EDITORIAL: Rwanda-Uganda border shootings an ominous sign

Saturday June 1 2019

Rwanda Uganda border

A Rwandan security officer inspects a vehicle from the Ugandan side at Cyanika border post. PHOTO | ROBERT MUHEREZA | NMG 

The EastAfrican
By The EastAfrican
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It was a close call, but whether President Museveni and his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame view it that way is a subject of conjecture.

The Rwanda border closure claimed its second and third victims on May 25, when Rwandan troops shot dead John Batista Kyerengye a Rwandan trader and Alex Nyesiga, a Ugandan, a short distance into Ugandan territory at the Kamwezi border crossing.

As would be expected, the circumstances surrounding the deaths are a contested matter, with Uganda using the bodies that were recovered from its territory as evidence of an incursion; while Rwanda offered a counter-narrative of its troops using deadly force in self-defence after a Ugandan mob obstructed their efforts to apprehend a smuggler.

According to witnesses, Rwandan border security pursued Kyerengye into Uganda to arrest him for attempting to smuggle used clothes into Rwanda.

He was shot dead alongside Nyesiga, who tried to intervene in the scuffle.

These deaths came after the March 27 death of Elizabeth Mukarugwiza, a 37-year-old expectant Rwandan, who collapsed and died on Ugandan territory as she fled hot pursuit by Rwandan border security at Cyanika, another crossing between Rwanda and Uganda.

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Questions over responsibility aside, the two incidents highlight two lessons about Rwanda’s one-way closure of its border with Uganda to its citizens that is now into its third month.

The first is that for many ordinary people trapped across the divide, criss-crossing the border is a crucial livelihood activity.

The second is that the neighbours are sitting on a tinderbox, with the looming risk of the standoff degenerating into something worse.

If Uganda was maintaining a troop deployment within visual range of the Rwandan patrol involved in the May 25 incident, the possibility is high that the region could soon be dealing with an active conflict, in which the hazy outlines of the truth will be barely discernible in the flames and smoke of war.

These events are all the more confusing for citizens and observers alike, because on the few occasions they have happened to meet – like during the swearing-in ceremony of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on May 25 – Museveni and Kagame appeared to be civil together, even engaging in conversation.

It is unacceptable that ordinary citizens should continue to suffer because of a rift between their leaders, especially when there are simple practical steps that can ease tensions.

Rwanda has protested the arrest and detention of its citizens without trial by Uganda. Kampala accuses them of being spies.

Since their value as spies is largely diminished once their cover is blown, Kampala could simply deport them, especially given that it is having trouble putting them on trial within a reasonable time.

Kigali has told its citizens that they are taking a large risk when they travel to Uganda, but many don’t perceive that as a risk.

The deaths of ordinary people at the hands of their government when they try to ignore that warning is hardly the outcome Rwanda would have intended. A travel advisory against Uganda would have absolved the state of its responsibility while leaving the door open to other alternatives.

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