One of the things we re-confirmed from President Paul Kagame’s three-day meet-the-citizen drive in the northwest of the country is that while relations with the DR Congo have improved, that with Uganda remains on the rocks.
While in Burera district that borders Uganda, the President, according to media reports, encouraged leaders to provide services required by citizens so that they don’t have reason to cross the border and warned “our neighbours” against aiding the country’s dissidents.
For emphasis, the Head of State added, without naming any specific country that: “These neighbours of ours began long ago trying to cause us problems. It has happened all the time…”
Before his visit, senior government officials had been to the area discouraging citizens from crossing the border to Uganda – saying that the country has everything citizens need; a factor reiterated by the President.
But as The Chronicles reported, when the President spoke to residents of Rubavu district that borders DRC Congo, he encouraged them to do business across the border! He told them they are “…fortunate to be located at the border…” and “When there are good relations with our neighbour Congo, it is an opportunity we can leverage to grow…”
Beyond words, there is also evidence to show that relations between Rwanda and Uganda aren’t only getting worse, but are also adversely affecting business and fortunes of citizens on either side of the border.
For instance, while The chronicles reported on May 12 that “Prices of goods from Uganda [were] up] by] 40%”, The East African informed us on May 8 that “Uganda-Rwanda border bus operators withdraw their fleet” due to “mounting losses incurred due to the ongoing Rwanda-Uganda border crisis”.
And as The Chronicles further revealed, Uganda’s exports to Rwanda have dropped to $34.1m in the first quarter of this years from $51.9m in the same period last year.
While each side in this standoff claims to be looking for alternative markets, there is no denying that both sides are hurting, and the most affected are ordinary citizens who neither caused the standoff nor have effective voice to affect the behavior of leaders.
Besides the conflict’s damage to the economy of both countries, and social ties, evidence also shows that security has also been affected.
For instance, while Rwanda accuses Uganda of aiding its dissidents to the latter’s denials, towards the end of last year, DRC Congo arrested the spokesperson and the head of intelligence of FDLR – allegedly on their way from meeting Ugandan officials and representatives of Kayumba Nyamwasa’s RNC. The two were handed to Rwanda, and are regarded as evidence that Uganda, indeed aids the country’s enemies.
Further, as a UN Group of Experts report revealed in December 2018 about renewed recruitment by FDLR and the existence of new rebel groups like “P5” headed by Kayumba Nyamwasa, which was recruiting widely in the region.
Armed assailants have attacked Rwanda and killed civilians and burned cars.
For instance, in June armed assailants attacked border areas in the Southern Province killing two civilians and in December they attacked Rubavu and Nyamagabe districts in the Western Provide, killing three civilians and burning passengers vehicles in the latter case.
While Rwandan leaders interpreted these acts as “provocations” to lure the country into taking action against Burundi where some of the attackers originated and disappeared to after the attack, it wasn’t lost on objective observers that Rwanda’s claim that its dissidents are supported by regional political players, has merit.
Yet, despite this early warning and restraint amidst provocations, nothing has been done by either international community or regional players, to mitigate or resolve these conflicts.
Instead, almost all the six features that mark this unfortunate poor relations between these countries that are supposed to be friendly – owing to deep socio-economic and historical ties between the peoples of the two countries, and historical relations between their leaders, illustrate disinterest in resolving the problem.
The first feature is that Rwanda has consistently been public about its threefold problems it has with Uganda. These are: alleged support and funding individuals and groups bent on destabilizing the country; economic sabotage and arresting, torturing and illegally deporting Rwandans.
On its part, Uganda hasn’t officially accused Rwanda of anything; although, some of its leaders have alleged Rwanda is sending spies and supporting opposition elements to destabilize the country.
But President Museveni himself has publicly affirmed that there was no “fundamental problem” with Rwanda, and even directed his officials to desist from speaking about the issue.
The second feature then is that while Rwanda have publicly aired the problems and even mobilized citizens against crossing the border, Uganda’s leaders have largely been silent─except when President Museveni sent a letter recently to President Kagame claiming to have met RNC leaders “by coincidence”!
Instead of allaying fears, this meeting “by coincidence” letter seemed to have confirmed Kigali’s fears as some of its leaders ridiculed the claim.
The third feature is that both international community and regional players, like the African Union are silent on the matter─perhaps in the hope that the leadership of the two countries will find a solution to the problem.
The fourth feature is that, on social media, there is a decidedly partisan discussion on the matter with some Rwandans viewing Museveni as the problem and attacking anyone with a contrary view, just as some Ugandans are hostile to anyone who sees their leaders as the source of the problem.
This social media group isn’t helpful since it does not only use abusive language but also engages in the primitive politics of “us” against “them”.
The fifth feature is that, outside this small group of “we are right” and “you are wrong” parochialism, the media and regional intellectuals haven’t really rationally discussed the problem and pressured for a solution.
In the process, we seem to have arrived at an impasse─either we close our borders and live lives without looking or crossing over or, in the worst case, stumble into an unintended armed conflict.
The final feature─which is disturbing─but unsurprising, is that while both countries have Pan-African chapters, so far, no pan-African in either country has said anything about this conflict despite the fact that it undermines the interests of both countries and the fortunes of the East African Community, and Africa broadly.
So, we ask, why are Pan-Africanists silent about this conflict?
A colleague who follows these things told me that one of the reasons most haven’t commented on it is because it offers a zero-sum understanding of things such that individuals stay away from discussing it for fear of being perceived as unpatriotic by either side.
In addition, his view is that some Pan-Africanists in both countries also stay away from commenting on the matter for fear of contradicting their leaders and government.
In other words, our Pan-Africanists aren’t free yet?! It’s not yet Uhuru?!
For me however, as I have argued elsewhere, I think the central problem is that Pan-Africanism as an idea and ideology has little or nothing to say when it comes to internal relations within a state or relations between states beyond assuming “natural unity” and solidarity between African states.
In short, beyond preaching against the evil of colonialism, neo-colonialism and imperialism and mobilizing Africans against these oppressive systems, Pan-Africanism has nothing to say to Ugandan and Rwandan leaders or any other African leaders when they engage in acts that undermine each other!
Yes, at the rhetorical level, Pan-Africanists like Museveni would call for unity and a political union, but they don’t say what can be done, in practice, when the same leaders undermine this aspiration.
I’m I wrong? I hope I am!
I wait for the views of Pan-Africanists on this matter.