Not so long ago, president Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, would have considered themselves to be strategic allies in the Great Lakes region of central Africa. Both countries have the Democratic Republic of Congo as a neighbour and both were accused by a UN Group of Experts of stoking conflict in the eastern part of the DRC. Both countries stood accused of covertly supporting the M23 rebel group and seeking to extend their respective spheres of influence in mineral-rich provinces of the DRC.
By early 2019, however, the strategic entente appeared to have disintegrated. Rwandan and Ugandan troops gathered at their respective border. Rwanda accused Uganda of secretly funding a para-military organisation called ‘Platform 5’, which is attached to a medley of anti-Kagame opposition groups. A UN Group of Experts report, released in December 2018, added credence to Rwanda’s suspicions that Uganda and at least one other neighbour, Burundi, were part of a coalition of conspirators. The leadership of Platform 5 is said to be dominated by intelligence and military officers who were trained and even served in the Ugandan military.
Platform 5 seeks to overthrow Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front. Complicating matters further are accusations from Uganda that Rwanda is seeking to undermine its territorial integrity and security. Both sides have been proactive in asserting that the other is hell-bent on nefarious activity. In February 2019, Rwanda shut its border with Uganda and warned its citizens that they would not be safe if they travelled there.
A few months later, relations worsened again after news broke of a shooting involving two Ugandan citizens and Rwandan security forces. The victims were accused of being tobacco smugglers seeking to enter Rwanda illegally. Ugandan sources accused Rwandan security personnel of illegally crossing the international border in pursuit of the suspected smugglers. At the time, the border was officially shut and wasn’t opened again until June. It was then shut again shortly after re-opening because of worsening relations between the two countries. Uganda accused Rwanda of trying to overthrow the government of Burundi and Museveni stated that the country would find ‘better markets’ if the security and trading relationship with Rwanda could not be restored. He made the announcement while wearing a military uniform, no doubt to remind his domestic audience that the border closure was a matter of national security.
The disruption caused to Uganda-Rwanda cross-border trade became the subject of a legal challenge in July. Three civil society organisations filed a complaint at the East African Court of Justice. The EACJ is based in northern Tanzania and is supported by Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. As the litigants noted, bilateral trade worth tens of millions of dollars was being jeopardised as a consequence of ‘continued arbitrary border closure’.
The three litigants argued that the ongoing disruption to trade was not only harming local traders and businesses, but was also a violation of the inter-governmental organisation, the East African Community. As part of the EAC, the six member states commit to a common market. Clearly border closures block trade in goods and services. Both Ugandan and Rwandan media has been filled with stories about traders suffering losses and communities being disrupted.
What are the prospects for the relationship between Uganda and Rwanda being restored? Parliamentary representatives from both countries used a recent meeting of the African Caribbean and Pacific-European Union Parliamentary Assembly to initiate dialogue. The stakes are high. The border remains closed and both leaderships accuse one another of funding spying, interference, and intimidation. Plans for another bilateral meeting were called off in November following the initiation of a September meeting involving the so-called Ad Hoc Commission on the Luanda memorandum of understanding. The MOU had been signed in August and it was hoped that the senior government officials attached to the Ad Hoc Commission would find ways to restore cordiality and address border closure. While the first meeting occurred in September, it was not possible to agree a follow-up. Uganda laid the blame at Rwanda’s door.
Amid all of this, the two veteran presidents have been trading barbs. President Kagame has been explicit in his anger at how this tension might destabilise the peace and security that the country so badly needed in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide. His Ugandan counterpart spoke more menacingly (‘Once we mobilise, you can’t survive’), and has struggled to see Kagame as a potential equal.
The truth of the matter is that both of them have rival geopolitical strategies for the African Great Lakes region and beyond. The border closure is really indicative of something far larger.
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