As relations between Rwanda and Uganda remain frosty, Rwanda is looking west for trade, towards the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Last week, Rwandan President Paul Kagame gave contrasting messages to people living in border communities.
In a speech to residents of Rubavu district, bordering the DRC, he encouraged them to trade more with communities across the border and seek trade partnerships.
“You have a very big market in DRC, and in towns like Goma. They also have a market here. You can cross the border and buy what you don't have and they can also cross to buy what they don't have,” he said.
However, on his trip to Burera, a district on the border with Uganda, he discouraged those living there from crossing into Uganda and castigated local leaders.
“I don’t understand how residents go across the border to look for services that we have the potential to provide. I don’t have a problem with the residents but with the leaders who don’t provide these services,” the president said.
“I have heard that some people even cross the border just to buy bread. I know we make bread in Rwanda. Why don’t we supply it to all districts instead? If we don’t have leaders that can put this in line, then we have a problem.”
The DRC sells mainly minerals and food to Rwanda. In turn, Rwanda sells DRC live animals and some food crops.
Last year, Rwanda, the DRC and Uganda implemented the Simplified Trade Regime, a tool developed by Comesa and aimed at facilitating cross-border traders.
In March, Rwanda and the DRC signed a bilateral air service agreement to bolster trade and movement of citizens. This culminated in RwandAir launching its maiden direct flight from Kigali to Kinshasa in April, a route expected to ease the movement of goods and travellers.
Before, the shortest air route between Kigali and Kinshasa was operated by Kenya Airways, via a Nairobi transit.
According to Rwanda’s National Institute of Statistics, in 2017, cross-border trade between Rwanda and the DRC generated $100 million, and up to 90,000 people cross the common border every day.
Meanwhile, Uganda is falling off the list of top trade partners for Rwanda’s goods. Uganda earned about $2.64 million from its exports to Rwanda in March this year, a drop of $11.8 million from the previous month, according to statistics from the Bank of Uganda.
At the time, Rwanda had partially closed the border preventing its citizens moving across and goods from Uganda from coming in.
Ugandan traders had to look elsewhere, particularly to Kenya, where Uganda made $26.4 million in exports, an increase of about $19 million from the previous month.
Rwandans and Ugandans have been illegally crossing the border to trade — mainly in agricultural products — since the blockade instituted by Rwanda in late February. However they are often hampered by security personnel patrolling the borders.
Not always friendly
Rwanda and the DRC have not always been friendly neighbours. Their respective armies often clashed at the border during former president Joseph Kabila’s reign.
Mr Kabila was also considered by Kigali to be reluctant to oust the FDLR rebels who have lived in eastern DRC for over two decades. Among the rebels are individuals wanted for their role in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
President Kagame has seemingly warmed up to the new DRC leader, President Felix Tshisekedi, and in a previous meeting, both men vowed to work together to overcome the rebel groups that operate in the jungles of eastern DRC.