In early October, Uganda impounded four Kenyan trucks carrying fish to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ugandan officials alleged the fish were immature.
A delegation from Kenya that travelled to free the fish stormed angrily out of a meeting with Ugandan officials. On the Kenyan side of the Busia border, angry fish traders staged protests over their impounded cargo.
The fish fight caught the eye of a veteran Kenyan journalist who was investigating a puzzling story in western Kenya. There had been a wave of attacks on small and medium-size poultry businesses, many of them being run from their owners’ backyards.
He had been told that the attacks were related to the border kerfuffle between Rwanda and Uganda 740 kilometres away, which had partially or completely closed their main official border trading point of Katuna for over two years. Combined with a political stand-off, the once-lucrative trade between the two countries has largely collapsed.
But there is no more adaptable and indefatigable creature than the cross-border trader in Africa, or indeed elsewhere in the world, and the Rwanda-Uganda tiff wasn’t going to get in their way.
The journalist’s finding at that point was that considerably cheaper Ugandan food products that used to be sold to Rwanda, especially eggs, were making their way to Kenya from where they were being re-exported, depending on the player and products, to Rwanda over Lake Victoria to Mwanza, or by road, via Tanzania.
Some products allegedly were being airfreighted, and others were making their way back through Uganda again, to DRC, and then Rwanda. In other words, the East African cross-border show hasn’t stopped, it’s just that the fellows who are chopping off their share are different.
Kenya being Kenya, many lucrative businesses usually develop ruthless cartels that eliminate competition and use illegal means to protect their market. The vandalism of poultry businesses in western Kenya, according to the journalist’s information, were the actions of the Kenyan egg cartels that have emerged over once-Rwanda-bound Ugandan eggs, to protect the price, and leave them a margin for re-export to Rwanda or DRC.
It was as strange and unbelievable a story as I had ever heard, but he had his facts. When we met, he mostly wanted to find out if I thought the Uganda-Kenya fish fight was part of the re-export of Ugandan products from Kenya to eastern DRC to Rwanda, or indeed what he saw as a three-way scramble between Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya for the lucrative DRC market.
I hadn’t paid too much attention to the fish scuffle and was unaware of the re-export by wily Kenyan traders of Ugandan goods to Rwanda (or anywhere else), but the romancing of DRC by the three countries, has been full-on in recent years.
Uganda’s recent entrance into DRC to chase down the Islamic State-affiliated Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), who regrouped inside ungoverned parts of eastern DRC since they were pushed out of their Ugandan bases more than a decade ago, is the security facet of the wider geo-economic gambit of DRC President Felix Tshisekedi with Rwanda and Uganda.
Well before ADF suicide bombers started pulling the trigger on their rucksacks in Kampala, Uganda had moved to build the roads inside DRC that it is trying to fast-track now as part of its counter-insurgency.
Last June, in a ceremony attended by both President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and President Tshisekedi, their governments broke ground on the first of three roads that will connect their two countries. Altogether, the roads will have a length of 223 kilometres.
The roads were approved by Uganda’s Cabinet in October of 2019, and are expected to cost around $330 million. Each government will contribute 20 percent of the cost. With a mouth-watering population of 90 million, the DRC has become a prized market for Rwanda and Uganda, and a new frontier for Kenyan finance capital.
For its part, Rwanda is building four new ports and ferries along Lake Kivu to boost its trade with DRC. In June, Rwandan President Paul Kagame and President Tshisekedi schmoozed across their common border, the site of the world’s second-busiest land border crossing.
First, President Tshisekedi came across to Rubavu, in Gisenyi on the Rwandan side, and they hung out. The next day President Kagame crossed over to Goma, the capital of northeastern DRC’s North Kivu Province, and they hung out again.
They signed three agreements on bilateral co-operation. The ill-tempered Nyiragongo volcano had erupted a few weeks earlier, on May 25, killing 32 people and destroying 1,000 homes. President Kagame promised that Rwanda would build low-cost houses for some of the Congolese affected by the volcano.
Sources in both Kigali and Kampala admit that President Tshisekedi could be playing Kigali and Kampala against each other.
“He knows that with Uganda’s oil pipeline, they need to secure it against ADF, and to create a spill-off market, so it desperately needs DRC on side,” one of sources said. “On the other hand, with its rise as a central African economic powerhouse, and for security reasons, Rwanda needs DRC more than ever.” President Tshisekedi, he acknowledges, has been shrewd in playing off their needs and affections better than his successor Joseph Kabila, or his slain father Laurent Kabila did.
“Uganda and Rwanda are too proud to kiss Tshisekedi’s ring of feet, but they are practical and needy enough to get into bed with him and cuddle,” he said.
For now, Kenya has been content to keep away from the fray and eat the fruit at the top of the DRC tree, concentrating mostly on banking.
The fish kerfuffle could be a hint that its traders are angling for the low hanging fruit too. And if reports of re-exports to Kigali are true, they are also eating Uganda’s Rwandan lunch. Uganda will likely not be too pleased if it caught them in the act. But first, it has to catch them.
All this will be moot when the DRC is admitted into the East African Community. For now, President Tshisekedi is not shy to charge Rwanda and Uganda a king’s ransom to access his market. And they are happily holding their noses and paying it.