The East African Community has lost any hope of resolving the political differences between Uganda and Rwanda, which led to the closure of the common border in 2019, due to the lack of political for dialogue.
This has emerged as tension continues to simmer between the two former allies as bilateral trade suffers.
Rwanda is looking elsewhere in the region for trade and political partnerships, including mending fences with Burundi, with which it had been embroiled in disputes over security, and the new kid on the block, the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is gearing up to join the East African Community.
Uganda’s Junior Foreign Affairs minister Henry Okello Oryem told The EastAfrican this week that Kampala is no longer interested in talks with Kigali, as they believe they have done everything Rwanda asked before the talks and implementation of the earlier agreement.
“There is not much we can do if they are not willing to co-operate,” Mr Oryem said. “For now, we are not bothered, and you should ask those questions (about the border closure) to Rwanda. We are not the ones that closed the border, and it is now up to them to open it whenever they feel they should.”
Movement of people and goods remains restricted between them after closure of the then lucrative Northern Corridor border post of Gatuna/ Katuna in February 2019, almost killing cross-border trade and bilateral relations.
Rwanda accuses Uganda of fuelling instability by hosting hostile groups to the Paul Kagame government as well as torturing innocent Rwandans.
On its part, Kampala accuses Rwanda of conducting espionage on its soil.
While there has been no visible escalation of tension between the two countries, the issues remain unresolved. Diplomatic efforts by regional and international leaders have so far failed.
While Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has been cagey despite recent reports alleging that Rwanda deployed spying software Pegasus on Ugandan senior officials — allegations that Rwanda has dismissed as baseless — Mr Kagame has been outspoken at several forums, indicating that his issues with Uganda relate to the mistreatment of Rwandans in Uganda and sabotage.
“There are a number of issues that have to be resolved. It takes two to tango; both countries will continue searching for a solution to the problems that still exist. We understand the root cause, and should find a way forward and better understanding than we have had in the recent past,” President Kagame said last week in an interview with Al Jazeera.
He was responding to a question on the state of relations with Uganda.
Several talks, including four meetings between Presidents Kagame and Museveni mediated by Angola’s João Lourenço and DRC’s Félix Tshisekedi have not yielded much, apart from an agreement signed by the two leaders to end the longstanding tensions.
The treaty was at Katuna on February 21, 2020. Just last month, Uganda invited Rwanda for talks on how to implement the agreement, but Rwanda declined, noting that while they were open to talks, they would, in current circumstances, not engage Uganda because its agents continued to abduct and harass its citizens in Uganda and support political and armed groups hostile to Kigali.
Besides, the two countries’ heads of state, who have met at least four times before to iron out their differences under the arbitration of Angola and DRC, have not talked for months.
President Kagame said the communication with his Ugandan counterpart has “more or less stopped” of late.
Rwanda maintains that Uganda hunts down Rwandans, which President Kagame says “amounts to persecution.”
“But Ugandans coming to Rwanda, have not experienced the same hardship as Rwandans do when they go to Uganda. The problem of what led to the closure of the border needs to be answered before it reopens,” Mr Kagame said.
In September, while speaking to France 24, President Museveni indicated he had almost given up on the talks, as they were not yielding much.
Meanwhile, Kampala has continued to deport Rwandans on allegations of conducting illegal activities. Kigali says 2,567 have been deported since 2017 (1,943 men, 540 women and 84 children).
Kigali and Burundi have moved to solve their differences and this week, Burundi’s EAC minister Ezechiel Nibigira said theirs had improved significantly.
“We are taking positive steps towards strengthening peace and security. Burundi made efforts to help Rwanda twice when terrorists preparing to attack Rwanda were arrested and handed over to Kigali. Rwanda also handed over terrorists who attacked Burundi. This is a good gesture,” Mr Nibigira told the East African Legislative Assembly in Arusha.
As the stalemate persists, Rwanda has also diverted most of its trade to the Central Corridor linking it to the port of Dar es Salaam and is aggressively seeking alternative trading partners and routes. According to World Bank data, in 2017, Rwanda was Uganda’s fifth-biggest export market, taking in about $180 million worth of goods. Rwanda meanwhile exported goods worth $10 million to Uganda.
Ugandan officials initially downplayed the issue of the border closure, with the view that Rwanda would open it soon as most of its imports come through the port of Mombasa on to the Northern Corridor through Uganda.
The prolonged stalemate renders the multimillion-dollar border infrastructure, the Gatuna/Katuna one-stop border post, redundant at a huge cost to both countries and the East African Community.
The Gatuna and Kagitumba common border points have standard Customs and immigration facilities, warehouses and premises for commercial operators to boost traffic between Rwanda and Uganda whose trade volumes had grown significantly only to fall dramatically over the past two years, worsened by the coronavirus pandemic.
Rwandan businessmen have since turned to Tanzania and other markets for the goods they used to source from Uganda and exports.
Rwanda’s opposition leader Frank Habineza said that the Foreign ministry says the talks have stalled because of Covid-19, “yet torture of Rwandans in Uganda did not stop.”
“So the two countries should resume talks that lead to the reopening of the border. It is when there are differences that people need to talk more to each other,” he said.
In July, Rwanda handed over 19 men who allegedly conducted an attack in Burundi and fled to its territory last year. Burundi in October handed over 11 men believed to belong to the National Liberation Force (FNL) for allegedly planning to carry out an attack in Rwanda.
“This is the spirit that will help us move forward as a Community,” said the Burundian minister.