Like it did with new roads in DR Congo, Uganda appears to be working on a scheme to see its exports to Burundi go via a different route other than Rwanda.
For as long as trade between the two nations has existed, apart from air cargo, nearly all exports to each go through Rwanda, since Uganda has no common border with Burundi.
With Rwanda relations at their worst, Kampala and Kigali are sounding war drums. The common border is closed since March 2019. Rwandans have been barred from going to Uganda by their government, which accuses its northern neighbour of facilitating regime change in Rwanda. Uganda also claims the same about Rwanda. Regional talks have fallen flat, only coming out as photo Ops for the leaders.
Uganda wants to go further; suffocate Rwanda’s economy, so it clearly appears. Millions of dollars of Ugandan exports to eastern DR Congo town of Goma and others up north, as well as down south to Bukavu, have been going through Rwanda. That may be planned to fade away, hopefully, as Kampala is building a road network inside Congo to link it to Goma, and Bukavu – and all eastern DRC.
The same script has emerged with Burundi. President Evariste Ndayishimiye was in Kampala for the swearing of Uganda’s long-serving leader Yoweri Museveni on May 12. Ndayishimiye, who actually used Uganda Airlines despite having a presidential jet, combined the swearing fete with a two-day state visit.
After meeting Museveni on May 13, a communique by the two leaders says they “stressed the need to increase the volume of bilateral trade” between Burundi and Uganda. Museveni and his visitor Ndayishimiye also agreed to “[improve] road transport networks to connect the two countries”.
In other words, Uganda is looking to use the Tanzania route for exports to Burundi. The journey from Kampala to Bujumbura via Kigali is 722 kilometers, while the Tanzanian route is 788 kilometers – with the Tanzania route being 66km longer.
In business terms, 66km is extra cost on their trailers they would very gladly avoid if they had clear-cut choices. However, for the politicians Museveni and Ndayishimiye, better the longer route than go through Rwanda.
Burundi since 2015 accuses Rwanda of orchestrating the failed coup. Burundi is bitter, so much so that it has given a near-impossible condition for any reconciliation to begin; it has given Kigali a list of several dozen people it says where the coup leaders and are being protected in Rwanda, and wants them extradited. Kigali has refused, and also denied any role in the coup.
Current Burundi President Ndayishimiye, a key confidante of deceased Pierre Nkurunziza, has even described Rwanda as “hypocritical country”. Kigali for its part says Burundi has since 2018 been giving passage for FLN rebels trekking from eastern DRC, into southwestern Rwanda where they made several attacks killing and injuring many.
No details are avail as to what the Museveni-Ndayishimiye road network will look like in concrete terms. However, the Congo roads give an idea.
Uganda plans to spend 200 billion shillings ($53.6 million) on three roads into DRC. The plan emerged in October last year, with intention to build 1,200km of roads – many of which will be new because Congo has no roads. Uganda says it will build 223km from the total.
Jointly funded by Kinshasa and Kampala, the roads will run from some of Uganda’s border towns into DRC: one will run from Kasindi to Beni (80km) and another will integrate the Beni-Butebo axis (54km). The third will stretch for 89 kilometres from the border town of Bunagana, through Rutshuru to the strategic city of Goma, the capital of the North Kivu Province in DRC.
Uganda’s exports to DRC – mainly eastern, reached 177 million U.S. dollars in latest data, while it collects 2.5 million dollars from Congolese imports. Uganda sends all things including building materials and processed food like milk. Ugandans get mainly timber from Congo’s vast forests, and Kampala has also been accused by UN reports of being transit for illegal Congolese minerals. Uganda is also accused of exploiting Congo’s resources, with a case currently in an international court where Congo wants billions of dollars in compensation.
Rwanda has been the route for Ugandan trucks to eastern DRC for decades. With border nearly paralyzed, even though cargo is said to be allowed in, not much is going through. However, to know how Ugandan imports into Rwanda have dried away, walk around looking for Uganda Waragi, an iconic gin with global recognition.
Before 2019, Uganda Waragi was The drink for Rwandans, to the point that taking it was seen as classy. When the border was affected, its price nearly doubled overnight; then it disappeared from the market altogether. No official data is accessible on how much Uganda Waragi came to Rwanda, but it is said to have been competing with Uganda cement in Rwanda – a major export regionally.
Museveni now openly wants to bypass Rwanda to eastern Congo. Rwanda has accused Museveni of sabotaging the planned railway line from Mombasa (Kenya) to Uganda, then on to Rwanda. Instead, Museveni ignored the project by deciding to drop his portion of the Mombasa-Kigali standard gauge railway (SGR). Museveni opted to building railway to South Sudan.
Privately, in Rwanda, those in charge view this as just one of those projects Museveni is deliberately putting in place to suffocate Rwanda’s economy, and probably hope government changes.
When Museveni announced the Congo roads to Uganda’s parliament, the country was in shock. The loud opposition and civil society are perturbed as to how Museveni leaves the poor state of Uganda’s roads, to build them in another country. For him, though, once the Congo roads are complete, the returns from the massif trade will increase government revenue to be able to build more roads in Uganda.
The new Burundi roads, like the Congo roads have been dubbed, were announced as Tanzania’s new President Samia Suluhu was in Uganda twice in the same week.
Available data from the World Integrated Trade Solution portal that tracks global trade, shows for 2015, Uganda sent up to $46.2m worth of goods to Burundi – mainly consumer goods, metals and food.
Could it be that Museveni is wooing the Tanzanians onboard for another of his big dreams for Burundi, but actually targeting Kigali?