Uganda-Rwanda Crisis: Old Friends, Simmering Border Conflict

Alao Abiodun
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Weeks ago, Rwanda restricted entry of commercial cargo trucks from Uganda, at Katuna, which is the busiest crossing point on the Uganda-Rwanda border. The diplomatic feud between Rwanda and Uganda has stopped most cross-border movements between the two countries

Rwanda however explained that the trucks from Uganda could use other border crossings, as it completing an ongoing project to revamp the Katuna border post,  Meanwhile, traders and authorities in Uganda described as ‘unfortunate’ that ‘movement of people and goods across the common border with Rwanda, ‘got restricted’.

Rwanda however issued a travel advisory ‘strongly advising’ its citizens not to travel to Uganda, because of ‘ongoing arrests, harassment, torture, incarceration without consular access’.

According to the latest World Bank Data from 2017, Rwanda was Uganda’s fifth biggest export market, selling about $180m worth of goods. Rwanda meanwhile exported $10m worth to Uganda. The authorities in Uganda are calling for trade to return to normal.

Rwanda and Uganda Relationship

Rwanda and Uganda have a shared political, ethnic and security history that has alternately been friendly and hostile over the decades.

Kagame fought in a guerrilla war that brought Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni to power in 1986. Years later, Uganda backed Kagame’s rebel group that helped end the Rwandan genocide and took power in Kigali.

The two countries nearly went to war in the late 1990s after their forces clashed in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo where they jointly helped topple former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko before turning on each other.

Rwanda depends for much of its imports on a trade route through Uganda to Kenya’s Indian Ocean port of Mombasa. The same artery is also a pipeline for goods from Kenya and Uganda to Burundi and parts of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Kagame also cleared the air on the on-going situation between Rwanda and Uganda, saying that it all dates back to many years ago and that the government has been making efforts to come to an understanding but in vain.

He particularly blamed Ugandan leadership for supporting elements, including Rwanda National Congress (RNC), who want to destabilise the country.

The President highlighted that more Rwandans continue to be illegally jailed in Uganda’s prisons, including military prisons, an issue he has personally raised over and over and engaged his Ugandan counterpart on many occasions.

“Almost every week there are people who are brought and dumped across the border, and when you asked some of them, they say they have been in prison for 2 years,” he said.

He added: “When we ask our friends from across the border, they tell us they were illegal immigrants, but they were in prison for 2 years, with no charges, until they pack them in a truck and take them across the border”.

Uganda and Rwanda Response(s) Over the Simmering war 

The foreign ministers of Uganda and Rwanda addressed the media in their respective countries, to provide clarification on the border standoff that has dominated news headlines for weeks.

Uganda’s foreign minister Sam Kutesa also issued a statement the same day flatly denying the charges laid out by his counterpart — Uganda addressed all the accusations leveled against it by Rwanda, simply describing them as ‘false’ and ‘not true’. ‘‘It is not true that Uganda arrests, tortures and harasses Rwandans. It is false that Uganda hosts any elements fighting Rwanda. Uganda is committed to addressing any trade related issues…’‘

Rwanda’s foreign minister, Richard Sezibera accused Uganda of sabotaging trade to its southern neighbour, in addition to mistreating Rwandans in Uganda and supporting rebel groups opposed to president Paul Kagame’s government.

On the issue of trade sabotage, Sezibera mentioned on Tuesday that Rwanda is exploring the use of alternative trade routes and corridors such as Central Corridor via Tanzania.

Both Sezibera and Kutesa concluded their statements saying they hope to resolve the outstanding issues and normalise relations, even though the former noted that Rwanda has laid out these complaints to Uganda for two years now, with no positive results.

Kagame told The EastAfrican newspaper last month, that the issues between Uganda and Rwanda have to be resolved because the alternative was ‘not worth thinking about’.

‘‘That must be resolved. Because the alternative is not something that we should even be thinking about, or entertaining,” Kagame said, adding that he is confident ‘the matter can be resolved’.

Meanwhile, the Ugandan prime minister Dr Ruhakana Rugunda has assured parliament that Uganda is engaging the Rwanda government to address the closure of its three border crossing points in Kisoro, Ntungamo and Kabale districts.

Reports from the Chanika border post in Kisoro, Katuna in Kabale and Mirama Hills in Ntungamo indicate they were closed to business today, affecting the local communities on either side of the borders.

No one can bring Rwanda to its knees – President Paul Kagame

President Paul Kagame has told leaders at the annual National Leadership Retreat, locally known as Umwiherero days ago that Rwanda is not a nation that can be brought to its knees by anyone.

“I have learned lessons of our struggles and the hardships of our country. One of them is I am not in control of what somebody else thinks about me or plans to do against me. But I must be in control of something, and that is what happens here,” Kagame said.

“You can attempt to destabilize our country, you can do us harm, you can shoot me with a gun and kill me. But there is one thing that is impossible: No one can bring me to my knees. Men and women of my country, you should never accept to be brought to your knees. You are much better than that,” Kagame urged.

The President was addressing over 350 leaders from local and central government,  parastatals and the private sector at the Rwanda Defence Forces Combat Training Centre Gabiro in Gatsibo District.

The President also reminded the leaders of the importance of the National Retreat in acknowledging personal responsibility in achieving the transformation of the country.

“Umwiherero is about reminding ourselves of our responsibilities, and to ask ourselves how far we have come in this journey towards reaching our goal. We all know the goal; it is transformation, education, health and profitable trade,” he remarked.

“If we are all part of the same journey, how fast we go and how far we reach depends on each and every one of us. Every individual has to be contributing something, if we can increase that contribution, so much the better,” he added.

Uganda’s Enemies Will Not Survive, President Museveni Warns

President Museveni has issued a warning to anyone planning to destabilise Uganda, saying they will be met with decisive destruction.

“Those who want to disturb Uganda, they don’t know our capacity. Our capacity is very big. Once we mobilise, you cannot survive. I can assure you of that if you are a troublemaker,” the President said at the weekend while commissioning five factories in Mbalala Village, Nama Sub-county in Mukono District.

Mr Museveni did not direct his warning to any particular person or group but his remarks come at a time Uganda and Rwanda are having tense bilateral relations.

The simmering fallout has resulted in Rwanda closing its border with Uganda at Katuna.

As Mr Museveni issued the warning, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, speaking at a government retreat in Kigali, said he had heard of people who have said they don’t want to be destabilised but added that those same people should also not disturb others.

The Masses Dilemma

Despite denials, Rwanda has closed the border with Uganda and restricted the movement of Rwandans, signaling an escalation that could easily be sparked into a full border conflict. For those who pay only superficial attention to Rwanda-Uganda relations, it may come as a surprise little inconvenience. 

A protracted halt to people and goods crossing any of the borders along the route therefore has the potential to trigger a major regional economic crisis.

The border dispute between Uganda and Rwanda appears to be an escalation of the Cold War-style hostilities and allegations by the two countries of supporting each other’s dissidents that have been reported in Ugandan and regional media over recent months.

Rwanda and Uganda nearly went to war in the late 1990s after their forces clashed in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo where they jointly helped topple former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko before turning on each other.

Landlocked Rwanda transports a significant amount of its imports via a trade route passing through Uganda from the Kenyan seaport of Mombasa.

The same trade route serves as a crucial pipeline for Kenyan exports and also helps supply merchandise to Burundi and parts of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Ugandans and Rwandans who share a lot including homes, businesses and relationships are certainly hoping that the issues can be resolved amicably, and normalcy restored.


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