Kigali and Kampala deny it in equal measure, but the fact is that the common border is partially closed.
Ugandan traders are counting losses just as are cross-border passenger transporters whose fleets have been grounded following Rwanda’s decision to stop its citizens from travelling to Uganda.
Signs that something big was afoot first appeared on the evening of February 27, when road travellers who left Kigali for Kampala, were stopped by Rwanda’s immigration authorities at the border.
A day later, commercial vehicles from Uganda were stopped at the main crossing at Gatuna, ostensibly to create room for ongoing construction of border post facilities. It was only after drivers who had been diverted to alternative crossing points at Cyanika and Kagitumba were denied entry, that Rwanda made public a number of grievances with its northern neighbour.
In the context of time, Rwanda’s grievances such as unfair targeting and mistreatment of its citizens and Uganda’s alleged support for its adversaries were not new, having been the subject of several rounds of engagement between the two countries over the past year.
What was rather shocking was Rwanda’s actions despite the existence of regional mechanisms to resolve such challenges. Rwandan President Paul Kagame is, in fact, the chair of East African Community, having taken over from Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni on February 1. Indeed, the EAC has been loudly mute, which is perhaps a reflection of the complex vested interests.
This latest chilling of diplomatic relations suggests three things. First, that the issues between the two countries cannot be resolved at a bilateral level.
Second is that despite its high sounding name, the so called East African Community Conflict Resolution Mechanism is not structured to deal with the kind of issues eating away at Rwanda.
Alternatively, it can be read that Kigali was not getting the kind of responses it expected from Kampala, forcing it to leverage on the crucial movement of people and goods to jolt the neighbour into action.
Yet, with hindsight, what is happening should not be surprising and has the potential of happening across the EAC. Subterranean tension continue unabated between the neighbours. As Kampala and Kigali flex muscles, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam are bickering over double testing of exports and imports passing through their common borders.
In the latest stand-off with Uganda, Rwanda has turned all regional trade protocols on their head by doubling or introducing tariffs on Ugandan products and services.
This current stand-off tells us that it is the lives of ordinary citizens who are the basic building blocks of regional integration that are at stake.
It also shows the missing element of citizen agency in the EAC integration project. Despite having a regional parliament, citizen roles remain peripheral with the East African Legislative Assembly largely operating as an elitist echo-chamber.
Perhaps the only silver lining in the Rwanda-Uganda tiff is its demonstration that the EAC has reached a level where the ripple effect from the actions of just one member have region-wide implications.