It is now seven weeks, close to two months since Rwanda, acting unilaterally, decided to close the common Uganda – Rwanda border at Katuna in Kabale and Cyanika in Kisoro district on 28 February 2019.
Initially, through the Rwanda Revenue Authority (RRA), Rwanda claimed the reason for the sudden border shutdown was to allow for the completion of the construction works for the One Stop Border Post (OSBP). Far from it, however, as it soon became abundantly clear that the motivations for the border shut down were informed by other ideas, “politics,” as President Kagame later succinctly clarified.
“The problem (of the border closure) is not the road or the road being constructed. The problem is politics,” said Kagame on 26 March while addressing delegates that were attending the African CEO Forum in Kigali.
Rwanda has since maintained a strong military presence along the common border, enforcing a “travel advisory” it imposed on her citizens not to travel to Uganda over allegations of arrests and torture. Kampala has consistently dismissed the allegations as baseless and unfounded. Close to two million Rwandans live in Uganda, many of whom are permanent residents.
Business between the interdependent border communities has been severely disrupted. Many Rwandans depend on Uganda for basic home user goods, food, and other services, and these are in short supply since the border shutdown. For instance, the price of a bar of soap has since risen from RF 1000 to RF 4000 (about UGX 15,000/-).
Some residents along the common border many of whom have relatives on the Rwanda side have told Kampala Post that they are considering abandoning their border homelands for other secure areas in Uganda due to the heightened fear violence could break out any time.
The people of Uganda and Rwanda, for social and historical reasons, have traditionally been allies. From 1959 up to 1961, following a period of intense ethnic violence between the Hutus and Tutsis, the first wave of Rwandan refugees fled to Uganda, which they would call home for decades to come. Many of Rwanda’s current leaders, including President Kagame, hail from that generation. Some of these Rwandan refugees, now naturalized Ugandans, were to participate in Uganda’s war of resistance by the NRA/M from 1981 which ended in victory in 1986.
In October 1990, led by Gen. Fred Gisa Rwigyema, a breakaway RPF force supported by Uganda invaded Rwanda, before scoring a decisive victory in 1994, overshadowed by 100 days of genocide whose scale shocked the world. Rwigyema was killed early in the war, with Gen. Kagame eventually assuming the reigns of leadership in the intervening years.
Here is a timeline of key events that have shaped the relations between the two countries in recent times:
August 1999: RDF Attacks UPDF in Kisangani
For inexplicable reasons, the Rwandan army attacked and blockaded UPDF forces in the DRC city of Kisangani, despite the fact that the friendly forces were allies fighting on the same side. One UPDF General was to later describe the action by the Rwandan partners as “treacherous.” “UPDF were stabbed in the back by their supposedly Rwandan allies, but as we now know very well, that has always been their modus-operandi,” he hastened to add. The attacks by RDF on UPDF positions were repeated in June 2000, and 2002, despite efforts by Uganda to smoothen the relations between the two countries.
2009 – 2017: Abduction and killing of Rwandan refugees in Uganda
For years, Rwanda government state operatives have with the help of some rogue elements in Uganda’s security services operated behind the back of Ugandan authorities to kidnap and sometimes kill dissidents and perceived Rwanda government critics who had sought refuge in Uganda. For instance, in November 2011, prominent Rwandan journalist Charles Ingabire was murdered in Bukesa, a Kampala suburb after being trailed for weeks by Rwandan operatives. A few weeks later, Jerome Ndagijimana, a member of the opposition United Democratic Forces of Rwanda had his throat slit at a store he worked in Kampala, and the assassins fled without a trace.
February 2019: Rwanda closes border with Uganda
On the morning of 28 February 2019, and without warning, Rwandan authorities unilaterally closed the common border with Uganda at Katuna and Cyanika, trapping hundreds of cargo trucks loaded with goods in the no-man’s land between the two countries. Ugandan foreign minister Sam Kutesa later said in a statement Rwanda had imposed a full-scale trade embargo on Uganda. Rwanda has also since maintained a heavy military presence along with the common frontier stocking fear and despondency amongst the border communities.