Meeting raises hope for improved relations between Kampala and Kigali
Kampala, Uganda | RONALD MUSOKE | A recent one-day state visit by Rwandan President Paul Kagame to Uganda on March.25 has raised hopes that relations between the two countries might return to normalcy again after several months of heightened tensions.
Kagame, who was accompanied by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Cooperation and East African Community and other officials, met President Yoweri Museveni at State House, Entebbe.
The meeting has been seen as a major diplomatic relief to the two countries, which have the closest historical ties in the region that make them strategic security and trade partners.
Rwanda is Uganda’s third largest market in the region after Kenya and DR Congo. In 2016, for instance, Uganda exported $ 226m to Rwanda and imported $ 12m from Rwanda, according to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS).
Kenya, the biggest economy, exported $485m to Uganda and imported $483m from Uganda. Even though Uganda made more money from Kenya than Rwanda, Uganda has a better balance of trade with Rwanda, which makes it more strategic.
Indeed, more people cross from Uganda to Rwanda and viceversa than from any other country in the region. Rwanda also brings the biggest percentage of tourists into Uganda, according to UBOS statistics.
Despite these ties, Kampala and Kigali had for months been drifting apart. On Dec.29, last year, the Rwandan government, through its foreign affairs ministry, wrote a protest note to the Ugandan government condemning what it called ‘multiple unjustified arrests” of its citizens in Uganda without informing its High Commission in Kampala.
This followed the arrest and deportation of five Rwandans living in Uganda through Katuna border post on Dec.28. No reason was given for the deportation executed by the Immigration Directorate.
When The Independent early this year interviewed Maj. Gen. (Rtd) Frank Mugambage, the Rwandan High Commissioner to Uganda, he said that over the years, Rwanda and Uganda have developed mechanisms, including a memorandum of understanding and a Joint Permanent Commission headed by the two states’ ministries of foreign affairs.
“These frameworks were put up to solve challenges that often come up between countries. But even with these mechanisms, the Rwandan government has been surprised by the illegal and unjust arrests of Rwandans in Uganda,” Mugambage told The Independent.
“We only discover that those behind the arrests are agents of the Ugandan state because we find information from those arrested that they have been held by institutions of the Ugandan state—particularly the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI).”
He said all the arrests were happening outside the formal arrangements that were put in place to deal with issues like this. That is why, he said, in our effort to build relations, we demand explanations so that these issues do not interfere with the positive things that we are doing together.
Uganda was accusing Rwandan intelligence services of infiltrating Uganda’s security services especially the police and using them to kidnap Rwandan refugees and forcefully taking them back to Rwanda.
Rwanda, on the other hand, was accusing Uganda of planning regime change, a charge Kagame bluntly put before Uganda’s minister of foreign affairs, Sam Kutesa, when Museveni sent him to Kigali as a special envoy at the beginning of this year.
Sources say that after Kutesa’s visit to Kigali, Uganda’s foreign minister advised Museveni to meet Kagame in a neutral country. Museveni then called Kagame and arranged for a meeting in Addis Ababa.
Kagame and Museveni met in Addis Ababa on Jan. 29 but sources close to both presidents say the meeting between Museveni and Kagame in Addis Ababa did not achieve much.
Later, many speculated worsening tensions were the reason President Kagame did not attend the East African Heads of State Summit held in Kampala on Feb. 22 to raise funds for health and infrastructure projects. But insiders say President Kagame had state guests at home.
A month later, President Museveni also called off his trip to Kigali, where he was scheduled to attend and sign the African Continental Free Trade Area treaty on March 21. Reports indicated that the cancellation was in reaction to a disagreement between Museveni’s advance protocol team with the security team in Kigali.
Again, observers concluded that the tensions were getting worse. Kagame’s visit on March 25, which came days after the Africa Summit in Kigali, appears to have changed that impression.
Out of the media glare, on March.25 at 11:30am, the two presidents immediately got busy as they held a closed-door meeting at State House to iron out a number of issues said to be affecting the two states.