Rwanda and Tanzania have started to mend relations after almost two years of a cold war between the neighbours, which was threatening to undermine regional integration.
The strongest indication of the thawing of relations was when Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete honoured an invitation by Rwanda’s Paul Kagame to attend the recent 9th Northern Corridor Integration Projects summit in Kigali.
President Kagame is believed to have extended the invitation to his counterpart during the EAC Heads of State Summit in Nairobi on February 16, where the two leaders appeared together in public for the first time in almost two years. At the same meeting, President Kikwete assumed chairmanship of the EAC for one year.
The two leaders had not met in public since relations soured, with at least one of the leaders skipping a high level meeting that the other was expected to attend.
While the substantive issues between the two countries remain unresolved, the presidential meetings have raised optimism that dialogue could see cordial relations restored.
“President Kikwete’s visit to Rwanda signals a rise in the prospects of resolving outstanding issues. There is an upcoming Central Corridor meeting that President Kagame has been invited to. If he does attend, that too will create even more opportunities for resolving the outstanding issues,” a well-placed source within the Kigali government told The EastAfrican on condition of anonymity.
“No dates have been set specifically for dialogue on outstanding issues,” he added.
Rwanda and Tanzania recalled their envoys last year and reappointed new ones, but processes to accredit them stalled as relations between the two countries reached their lowest point.
Rwanda recalled its ambassador, Ben Rugangazi, in May 2014, and appointed Eugene Kayihura as the new ambassador, but it was not until September 2014 that he presented his credentials, and not to President Kikwete but to Foreign Affairs Minister Bernard Membe.
Dar on the other hand recalled Francis Mwaipaja as its ambassador in Kigali, and replaced him with Ali Idi Siwa, whose appointment was approved in May 2014, but who only presented his credentials days before President Kikwete’s visit.
Breaking with tradition, Mr Siwa did not present his credentials to President Kagame but to the Minister of Foreign Affairs Louise Mushikiwabo.
For mutual trust to be restored, officials in Kigali insist that Dar must address outstanding issues, in particular its alleged support for Rwanda’s exiled opposition and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
“It is simplistic to assume that the outstanding issues between two countries can be resolved by one or two meetings. These countries have had major disagreements since Mwalimu Julius Nyerere left power, but they have just avoided confrontation,” a senior government official said, pointing out that tensions between the two countries escalated when Tanzania expelled 910 Rwandan refugees in 2003.
More recently, in mid 2013, Tanzania expelled thousands of Rwandan refugees who were referred to as “illegal immigrants,” a move that was viewed by the Rwanda government as politically motivated.
The two leaders first publicly came to loggerheads after President Kikwete suggested that Kigali should hold talks with the FDLR rebels if peace was to return in eastern DRC.
The comments, made in May 2013 in Addis Ababa at the African Union, sparked a furore, with President Kagame leading those who chastised President Kikwete for backing the Hutu rebels accused of committing atrocities in the 1994 genocide.
President Kikwete was labelled an FDLR sympathiser, with President Kagame warning that he was waiting for the right moment and place to “hit” him.
“Maybe it was due to ignorance, but this is an ideological problem for anyone to be thinking this way,” President Kagame said in reference to President Kikwete’s suggestion.
The events that followed and the conflict in DR Congo pitted Kigali against Dar. Tanzania led the efforts to neutralise M23 rebels, who were allegedly backed by Rwanda. Kigali, however, denied links to the rebels.
In regard to the FDLR, Kigali accused Tanzania and others of sympathising with the rebels. Exchanges between diplomats from both sides worsened the situation.
President Kikwete, on the other hand, had said that he had no problem with Rwanda, and that he was surprised that his suggestion was met with such vitriol.
“I have been shocked and dismayed at the verbal attack and criticism levelled against me by Rwandan officials,” he said. “What they are doing and saying does not reflect the true position. [It is] completely out of proportion and out of context,” the president added.