Rwandan President Paul Kagame was in Tanzania this past week on a two-day visit, seen as a quest to firm up relations with Dar in the wake of escalating tensions with Uganda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
President Kagame, who arrived in Dar es Salaam on Thursday, held private talks with President John Magufuli, in what is perceived as a quest to have the Tanzanian leader mediate in the security and commercial dispute between Kampala and Kigali.
The souring of relations between the two neighbours has been simmering for years now, and worsened last week when Rwanda closed the Gatuna border post.
In recent weeks, Kigali has complained that Uganda has been subjecting its citizens to illegal arrests and torture. Kampala had earlier accused Rwanda of transporting goods through the common transport corridor in breach of the provisions of the East African Community Common Market Protocol, and held tens of Rwandan trucks for weeks before releasing them.
Rwanda, a small landlocked country, is served by two major transport corridors — the Central Corridor that runs from Dar es Salaam through Tanzania’s heartland, and the Northern Corridor that runs from Mombasa through Kenya and Uganda.
About 80 per cent of Rwanda’s import cargo is handled through the Dar port, but its major exports — minerals, tea and coffee — go through Uganda to the port of Mombasa.
Oil and capital goods to Rwanda come in mainly through Dar es Salaam. It is this route that President Kagame is seen to be moving to secure, as prospects of undertaking joint infrastructure projects with Kenya and Uganda grow dimmer as relations with Kampala get icier.
The planned SGR line linking Mombasa to landlocked Uganda and Rwanda has lagged behind schedule, largely due to financing constraints, doubts over its economic viability, and the high cost of construction and indecisiveness of some partner states.
The planned 1,500km railway line from Mombasa to Kigali was expected to be completed by 2018, but only Kenya has completed the initial Mombasa-Nairobi phase of the project.
Rwanda is part of this rail network, but it has more recently turned its focus to the Isaka-Kigali project, which is estimated to be cheaper than the Kenyan-Uganda route by about $200 million.
Rwanda consumes more than 200 million litres of fuel annually, averaging 20 million litres a month. In the third quarter of 2018, Rwanda’s imports from EAC partner states totalled $154 million, representing 20.8 per cent of all its imports.
Tanzania’s share of those imports was 24 per cent or third after Uganda and Kenya, who accounted for 43 per cent and 32 per cent of the imports respectively.
Ismael Buchanan, an international relations expert and senior lecturer at the University of Rwanda, said President Magufuli had maintained close ties with both President Kagame and President Museveni, making him a worthy mediator.
President Kagame was in Tanzania on the invitation of President Magufuli. He was accompanied by Foreign Affairs Minister Richard Sezibera, his Infrastructure counterpart Claver Gatete, State Minister for East African Community Affairs Olivier Nduhungirehe and Intelligence Chief Gen Joseph Nzabamwita.
“The presidents had a tête-à-tête and spoke mainly about bilateral relations and promotion of trade between the two countries,” Mr Nduhungirehe told The EastAfrican, without further details.
Rwandan officials met their Tanzanian counterparts for discussions on reinforcing trade and collaboration between the two countries. The EastAfrican learned that no agreements were signed.
Talks between the two presidents are said to have also featured Rwanda’s frosty ties with Burundi.
Analysts said President Kagame is being tactful in seeking President Magufuli’s intervention in Rwanda’s developing crises in the region.
“As the chairperson of the EAC, Kagame understands that dialogue is important. So I believe he sees this as the right time to solve this problem, and Magufuli may be the right person to advise him on the way forward,” Prof Buchanan said.
President Kagame’s last state visit to Tanzania was in January 2018, when he went for a review of the joint standard gauge railway plan that is to run from Isaka to Kigali. Construction of the 571km railway line at a cost of $2.5 billion was set to begin last December.
In view of the recent developments, President Kagame would be anxious to get this project done soon to clear the logistical nightmare that would arise were Uganda to block goods destined for Rwanda from passing through its territory. In January, both presidents asked the technical teams to fast-track the project, which has been held back by the absence of a contractor.
Tanzania is expected to pay $1.3 billion and Rwanda $1.2 billion in project financing.
President Magufuli, who rarely travels out of the country, made his first foreign visit to Rwanda in April 2016, five months after assuming office, to inaugurate the Rusumo One-Stop-Border Post and an international bridge on the border between Rwanda and Tanzania.