The appeasement between Rwanda and Burundi heads of state last week has signalled yet another step towards thawing of the two countries’ seven-year strained relations.
For the first time since officially coming to power, Burundi’s President Evariste Ndayishimiye sent his Minister in Charge of EAC Affairs, Youth, Culture and Sports, Ezéchiel Nibigira, to Rwanda.
The deliberations were not made public, but Rwanda announced that President Paul Kagame received the delegation and held discussions that focused on strengthening bilateral relations.
The two countries’ diplomatic relations turned sour in 2015 when former president Pierre Nkurunziza’s regime accused Rwanda of supporting its opponents and providing refuge to individuals behind the failed coup.
The latest development, which came against the backdrop of meetings held between both countries’ political and security officials, was widely viewed as a positive move towards normalising relations.
Years of disputes had led to the closure of common borders in 2015, causing the collapse of cross-border communities’ trade and businesses.
“I am expecting that relations will improve and borders will be opened once again,” said Frank Habineza, the Rwandan opposition member of Parliament who has been vocal about the loss of trade and livelihoods caused by strained relations with neighbouring countries.
Last September, the two countries held high level bilateral meetings between their Foreign Affairs ministers on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.
Last July, President Kagame sent Prime Minister Edouard Ngirente to Bujumbura to represent him at the celebration of the 59th Independence Day of the Republic of Burundi. This was the first time a high profile official from Rwanda travelled to Bujumbura, since the political crisis erupted.
President Ndayishimiye is said to be keen to mend fences with Kigali in a bid to unlock cross border trade and tourism opportunities.
Already, both countries have undertaken steps to iron out contentious issues including the return of Burundian refugees from Rwanda, who Burundi had accused Kigali of exploiting and offering military training.
Latest UN refugee agency (UNHCR) figures show that 29,041 of 47,653 Burundian refugees residing in Rwanda had voluntarily returned as of August 2021, while more have formally expressed their intention to return Burundi.
Kigali also banned media operations by exiled Burundian journalists on the Rwanda soil after Gitega raised complaints during attempts to mend frosty relations.
Their talks also centered on individuals on Gitega “wanted list” who include political figures, journalists and former soldiers the regime accuse of crimes linked to the 2015 coup.
In July last year, Rwanda handed over 19 armed men to Burundi who conducted an attack in Burundi and fled to neighboring Rwanda, whereas Burundi on October 19 2021 handed over 11 armed men believed to be from National Liberation Force (FNL).
More engagements among both countries’ military, security chiefs and provincial governors has also taken place, with top priority being enforcing security at common borders, handover of suspected criminals, and rebels. However, little has happened on t trade front, which continues to suffer, with local traders and manufactures bearing the biggest burden.
The 7-year long diplomatic crisis not grounded the livelihood of border communities, but also slowed down trade bewtween the two counties.
Rwanda trade with Burundi which stood at $20 million a year before the crisis, making the country Kigali’s second largest cross-border markets after DR Congo, has since declined $0.01 million recorded by the National Institute of Statistics’ formal external trade data for the third quarter of 2021.
The data show only $0.06 million in imports was recorded during the same period after posting zero imports for three consecutive quarters in 2020.
Rwanda’s nascent manufacturing sector players were the hardest hit as Burundi was a key export destination.
Local agro-processors and manufacturers of non-food items such as mattresses, and construction materials either run outlets or had trade links allowing them to supply to Bujumbura where they equally sourced relatively cheaper raw materials.
Routine movements attracted local and regional transport operators to plying the Kigali-Bijumbura route on regular basis.
However, Thierry Kalisa of Urwibutso Entreprise, a local agro-processing firm that had just entered the market through exhibitions said the 2015 crisis in Bujumbura and subsequent bad blood in relations saw them close shops and cut ties with distributors.
“We attempted DR Congo and other international market but it was logistically expensive in addition to higher taxes. Taking products to Burundi was much cheaper, in terms of market access and also the raw materials,” he said.
Like Mr. Kalisa, local manufacturers say they are closely watching developments in the two countries’ relations in a bid to tap into the once lucrative 9-million size Burundi market.
“We are watching very closely what’s happening and we are eager to see talks progressing,” said Martin Frank Nyabudara, ma anager of a 30-million litre capacity cooking oil plant in Bugesera District which borders Burundi.
“For us it’s logistically much easier selling to Bujumbura than selling internally to areas such as Nyagatare or Rusizi. Again, EAC tax protocols, where goods from the bloc are less taxed gave us a chance to expand into Burundi. But now all our clients were cut off.”