The end of the border closure between Rwanda and Uganda hinges on settling the issue of Rwandan rebels allegedly based in Ugandan territory. Tom Collins reports
On 21 February, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and his Ugandan counterpart Yoweri Museveni met at the shared Gatuna border post, the main transit point for the flow of goods and people between the neighbouring countries.
Following accusations that both sides were seeking to destabilise the other through the support of rebel groups and mistreatment of citizens, the border has been closed since last February and the latest upset in a complex but mostly amicable relationship has been ongoing since 2017.
Hopes of resolving the spat were restored last July when the presidents met in Luanda in a summit facilitated by Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The summit was followed by two more in the Angolan capital and the latest meeting at Gatuna.
The key outcome was a memorandum of understanding (MoU), which committed both parties to release citizens of the other country they had imprisoned, refrain from supporting destabilising groups and create a commission to monitor the implementation of the agreement.
Yet despite progress in some areas, observers believe distrust will continue and the border will remain closed in the absence of a mutually acceptable solution to the thorny issue of rebel groups.
Positive steps have been taken in the release and return of citizens. In January Uganda handed over nine Rwandans facing charges of illegal possession of firearms and ammunition, followed in February by 13 more arrested for espionage and security related offences, including two individuals wanted by Kigali in connection with an attack that killed eight people in northwest Rwanda last October.
Rwanda responded by announcing that it had already terminated the prosecution of 17 Ugandan citizens and released three who had already completed their sentences. All 20 were returned to Uganda.
However, as the process continues, some of the requirements integral to the cessation of hostilities seem less likely to be fulfilled. The communiqué from the latest summit called on Uganda to verify within 30 days whether groups hostile to Rwanda were operating from its territory, and to take action to prevent this happening should it be the case. Once this was established, a summit to discuss normalising relations and opening the border would be called within 15 days.
“The government of Rwanda insisted on its grievances or concerns being addressed by the government of Uganda before the issue of opening the border could be discussed,” says Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, a political analyst based between Kigali and Kampala.
“It will now depend on what Uganda does. Some sources have intimated that, should Rwanda find the response unsatisfactory, the border issue will not be resolved and the embargo on goods and services from Uganda will remain in place.”
At the time of writing, neither of the actions outlined in the communiqué had been completed and it looked highly unlikely that they would be within the given timeframe.
Rwanda has accused Museveni of supporting the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), an anti-Kagame group comprised of former government figures, and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu group with anti-Tutsi ambitions operating from eastern DRC. Kigali alleges that Uganda helped senior RNC figures Kayumba Nyamwasa and Patrick Karegeya flee to South Africa and continues to allow the group’s chief financier Tribert Rujugiro to operate from the country.
It has also accused Uganda’s minister for regional affairs, Philemon Mateke, of organising an RNC-FDLR meeting at a Kampala hotel in December 2018 and of supporting a lesser-known group called the RUD-Urunana in carrying out an attack on Rwandan soil. The minister has repeatedly denied the claims.
Museveni has been equivocal on his support for the groups, leaving analysts concerned that Uganda may find it hard to satisfy Rwanda’s most recent request.
“Some of the demands Rwanda has made, including that Uganda hand over RNC elements and also sanction Ugandan officials accused of working with Rwanda insurgent groups, are probably not going to be easy to address,” says Golooba-Mutebi. In a letter to Kagame in March 2019, Museveni admitted to “accidentally” meeting representatives of the dissident groups and hosting the financier, though his motives remain unclear.
Uganda has similar if lesser concerns around Kigali’s support for the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an Islamist militia operating from DRC’s North Kivu province, though its main bone of contention is the infiltration of its security apparatus by Rwandan agents. With such clear red lines, analysts fear an eventual bottleneck in the ongoing mediation efforts.
“We have no choice but to find ways of getting back to good relations but there is a lot of mistrust between the two and although they are giving a lot of reasons, the primary reasons are security in nature,” says Ramathan Ggoobi, policy analyst at Makerere University Business School in Kampala.
“They assured us that relations would be normalising soon, but that’s the story we had when they first met.”
Upcoming elections and changing regional dynamics may prompt both leaders to soften their stances. In 2018, Uganda exported $257m worth of goods to Rwanda, but this dropped to $54m in the following year, according to government statistics.
The exports range from animal products to construction materials, and many firms in the dairy industry that previously exported to Rwanda have closed after the loss of an important market, Ggoobi says.
Along with trade disputes with neighbouring Kenya, Uganda’s current account deficit rose to around $3bn last summer up from $1.23bn the year before. A stunted economy due to a surmountable spat with a once-friendly neighbour will not reflect well on the ruling party as it faces 2021 elections, and this may prompt Museveni to take Rwanda’s requests seriously.
“I think Uganda will work much harder to get the borders open because the leadership doesn’t want to have any bad points; they want to concentrate on retaining power and you wouldn’t want to give the population any excuse to support the opposition,” Ggoobi says.
Meanwhile, the DRC under new leadership has shown increased political will to bring peace to the eastern part of the country, which is where most of the insurgents in question are based.
Although President Félix Tshisekedi faces enormous challenges, his willingness to act as mediator between Rwanda and Uganda and wish to join the East African Community could have long-lasting implications for the region, especially with regard to security.
“On his role as a mediator, former DRC President Joseph Kabila never felt the need to step up in the region,” says Nelleke van de Walle, deputy project director for Central Africa at International Crisis Group.
“Tshisekedi saw an opportunity there. He is a new leader with no experience in civil war or a military background, but he does bring a new dynamic to the region. For the first time the DRC is part of a solution instead of a problem and that is something Tshisekedi would like to show the international community because he lacks internal support.”
Though his initial plan to invite Ugandan and Rwandan security forces into the eastern DRC was met with uproar from those who have accused both parties of violence and looting in the region, his continuing efforts could bear fruit.
As for Kagame and Museveni, many believe the two autocrats will not solve their differences in large mediation summits but through one-on-one conversations where the region’s unknowns can be placed on the table.