Relations between Uganda and Rwanda have abandoned all pretence to good neighbourliness in recent weeks as a border standoff lingers on, prompting an impromptu mediation effort by Kenya.
Tensions have been brewing since Kampala accused its neighbour of attempting to gag Ugandan trading activities inside Rwanda and through it to other countries in the region.
For weeks on end, trucks from Uganda laden with goods have complained of being in queues that stretch for almost two kilometres as they wait to be processed before crossing over into Rwanda through the Gatuna border post.
Some carrying perishables have complained that they have been stranded there for weeks.
Uganda’s Foreign Affairs minister Sam Kutesa entered the fray on Thursday, 14 March 2019, when he accused Rwanda of introducing an export permit system for those that intend to export goods to Uganda.
“This is a technical and non-tariff barrier to trade, to which there has been no successful applicant. In effect this is a trade embargo on bilateral trade with Uganda” he claimed.
Kutesa even went further to claim that Ugandan goods have been banned from entering Rwanda by the authorities in Kigali.
According to him, Rwanda was only allowing trucks carrying transit goods destined for the Democratic Republic of Congo and other countries in the region.
He however said despite this Uganda remains committed to the free movement of people and goods across its borders consistent with its obligations under regional and continental protocols.
But soon after Kutesa’s published claims, Rwanda hit back, saying the accusations by Kampala are diversionary tactics that distract from fundamental trade and other vexed issues raised by Kigali.
One such issue which had sparked a diplomatic row between the two countries is the fate of hundreds of Rwandans, whom Kigali say may have been either killed, arrested, incarcerated without consular access and tortured.
It also accused Kampala of illegally deporting one thousand of its citizens who were kept in ‘deplorable conditions’.
Another accusation from Kigali was nothing new.
It had harboured suspicion that Uganda was backing armed and subversive armed hostile to Rwanda and poised to overthrow the government of Paul Kagame.
They include RNC, FDLR and other groups, who are allegedly aided in their drive to recruit fighters ostensibly by institutions and officials in Kampala.
Kigali said despite repeated concerns it had communicated to the government of Uganda, there had been no reaction from Kampala.
Reports by authorities in Kigali indicate that the targeting of ordinary Rwandan citizens involved in regular business and trade activities, within the framework of the East African Community and the hampering of the free movement of goods, including perishables, to and through Uganda is another fundamental issue that needs to be addressed by the Ugandan government.
“It is not possible to have free trade including free movement of goods if traders are killed, tortured, extorted and their property are illegally seized,” a statement from Kigali said while stressing that its commitment to free movement of people, including Ugandans, goods and services within the region and on the continent is unquestionable.
Meanwhile Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has offered to be an honest broker between his Rwandan and Ugandan counterparts.
President Kenyatta met the two leaders separately, holding talks first with Paul Kagame in the Gabiro military base before flying to Entebbe in Uganda where he engaged Yoweri Museveni in a bid to diffuse the simmering tension.
It is clear Kenyatta may have to do a lot more to get relations between Kampala and Kigali working again.
In the meantime, truckers in Gatuna live each day of this nightmarish standoff with an air of desperate uncertainty and frustration.