By Charles Birungi
As the European Union remains gripped by the tense latter stages of Brexit, the proposed withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, scheduled for 29 March 2019, another kind of exit, albeit more dramatic could well be on the cards – the Rwanda exit, or Rwexit, from the now revived and vibrant East African Community (EAC).
This follows the rapid escalation of border tensions between Uganda and Rwanda, in which the latter has not only blocked the export of goods and services from her neighbour to her territory, but has also banned and instituted physical measures to stop her citizens from travelling to Uganda citing security concerns. These belligerent measures by one state against another under a common economic treaty are unprecedented and had previously not been witnessed anywhere in the region.
Television footage from the border area in Katuna has over the last few days revealed the deployment of hundreds of Rwandan Defence Forces soldiers along the common border, ostensibly to stem the flow of Rwandan citizens defying their authorities to travel to Uganda. Many of these hapless citizens depend on Uganda for their livelihood and for basic requirements like food, healthcare and education. The deployment of the military by the Rwandan authorities has raised serious concern amongst the communities living on either side of the international border.
Trade war and sabotage?
Just over a week ago now (on February 28), the Rwandan authorities without prior warning suddenly shut down the busy Katuna One Stop Border Post (OSBP), grinding to a screeching halt the hitherto booming inter-regional trade between the peoples of the two countries.
Hundreds of trucks loaded with industrial goods, food stuffs, beverages and oil products destined for Rwanda, Burundi and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo were left in the lurch. Stranded on the Ugandan side and in the no man’s land these goods have yet to be cleared by Rwandan customs officials. Pleas by Ugandan customs officials to at least grant access to cleared trucks which cannot make a U-turn due to the resulting congestion at the narrow border post have so far gone unheeded.
Two weeks earlier, on February 15, Ugandan trucks loaded with over 32 tonnes of Tororo Cement were stopped at the Katuna border for inexplicable reasons, a grim warning of the dark clouds on the horizon. The cement trucks were a couple of days later cleared after intense negotiations by trade officials from the two countries.
Rwanda has consistently denied deliberately blocking goods from Uganda, claiming the Katuna-Kigali route is under construction. The other alternative border crossing points at Cyanika in Kisoro District was also closed to all forms of traffic, while the Mirama route in Ntungamo District, another formal crossing point, has not registered much progress (in terms of trading activity) since the border stalemate began over a week ago.
Common Market Protocol
In line with the provisions of the EAC treaty, the protocol on the establishment of the EAC Common Market entered into force on July 1 2010, following ratification by all the six partner states. The Common Market protocol provides for the four freedoms namely the free movement of goods, labour, services and capital to boost trade and investments in the region.
By seemingly impeding the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour to and from Uganda, a partner state, Rwanda is in blatant breach of the fundamental provisions that form the core of the spirit of the East African Community. Rwanda’s reckless actions threaten the progress made to date by member states to achieve the social, political and economic integration of East Africa.
The Common Market also entails a properly functioning Customs Union including complete elimination of all tariff and non-tariff barriers. However, a statement by the Uganda Media Centre in the days following the border shut down indicated that Rwanda has also unilaterally sought to more than double the tariff fees on Ugandan products in flagrant violation of both the Customs Union and Common Market.
What remedies are available?
Political observers in the region agree, and the business community affected by the border impasse have all called for quick dialogue between the two countries to resolve the issues that have led to the current stand off – issues which have left many casual observers confounded. The foreign affairs ministries of Uganda and Rwanda both indicated in media statements last week that they were ready to discuss their differences, but when a lasting solution would be found remains to be seen.
Rwanda without providing evidence among other things accuses Uganda of hosting elements hostile to the Rwanda government, alleged torture and harassment of Rwandans living in Uganda and restricting of business with Rwanda, issues the Ugandan authorities have strongly dismissed as false and lacking in substance.
Rwanda is the current chair of the EAC, and it is quite intriguing that an extraordinary summit to discuss the unfolding tense situation between the two neighbours is yet to be called. Although far-fetched for now, Uganda could well choose to appeal to the East African Court of Justice to arbitrate in the trade dispute, the body that has jurisdiction over interpretation and application of the EAC treaty and its provisions such as the Customs union and Common Market protocol.
Theogene Rudasingwa, the exiled former Rwandan Ambassador to the United States, in a compelling piece recently argued that efforts must be undertaken to de-escalate the build-up of tension between the two neighbours as any armed conflict could result in serious social, political, economic and military consequences for the people of the two countries.
Kagame runs to Tanzania
On Thursday March 7, President Paul Kagame touched down in the Tanzanian capital, Dar es Salaam, for an announced two day state visit, he was received by his counterpart President John Pombe Magufuli. The leaders were expected to hold bilateral discussions on issues affecting the East African Community.
President Kagame’s apparently hasty visit to Tanzania comes amid deteriorating relations with Uganda and long running strained ties with Burundi, both EAC partner states. With the Uganda-Rwanda frontier under lockdown, it is expected that top on the mind of Mr. Kagame is to find a remedy to his self-imposed blockade of his tiny land locked country.
Tanzania offers the only other viable access to the sea for Rwandan exports and imports. Regional commentators argue that Kagame is unlikely to find much succour in Tanzania, a country that has always been suspicious of his strong arm tactics against the majority of his population. Rwanda and Tanzania, have had very frosty relations for decades. In 2014, Tanzania brutally expelled thousands of Rwandan cattle keepers.