It’s no-longer news that Rwandan and Ugandan leaders don’t see eye-to-eye even though, in their early years, the Presidents of the two nations spent five years in the bushes of Luwero triangle fighting President Milton Obote’s dictatorship and after their triumph consolidated their comradeship by defeating the genocidal regime in Kigali and Mubutu Sese Seko’s kleptocratic rule in former Zaire─now DRC.
This comradeship was crowned by the two leaders giving each other medals and cows in their triumphant years.
Normally, the act of giving cows to friends symbolises unbreakable friendship in Rwandan and Bahima (President Yoweri Museveni’s ethnic group) cultures.
But politics being the software that anchors all the other relations between nations, when it diverges, even this long tradition of cementing friendships can’t secure harmony.
And the reason the unfortunate escalation between the two country must be pinned on the two presidents is because, as the common idiom goes, “the buck-stops with them”. If President Museveni desired it today, the arrest and torture of Rwandans in Uganda would stop just as the alleged support for RNC or economic sabotage, and border closure, would cease.
What’s news then is what the two leaders might do next─will they escalate the conflict to its worst conclusions, or will they heed the wishes of majority of their citizens and sue for peace?
As I have noted elsewhere, from everything I can see, it’s unlikely that the two countries will have direct military confrontation. Principally, this is because what’s at stake is simply too much and justifying war would be very difficult since the conflict isn’t based on clearly articulated national interest or irreconcilable differences.
And although many have correctly noted that this unfortunate conflict is hurting both countries─with some suggesting it hurts Rwanda more─since Uganda is its route to the sea and imports more from there, there is evidence to suggest that, when this dark cloud finally clears, many in Rwanda might look back and say that this was the moment that forced the country out of its comfort zone to look for opportunities elsewhere and in the process expanded its loop of friends and markets for its goods.
In the long term then, this logjam will bring more development not misery as some have predicted.
I offer four reasons for this prediction.
First, regardless of when the standoff ends, Rwandans and Ugandans are natural allies and will resume selling and buying from each other’s market; for, while individual leaders are mortal; markets and bonds between communities endure.
And the Ugandan route to the sea will still be there when the dust settles and will be re-used again─whenever necessary.
For short of direct destructive military confrontation, nothing can break the historical bonds, friendships, family ties and relations between the peoples of the two countries.
Secondly, from what I have seen and heard, this conflict has either forced or convinced Rwanda’s leaders to accelerate their policy of looking for opportunities from elsewhere on the continent. And traders are following the lead.
I came to this conclusion after listening to a number of traders who used the Kenyan Mombasa port via Uganda to export or import goods but who have since switched to using Dar Es Salam port in Tanzania.
My conclusion is also informed by President Paul Kagame’s journeys west and northwards of Africa where he is normally followed by RwandAir executives and traders in search of new opportunities and new markets.
My conclusion is also educated by President Museveni’s speech recently in which he belittled the Rwandan market and talked of bigger markets in Ethiopia and Kenya that his country can exploit.
As The chronicles reported on March 15, in his speech to his ruling NRM Parliamentary caucus, Museveni reportedly referred to Rwanda-Uganda deadlock as “these temporary things” and added that “Uganda exports to much bigger markets like Kenya and Ethiopia”
He clarified: “When there is a problem here, there is another compensatory opportunity somewhere else”
While Museveni’s observation doesn’t inspire confidence that relations between the two countries will be normalized soon and while some might say he was trying to play Big Brother, he also stated a fact; which is that there are many opportunities out there and far bigger markets that can be exploited.
What Museveni forgot however is that such opportunities and markets aren’t available only to his country; they can also be exploited by Rwanda as well!
In fact, it seems that’s what Rwanda’s leaders have been doing since at least around 2017, when relations started getting south again─after rapprochement of 2011 following the clashes of the armies of the two countries in DRC’s city of Kisangani in 2000 and the escape of Col Patrick Karegyeya in 2007 and Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa in 2010 through Uganda.
For instance, the refusal to give RwandAir flight rights to pick and drop passengers in Entebbe on its way to London didn’t deter launching direct flights to Gatwick in May 2017 but also bolstered the airline’s determination to launch new routes and established a hub in West African, Ghana that will be used to launch direct flights to the USA.
In December 2018, Yvonne Makolo, CEO of RwandAir told the media: “We are making sure the New York flight is able to connect to the East Africa region. We’ll be flying the Kigali-Accra-New York route, so we’ll be looking at the West Africa market”
Soon, direct flights will also be launch to Kinshasa in DRC─surely a bigger market than Uganda. This, after launching several other routes in West and central Africa, Including to Lusaka Zambia, Senegal, Harare in Zimbabwe, S. Africa, etc.
The killer is this: RwandAir is also soon scheduled to start carrying fish from Zanzibar to Europe.
As The Citizen newspaper reported on March 20, “Tanzanian [sic] and Rwanda are in talks to enable RwandAir transport fish from Mwanza Airport to overseas markets”.
Thirdly, besides forcing leaders and traders to look for markets elsewhere, the Rwanda-Uganda tiff has also forced the debate not only on the role of trade with neighbours in development but also the viability of the East African Community and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTA) in light of endless squabbles.
Finally, and most important, this debate has exposed the weakness of development strategy and policy in many African countries that tends to ignore intra-African trade and instead focus on trade with western countries; handouts from donors and internal taxation.
Unlike in the past, this debate now clearly shows that neighbors on the continent are partners in development; a factor that has traditionally lacked in development policy and practice on the continent.
This debate then challenges the development path many African countries have used for years in the past that focused on three things: (a) taxing the few companies and tax payers available in the country; (b) courting donors to directly fund budget deficit and (c) exporting a few commodities to traditional foreign allies and former colonial masters.
Rarely do African countries pro-actively seek to increase intra-African trade or move away from their comfort zones to work with non-traditional allies or nations they don’t share former colonial masters!
Now, Rwanda is daring to expand the boundaries and, when Uganda’s leaders next exchange gifts with ours, Rwanda will not have more friends from elsewhere, but will have solidified its Eastern route to the sea and explored more markets to sell and buy goods from.
In the end, while the deterioration of relations is highly regrettable, it seems, leaders and Rwandan traders have refused to waste this unfortunate crisis and instead exploiting it to do what they wouldn’t have done in normal situations.
And as history teaches, nations don’t take a turn towards development during peaceful times but largely when severely challenged by either man made upheavals or vagaries of nature.
One day in the future, we might look back and thank our gods for this tiff!