The Uganda-Rwanda land border was finally reopened after three years of being blockaded by Rwanda. What are the real issues? what has changed?
There was no ceremony when the Katuna/Gatuna common border between Uganda and Rwanda reopened for business on January 31, 2022. Rwanda’s Paul Kagame made a few statements about it in Rwanda, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni still hasn’t found time to do the same.
Presidents Museveni and Kagame this time did not even pretend to like each other by organising a function at the border to do some toasting and say some words. But, even with no love lost between the two men, there is no negating the grand idea that the border must remain open and Ugandans and Rwandans left on their own to continue their relations and grown together.
The issues that led to unspeakable suffering for the people whose livelihoods depend on the relationship between the two countries are deeper than has been said, just as is the effort that went into reaching a minimum settlement.
Rwanda’s decision to close the border in February 2019 was greeted with ridicule by many a commentator in Kampala, who thought it would be very difficult to sustain. To many in Kampala, Rwanda depended on Uganda in many ways, including for much of the food its people consumed, and continued closure of the border would lead to starvation for a significant chunk of Rwandans. Even if Kagame insisted on keeping the border crossings closed, Kampala analysts argued, starvation would lead many Rwandans across the border to pour into Uganda in search for food, making the decision to close the border to collapse on its head.
What those who harboured this view did not know is that the border closure was something that Rwanda had prepared for. Sources knowledgeable on the issue have told this publication that prior to the closure of the border, Kagame’s government carried out advance planning and preparation, and briefed Rwandan businesspeople about the ‘difficult but necessary’ action that was coming.
The sources say the Rwandan government detailed to the businesspeople and other stakeholders what their issues against the government of Uganda were, and why it was pertinent for the border to be closed. The issues, as the government of Rwanda spelt them out, included hosting and supporting Rwandan dissidents that had an agenda of regime change in Kigali, and detaining Rwandans by the Ugandan authorities, especially the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) that Maj. Gen. Abel Kandiho led. Rwanda charged that its citizens that were arrested by Uganda were held incommunicado and tortured, without being charged before the courts of law.
The Rwandan businesspeople who had strong business links with Uganda, therefore, ‘were hurt but understood the decision’ of their government, one source said. Their government encouraged, and where possible supported them, to explore new business opportunities away from Uganda.
A company that produces fortified foods in Rwanda, for example, started importing soy bean in bulk from Brazil after the Uganda market from which it had been sourcing was blocked. Those who deal in maize grain, which Rwandans heavily imported from Uganda, had to look to Tanzania and Malawi. Some Ugandan businessmen, sources say, started ferrying their maize grain to Tanzania, from where their Rwandan contacts would pick it up. But those must have been very few, and only those who could afford to buy in bulk. The smaller ones lost out altogether.
Before the border was closed, Rwandans would board buses to Kampala to buy imported merchandise like textiles for resale in Rwanda.
Within four months of the border closure, the Rwanda government launched direct flights by Rwandair to the Chinese city of Guangzhou, enabling its businesspeople to source the same products perhaps more cheaply.
Many of the Rwandans who used to buy merchandise from Kampala’s Kikuubo hub in relative bulk may not return even with the border reopening.
All the while as the border remained closed, Ugandan businesses suffered more than those in Rwanda in terms of loss of market, since they sold more to Rwanda than the other way round. For instance, Ugandan steel producers, especially Roofings Ltd. which had expanded production banking on the Rwanda market among others, suffered immense losses due to loss of market. The Rwanda government took the view that so long as there was a market in its backyard, businesspeople would adjust and look for alternative sources of supplies even if it meant that the fresh supplies would be more expensive. Wherever possible, they would look to produce at home what they had been importing from Uganda. And in this regard, the government invested immensely in agriculture.
Kagame’s government also did something about the border communities. Much of the business took place across the border in Uganda, where Rwandans would freely cross and pick up merchandise, foodstuffs and other requirements. At the small border town of Kagitumba, for instance, there was virtually nothing in terms of infrastructure on the Rwanda side.
Life mostly happened on the Uganda side. With the border closure, the government of Rwanda extended piped water to virtually all the border towns neighbouring Uganda that didn’t have it, and offered more care to its citizens there, every once in a while even throwing in rations of food. By the time the border was reopened, the people on the Uganda side of Kagitumba loudly cried about loss of business and said their lot had considerably worsened. The same happened to other border areas, with some of the towns abandoned due to lack of business. It must have been hard too on the Rwanda side, but Kagame had proved the point that he set out to make, that Rwanda would hold its own against Uganda.
The Rwanda government strictly enforced the order not to cross into Uganda. Near the border on the Uganda side, there are fresh graves of at least half a dozen Ugandans who were shot dead by Rwanda government soldiers over the past three years for daring to cross into Rwanda carrying little merchandise on their heads or bikes.
For the past three years, Rwanda has blended these interventions with force to achieve the objective it sought. As the months wore on, the noises mocking Rwanda out of Kampala reduced to a trickle, and then disappeared. At one point Adonia Ayebare, Uganda’s representative to the United Nations who Museveni chose as his special rapporteur to Kigali during the negotiation process, had to publicly rebuke some Kampala propagandists who had made it a habit to exchange with their Rwandan opposite numbers on social media. The case was thus taken away from the charlatans into the secluded spaces in which Ayebare and later Lt. Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba played.
Kampala makes concessions
If it was about proving a point, Kigali had done it. And while at it, Uganda had been caught unawares. Because the preparations for border closure had been kept out of Uganda’s knowledge, Uganda did not prepare for anything. And neither did it put in place any measures to mitigate the losses and suffering that Ugandans whose livelihoods depended on the relationship with Rwanda suffered as a result of the border closure.
The gravity of Rwanda’s case became most pronounced, sources say, when the presidents of Angola and the DRC tried to mediate between Museveni and Kagame. Before they did, Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta had had fruitless quick fire discussions with Museveni and Kagame, each in their capital.
Joao Lourenco, president of Angola, then hosted Museveni and Kagame in Luanda in August 2019, with the DRC’s Felix Tshisekedi also in attendance. The four presidents would again meet at the Katuna/Gatuna border in February 2021. Sources privy to what transpired during the Katuna/Gatuna meeting say Kagame went for the jugular, tabling what he called evidence of Uganda’s plotting against him.
The sources say he even played recordings of people he said were top Ugandan officials talking with those he said were plotting against Rwanda, who he linked to the dissident Rwandan General Kayumba Nyamwasa, who is in exile in South Africa and has voiced intention to fight Kagame’s government.
Kagame gave dates and places in Uganda where he alleged the plotting happened, sources say.
Because of the enormity of the complaints that Kagame had put across, it became clear that the border reopening, which had been expected to happen on that day in February 2021, would not happen. Instead, the parties agreed that Uganda would work on Rwanda’s complaints and after the other party was satisfied with the progress made, the border would be reopened. It took another year since then.
A month after the meeting at Katuna/Gatuna border point, Rwanda went public about a meeting Museveni had had with a Rwandan woman who has issues with Kagame’s government, which he accuses of killing her husband. Rwandans on Twitter released a Uganda passport in the woman’s name, wondering how she had come to acquire it. Museveni, in explaining to Kagame what had happened, said his meeting with the woman was accidental.
As the months wore on, Kagame took to commenting about a ‘neighbouring country’ which he accused of many of plotting against Rwanda, and it was clear it was Uganda he referred to. At one moment he took liberty to brag about Rwanda being good at doing human intelligence, and it was easy to conclude that he was speaking about his government’s relationship with Uganda.
At the Katuna/Gatuna meeting, Kagame had demanded that Uganda severs relations with Rwandan dissidents that intended to fight the government of Rwanda and releases Rwandan nationals that were incarcerated especially by CMI, whose boss Lt. Gen. Kandiho was often cited by Rwandan spokespeople as a problem to them.
In one meeting, Museveni is said to have remarked that Kandiho, an ethnic Rwandase, is a distant relative of Kagame’s, but Kandiho committed a lot of his time to dealing with matters of Uganda-Rwanda relations in a way that left Kagame’s government in mad at him.
Before being named head of CMI, Kandiho at some point headed a desk in the president’s office that dealt with Rwanda issues. At the time, when Gen. Kale Kayihura was in charge of the police, Rwandan dissidents in Uganda complained bitterly about being hunted down in Uganda by Rwandan operatives and not receiving due protection by the Ugandan security agencies. In 2011, Charles Ingabire, a Rwandan who edited a publication critical of Kagame’s government and had fled to Kampala, was shot dead. His friends accused an operative of the Rwandan state for leading Ingabire to his killing spot.
At the time, Uganda was infiltrated by Rwandan operatives and sections of Uganda’s security were compromised. In 2013, Lt. Joel Mutabazi, a former body guard to Kagame that had fallen out with the regime and fled to Kampala, was abducted from a hotel and driven back to Rwanda, where he is still in jail. In the furor that followed, Kayihura, in charge of the police at the time, said Uganda had signed an extradition treaty with Rwanda. Lawyers and international rights bodies faulted the alleged agreement, saying it did not stand up to scrutiny in international law.
It was in this context that Kandiho was appointed to head CMI, where he continued his investigations into the Rwanda issue. He became sworn enemies with Kayihura, who he accused of at least not doing enough to deal with infiltration by Rwanda, and while at it, caused the arrest and incarceration of many Rwandans he accused of spying on Uganda. When Kayihura was eventually fired as police chief in March 2018, it would safely be said that Kandiho had done his part in exposing him. Among the charges that were eventually read for Kayihura before the military court were some related to Rwanda. There has been no movement on the charges since, with Kayihura out on bail.
It is therefore easy to understand why Rwanda has always demanded for the firing of Kandiho from CMI. Kandiho is one of the most reclusive military officers in Uganda at the moment, and not much is known about him. But CMI under him has been accused of torture and other rights violations, so much that the US government sanctioned Kandiho last year. In response to the US sanctions, Kandiho said he was a committed soldier while the sanctions belonged in the realm of politics.
Strangely, Kandiho’s brother, Ayebare, is Museveni’s special rapporteur to Kigali in the negotiations. In the meetings when Ayebare delivered Museveni’s messages, it must have hit different when Kagame kept emphasisng to the messenger that nothing would move unless Ayebare’s brother was fired.
But when Museveni relieved Kandiho of the leadership of CMI and sent him to Sudan last week, it was clear that the border was close to being reopened. It is not a decision Museveni can have made lightly, seeing how well Kandiho has served him.
The Uganda-Rwanda question
By the time Museveni let go of Kandiho, he must have been satisfied that the threat Rwanda’s infiltration had been largely dealt with.
Sources knowledgeable on the issue say Rwanda made the decision to venture into Uganda after Uganda failed or refused to relocate Rwandan dissidents and continued to be a home for those who fled Rwanda after falling out with Kagame’s government.
At the start of the century, relations between Uganda and Rwanda were very bad, coming off the bloody clashes in the DRC city of Kisangani. Each of the countries was thought to actively pursued a regime change agenda against the other, and Rwanda was accused of bankrolling Kizza Besigye’s first electoral challenge to Museveni’s power in 2001. After the violent elections, there was talk of war against Uganda and two former bush war fighters, Col. Samson Mande and Lt. Col. Anthony Kyakabale fled to Rwanda and voiced intentions of militarily engaging the government of Uganda. As Ugandan dissidents fled to Rwanda, Rwandan dissidents went the opposite direction.
Tensions flared and negotiations followed, leading to an understanding that each of the countries would facilitate the relocation of the dissidents to third parties. Rwanda, sources say, felt that it had fulfilled its part of the bargain but Uganda hadn’t, leading it to deploy inside Uganda to go for the people which it felt were working against its interests. But then, Rwanda has also been accused of going for Rwandan dissidents who flee to countries that are very far away from its borders.
It was easy for the Rwandans to infiltrate Uganda because it is a country they know very well. In the 1980s, Hundreds of Rwandan exiles, including Kagame himself, fought fiercely in the war that brought Museveni to power. They were mostly or exclusively Tutsi and had a problem with the Hutu-dominated government in Rwanda at the time, which Juvénal Habyarimana had led since 1973.
So even when Museveni captured power and some of the elite Rwandese fighters were appointed to key positions within the army in Uganda, many of them always looked forward to the day they would return home to Rwanda.
And their return – on their terms – would only be enabled by the force of arms, which became a reality in 1994.
But before the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), whose leadership Kagame assumed early because the original leader Maj. Gen. Fred Rugyeman was killed immediately the attack was launched, would capture power, Rwanda suffered a debilitating genocide largely orchestrated by criminal Hutu leaders who targeted the Tutsi because their ilk had launched an invasion from Uganda.
The RPF, led by Kagame, eventually took control of Rwanda, ended the genocide and established a government that was nominally led by a Hutu as president – Pasteur Bizimungu – although Vice President Kagame was in fact the one who called the shots. Even when Kagame eventually fell out with Bizimungu and took charge as president himself the year 2000, he maintained a strong presence of Hutu elite in his government and worked hard to de-emphasise the ethnic divide that had torn the country to pieces.
The defeated Hutu fighters fled into the former Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and came to be known as the Interahamwe, from where they hoped to launch an offensive to recapture power in Rwanda. They are said to remain active. Kagame and his RPF have therefore always slept with one eye open, looking at the jungles of the DRC as hosting an existential threat to them.
To invade Rwanda, the RPF crossed the border with weapons from Uganda and are thought to have received more support from Uganda despite denials from Kampala and themselves. When they eventually captured power, those in power in Kampala, in particular some senior army officers and Museveni himself, were seen as not treating Rwanda as an independent country, and Kagame spent a lot of time reminding the world about Rwanda being a country on its own and demanding that it is respected as such. A number of senior Ugandan army officers made comments that Kagame and his Generals found condescending.
But the proximity of the two countries, which exist in a turbulent neighbourhood, has always meant that they have had to share many of their problems. One of those problems is the DRC. In 1996, when the RPF had been in charge of Rwanda for hardly two years, they attacked the DRC and found themselves fighting alongside Uganda to depose Mobutu Sese Seko, who had ruled the DRC since 1965. Also fighting against Mobutu in the same war were Burundi, Angola, and Eritrea.
Museveni’s grievance was that Mobutu was hosting and funding the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), and Rwanda was interested in stamping out the Interahamwe. In the end the two countries were accused of plundering the natural wealth of the DRC, with Uganda being slapped with a fine of $10 billion by the International Court of Justice, which it has yet to pay to DRC.
Be that as it may, Uganda’s army is formally back in the jungles of the DRC, on a mission to pursue the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels who are said to have training camps there. In addition to pursuing the rebels, with the blessing and collaboration of the government of the DRC, Uganda is also working to open up roads in remote areas of eastern DRC, which is expected to increase trade volumes and interactions between the people of the DRC and Ugandans. The DRC is in the process of joining the East African Community and other countries, including Rwanda, would naturally like to join in. In light of this, it looks like a good time for Rwanda to repair relations with Uganda.
In sum, it would appear that Uganda eventually relaxed its stance and yielded to some of Rwanda’s most important demands after making sure that it had dealt with the threat that it felt Rwanda posed, and Rwanda also got into a position where it believes Uganda poses no unmitigated threat to it. It is about the survival of the regime first and foremost.