The tense state of Rwanda-Burundi relations came to the fore again this week, when Bujumbura levelled a number of serious allegations against Kigali.
This followed the repatriation by the UNHCR and Rwandan authorities of some 2,000 Burundian refugees after a conflict over their documentation.
While both Kigali and the affected refugees say they chose to return to Burundi rather than register their status under a new biometric system, Bujumbura accuses Rwanda of holding its citizens in refugee settlements against their will and using the opportunity to give them military training with a view to overthrow President Pierre Nkurunziza’s government.
Kigali insists it was only getting rid of disruptive elements from amongst the refugees that had tried to incite others to reject food rations from the UNHCR and to defy basic rules governing their status as refugees.
While the political ping-pong between the two countries may appear mundane to watchers of Rwanda-Burundi relations, who see a common thread dating decades back, for ordinary people and regional integration in general, the feud is proving costly.
Take the example of a regional transporter who has a fleet of 70 buses that have been stranded in Bujumbura since 2015 when the two countries limited movement across their common border. Or Burundian traders who now have to change vehicles before they can transit to Kampala.
At the regional level, many projects have had to be reconfigured to take into account the Rwanda-Burundi situation. The differences have spilled over into the East African Legislative Assembly, which despite having a Burundian as Secretary-General, has seen attempts at filibustering, orchestrated by Bujumbura.
At the core of the conflict is a mutual mistrust that leads either side to read ill-intention, even, in the most random of events.
In the latest instance, Bujumbura which suspects Rwanda of having had a hand in the unsuccessful coup against Nkurunziza after he extended his tenure in 2015, sees Kigali’s quelling of a riot by Burundian refugees as a smokescreen for infiltration of armed elements to disrupt an impending referendum.
On the other hand, Kigali has long viewed the governance vacuum in Burundi as the perfect hiding place for remnants of FDLR rebels, a mutation of people accused of committing grievous crimes during the 1994 genocide.
Lives have been lost in mistaken identity when, ordinary citizens, such as fishermen or hunters, ignorant of border demarcations have strayed into no-man’s land with fatal consequences.
What is clear now is that if at all the parties aspire to a return to normalcy, it is not going to be achieved by ratcheting up differences.
What is needed are confidence building measures and a focus on the opportunities that normal relations would bring for citizens of the two countries and beyond.
As the incumbent head of the African Union, it might be President Paul Kagame’s unfortunate duty to take the bull by the horns and do something that will reset the situation. Recent developments between Rwanda and Uganda over similar tensions could provide a viable template.