decision to pave the way for the upgrade of the one-stop border post, the stopping of Rwandans from crossing the border into Uganda exposed the rising security tensions between the two neighbours over alleged espionage.

Even with the partial opening of the border for a 12-day test period, relations have not normalised. There has not only been restriction of movement of people, goods and services but also deportations of Rwandans from Uganda.

Rwanda insists that its travel advisory against Uganda stands until its citizens held by Ugandan security agencies are released, allowed legal counsel or charged. It also maintains that Uganda must stop illegally detaining its citizens and hosting its enemies, including members of the South Africa-based Rwanda National Congress, the National Liberation Front, as well as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda.

ACCUSATIONS

This past week on Wednesday night, Rwanda paraded 20 of its citizens who it said had been illegally detained in Uganda and were deported by road to the border.

"These illegal detentions, mistreatment, and deportations are the reason Rwanda advised our citizens not to travel to Uganda," said Olivier Nduhungirehe, Rwandan State Minister for EAC Affairs.

Uganda has denied these allegations, but in a letter addressed to President Paul Kagame in March, President Yoweri Museveni said it was "wrong" for "Rwandan agents to try to operate behind the government of Uganda,"

But in his recent national state of address, President Museveni remained silent on the Uganda/ Rwanda issue.

The Rwanda Revenue Authority said that the Gatuna border post will be open until June 22.

When The EastAfrican visited Gatuna this week, the border post, which once boomed with economic activity and movement of people, was largely deserted, with a few money-changers scavenging for customers.

At the border, we found a couple of Rwandans trying to cross into Uganda, but they were turned away. They were told that the reopening of Gatuna was only for heavy trucks but not travellers.

"Our transporters have not been stopped from entering Uganda to collect cargo," said Abdul Ndarubogoye, chairperson of the Rwanda Transporters Association.

However, the travel restrictions do not affect Rwandans flying to Uganda. Taxi operators are also allowed to cross into Uganda but only to transport non-Rwandan citizens.

No soldiers were visible in the vicinity but the police presence has increased compared with the pre-closure period.

BORDER

The construction of the one-stop border post appears largely complete, save for light works at the cargo scanner and road pavements.

A few large trucks from Uganda used it. Two that were ferrying cassava flour from Mubende district were cleared to travel to Kigali.

Popular Ugandan exports to Rwanda including cooking oil, cement, soap and petroleum jelly remain scarce. But the border blockade has birthed a network of illegal activity including smuggling and dangerous treks through porous borders that recently led to the shooting of two people, a Rwandan and a Ugandan, by Rwandan security personnel.

A syndicate of smugglers, who include bodaboda riders, charge hefty sums for their products and to transport people across the border.

The ongoing row is also set to undermine the economic ties and regional trade in the long term, as Rwanda and Uganda are now actively seeking alternatives that will weaken bilateral economic relations.

Ugandan traders have been advised by their government to seek new markets in South Sudan, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo to compensate for the loss of the Rwandan market.

On its part, Rwanda is aggressively pursuing its western neighbour, DRC with whom it has signed agreements on cross-border trade, aviation and elimination of non-tariff barriers.

This past week, Kigali convened a private sector bilateral investment forum with Tanzania aimed at expanding economic ties.

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