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Uganda to construct a road to Burundi through Tanzania, to avoid Rwanda

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Friday, 11 June 2021 12:07

Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni follow the proceedings of the 20th anniversary commemoration of the Rwandan genocide, in Kigali April 7, 2014. REUTERS/Noor Khamis

Rwanda's Paul Kagame and Uganda's Yoweri Museveni were allies in the 1980s when they fought alongside each other to overthrow dictatorial regimes. However, their friendship turned sour along the way and their frosty relations have impacted agreements that seek to ease cross-border trade in the East African region.

At one time, Uganda was asked to provide passports to several Burundi rebels so they could travel easily in the region. Adonia Ayebare, Uganda’s permanent representative to the UN, revealed this in the eulogy of Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza – who died suddenly last year.

Adonia said the request for passports was made during peace talks (held in Arusha, Tanzania) between the Burundian government and then rebel movement CNDD-FDD (which was led by Nkurunziza in the early 2000s).

“Nkurunziza chose Sula Kato, his favourite soccer player in Uganda, having seen him score a wonder goal against the Burundi national team,” said Adonia, the special envoy who represented Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni during the peace talks. Museveni was one of the facilitators of the peace process and a guarantor of the signed peace agreements.

Talks are still ongoing quietly to break the deadlock so that we can get into serious discussion of addressing issues that brought us to the situation we are in today.

It was during this process (that lasted almost a decade, from 1996 to 2005) that Uganda firmed up its diplomatic relationship with Burundi. Adonia accorded Nkurunziza’s successor, Evariste Ndayishimiye, a special treat on 11 May when he flew to Bujumbura aboard Uganda Airlines to pick him up for Museveni’s swearing in ceremony. This was Ndayishimiye’s first visit to Uganda.

Ndayishimiye spent two more days in Uganda and during the discussions with Museveni, they agreed to construct a road connecting the two countries through Tanzania. They said the road will bolster trade between their two countries.

More specifically, it would also create an alternative route following Rwanda’s closure of the main border with Uganda in 2019. Rwanda was Uganda’s main transit point to Burundi but two years later, the border remains closed.

Brothers’ mistrust, quarrels

Rwanda accuses Uganda of harbouring the Rwanda National Congress (RNC) that was formed by high ranking officers – from the former Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) – who are now dissidents living in foreign countries. Rwanda has long described the RNC as a terrorist organisation that intends to destabilise Kigali.

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In February 2020, the fourth summit was held in Gatuna, Rwanda’s side of the closed border. The venue was chosen with the hope that based on progress from previous meetings, an agreement would be reached to reopen the border; and thereafter, Museveni and Kagame would walk to the border and symbolically reopen it.

However, this strategy failed because Kagame insisted that Uganda must first verify the claim of “actions from its territory by forces hostile to the government of Rwanda.”

Museveni has never complained of Rwanda infiltration of Uganda’s security agencies, but months before Rwanda closed its borders, Museveni sacked his police chief for allegedly working closely with Rwandan  security agencies.

The Ugandan President also ordered the arrest of several senior police officers – most of whom were close to the sacked police chief – and they were subsequently charged with the abduction of Rwanda’s refugees.

Unlike Museveni, Kagame only throws jabs at Uganda. Last month, while addressing the RPF, Kagame said their northern neighbour (Uganda) has a problem. “I lived there, I worked with them. If you asked me to tell you its (crisis) roots I don’t understand,” Kagame said. “For me, I will roof my house so that I do not get rained on. I will put strong doors so that you cannot intrude and take my property. If you force your way in, I will force you out.”

And in an interview last month, Kagame made reference to Uganda saying: “In this relationship, there can’t be a ‘big brother’ telling the other ‘do this or do that.”

Rwanda, Burundi mistrust

Rwanda and Burundi have also had a frosty relationship since 2015 after accusations that Kigali was behind the unsuccessful coup.

A UN report pinned Rwanda on training Burundi soldiers who participated  in the coup but Kagame dismissed the report. However, after Ndayishimiye took over as Burundi’s President, the two countries have started talks to normalise their relationship.

Burundi is keen to bolster trade with its neighbours. During his visit to Uganda, Ndayishimiye invited the business community to invest in his country, promising incentives. He also visited Kenya at the start of this month and signed a deal with the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KNCCI) to increase trade and investments between the two countries.

Beyond security

Mistrust and failure to resolve disagreements could be what forced Uganda to opt for another route to connect to Burundi.

Uganda lost a big market for its export market in Rwanda. In 2019, Uganda exported goods worth $194m to Rwanda and the value of exports diminished to $5m in 2020, a year after the border was closed, according to statistics from Bank of Uganda. Rwanda exported goods worth $16m in 2019 and $7m in 2020.

It should be in the interest of every leader to see that both Rwanda and Uganda are at peace sustainably.

Uganda’s state minister for foreign affairs, Okello Oryem, says not much progress has been made. Talks are still ongoing quietly to “break the deadlock so that we can get into serious discussion of addressing issues that brought us to the situation we are in today.”

Oryem adds that Rwanda tabled more demands beyond the release of its abducted citizens. “Rwanda is saying that we should allow RwandaAir to fly via Entebbe International Airport to London’s Heathrow Airport. That’s one of the issues they allege is an obstacle to resuming normal relations,” Oryem says.

It’s impossible for Uganda to let RwandaAir use Entebbe as a hub to connect to London given that Uganda recently revived its national carrier, starting with regional flights, he adds.

Uganda has purchased two airbuses for long haul flights and London is among the routes that the national carrier is targeting. “We hope that eventually, they will see the light and accept that some of the issues they are raising cannot be on the discussion table,” Oryem said.

Wilson Kajwengye, a former director of peace and security at Bujumbura based International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) says it should be in “interest of every leader to see that both Rwanda and Uganda are at peace sustainably.

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