In the week since the decision by Rwanda to close the Gatuna border and stop its nationals from crossing into Uganda, the usually busy post has become a ghost town with little traffic.
On Thursday, Customs officials held a crisis meeting to discuss the loss of revenue after a tip off that Kigali would not be reopening the border post soon.
Sources who preferred anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter said that Uganda’s Customs officials have been left confused by the messages coming from Kigali.
On February 28, the Rwanda Revenue Authority issued a statement saying the closure of Gatuna was to expedite and complete infrastructure works on its side of the one-stop border post.
But government officials then said the reason for the closure was that Kampala had been arresting, torturing and harassing Rwandan nationals, including children, in Uganda, and advised its citizens not to cross over.
Rwandan security and immigration officials at Gatuna told The EastAfrican on Thursday that the closure of the one-stop border post was not a “big problem because it’s almost complete and will be ready for use before the end of April.”
Rwanda has accused Uganda of arresting, torturing and harassing Rwandans who live there, as well as hosting elements hostile to it, notably the Rwanda National Congress (RNC) led by former comrade in arms turned foe, Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa who is currently exiled in South Africa.
The RNC says it is not a rebel group but an opposition political outfit of Rwandans in exile who have disagreed with President Paul Kagame.
Gatuna Town council mayor Nelson Nshangabashaija said that with the uncertainty surrounding the real and perceived reasons for the border closure, many residents are afraid that the Rwandan military may attack Uganda.
The continued partial closure of the border post, which at peak times used to have about 400 vehicles passing through daily, has already affected business.
When The EastAfrican visited on March 7, traffic had dropped to just 44 vehicles, translating into a serious loss of revenues from road-user charges that Gatuna had been collecting.
Emmanuel Bamanya, who is in charge of the Uganda Revenue Authority Customs at Gatuna, said before the partial closure the country earned between Ush25 million ($6,790) and Ush30 million ($8,150) per day in road-user charges on non-Ugandan registered vehicles.
But URA had collected a just Ush3.9 million ($1,063) in charges in the past week.
Non-Ugandan registered trucks that usually go through the border post destined for Kigali were diverted to Mirama Hills, some 121km northeast of Gatuna, without additional road-user charges levied.
Vehicles of three axles and above are charged $10 per 10km, while vehicles that are less than three axles pay $6 per 10km. Buses pay $5 per 10km.
Fuel tankers that were transiting through Rwanda to Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo were diverted to Cyanika border post, about 98km west of Gatuna, with no extra road-user charges levied.
The Mirama Hills border post has seen more traffic flow through in the past week. It was previously underutilised, according to Ali Kakande, the Customs officer in charge.
Rwanda-bound trucks drivers are reluctant to use Mirama Hills because of the 176km distance between the border and Kigali - which they have to cover at the strictly enforced 50kph speed limit - compared with 76km from Gatuna to Kigali.
“Mirama Hills has seen a surge in traffic, now averaging between 200 and 250 vehicles per day, up from a maximum of 40. Customs has also had to increase staff from five to seven to handle the increased traffic flow,” Mr Kakande said.
But there are other businesses that have suffered from the closure. With no Rwandans allowed to exit their border into Uganda, money changers at Mirama Hills border post had left their shops by 3pm after failing to register any transactions on March 6.
“I used to change Rwf20 million ($23,000) per day, now I can’t even change one million francs,” said Posiano Muhwezi of Kafunjo Investment Forex Bureau at the border post.
Food vendors, who previously crossed the border from Uganda to Rwanda freely, have been blocked. Kigali has also deployed security to control any sale of food through the porous borders.
“Food from this trading centre was being bought by Rwandans, but now that market is lost. Food from Uganda can’t cross,” said Mr Kakande.
At Gatuna, money changers say they often lend millions of francs to Rwandans going to Kigali, who pay the money back when they return to the border. But since the partial closure, the borrowers have not returned to repay their loans. Moreover, few Ugandans returning home in half-empty buses are interested in changing their currency.
At the Cyanika border post, where traffic bound for Goma has been diverted to, truck drivers are not changing much currency as they transit through Rwanda to the eastern Congo town.
In contrast, Bunagana border post to the DRC is bustling, with food moving freely across the border despite the rough road on the DRC side.
Officials at the border told The EastAfrican that more Congo-bound trucks are opting to use Bunagana.
“Bunagana is a shorter route to Goma, although the road is very bad. But some drivers would rather pass through here than transit through Rwanda via Cyanika, which is longer and has speed restrictions,” one official said.
Before the partial border closure, Rwandan security, immigration and Customs officials ate at restaurants on the Ugandan side. But now each keep to their side of no man’s land.
Speaking at the High Level Conference for Ministers in charge of Refugees from the Great Lakes Region on Thursday, President Yoweri Museveni avoided discussing the border closure, only saying that he had witnessed the first in-flow of Rwandan refugees into Uganda in 1959 and the early 1960s.