For the umpteenth time, President Paul Kagame has had to explain that issues that have bogged down relations between Rwanda and Uganda have nothing to do with the border, pointing out that even without the borders, Rwanda would still have issues with her neighbour to the north.
There could never be a better setting to explain the genesis of the conflict which is now nearly three years, than a lunch sitting with all the diplomats representing their countries and international organisations in Rwanda.
Traditionally, every end or beginning of the year, President Kagame and the First Lady Mrs Jeannette Kagame host the diplomats accredited to Rwanda to a dinner or luncheon to celebrate the past year and set momentum for the New Year.
This year’s event happened at Kigali Convention Centre on Wednesday, only this time the First Lady could not make it having traveled for other duties as President Kagame explained.
The Head of State used the opportunity to thoroughly explain the cause of the breakdown in relations between Rwanda and Uganda, which was triggered by the illegal detention of Rwandans in Uganda nearly three years ago and Kampala’s reported romance with armed groups fighting the government of Rwanda.
It all started with a joke by President Kagame that apparently, leading the East African Community (EAC) which has fewer countries has become more difficult than leading the African Union which has many member states.
“Even with fewer countries, being the chair of the Community this past year, is more difficult than leading the whole continent, with so many countries,” President Kagame said, in reference to Rwanda’s ending tenure of the EAC chairmanship.
“Well, I even find a lot of problems leading my own country, and it is just one country. So leading a community is assumed to be more difficult,” he said, adding that there has been good progress in the past with both the bloc and the secretariat serving the region well.
Rwanda will hand over EAC chairmanship to Kenya this February.
President Kagame said that though there has been progress on free movement of people and goods, there have been challenges with Rwanda’s neighbours, in reference to Burundi and Uganda but he chose to dwell on the latter, owing to the recent tensions that have affected relations between the two countries.
He recognised that there has been progress as the two countries try to work out a solution but there is still more work to do, owing to the fact that the issues that have led to the deterioration of ties remain in place.
President Kagame once again made it clear that the situation has nothing to do with the border as Uganda continues to make it appear, but rather issues that Kigali raised with Kampala that led to the partial closure of the main frontier at Gatuna.
“You know, people talk a lot about integration. Integration has something that relates to borders. So currently we have some difficulties along our border. But looking at it, you would assume it is just the border,”
“No, there is what causes the difficulties at the border. And I think those ones need to be paid more attention to,” President Kagame told the envoys.
He then went on to explain how the situation evolved to the point of having difficulties at the border, something he said emanated from a different issue altogether –the illegal detention of Rwandans.
“It’s because of something else. We have to address something else, and by that we will be addressing the difficulties at the border,” President Kagame explained.
“Even without borders — let’s suppose borders were removed in the East African Community. For Rwanda, we have Tanzania to the east, Burundi to the south, DRC to the west, Uganda to the north,” he said, explaining how even without borders, neighbouring homes still have issues.
“Where I live, an hour away by road, I have a neighbour. If you remove the border, the one on this side of the borders becomes a neighbour. Then another becomes a neighbour, and another, and another. Communities will always have neighbours,” President Kagame said.
To emphasise his point, President Kagame said that minus the border, which Uganda has made the issue about, there are pertinent concerns that the neighbour to the north has ignored and failed to address, diverting the issue to border closure.
“Why am I saying this? In my community, my home, we have neighbours around. Depending on how I treat my neighbour, or how the neighbour treats me, we can have freedom of movement, or a relationship, and so forth,”
“But if my neighbour tells me, if I find you in my home compound, I will do something to you. What that results into is you are now creating a border, a line between your home and mine. Just by the statement,”
“If I am moving around and loitering and find myself in your compound, and you say this is a no-go area, don’t step here. Stay in your place. You have already created a border between these families,” he said, adding that this is what happened between Rwanda and Uganda, in reference to the illegal detention of Rwandans.
“We have had hundreds of Rwandans arrested in Uganda. And we have raised this matter with Ugandan authorities,”
“We have hundreds of families coming and appealing to us, asking why don’t you ask Uganda to release our people. And that matter has been raised with Uganda repeatedly, several times, by different layers of our administration. I myself travelled there,” he explained to the diplomats.
He said that the families of the people detained in Uganda as him what he is doing to have their people released and brought back home.
“These are people who travelled there for business, students studying there, all kinds of things,” he said adding that despite his efforts, nothing happened.
“In fact, what resulted into the so-called closure of the border — it is not really closed as such. I will tell you the facts and you will make your own conclusion,” he said, adding that because of the unending arrests, the only option Rwanda had was to tell citizens who have not been arrested yet not to go to Uganda.
“Just stop going there because if you go there, I have no control. They may arrest you, and your families will come to me and say you have been arrested. And there is nothing I can do about it,”
“The only thing I can do is advise you not to go there. But we did not stop Ugandans from coming here. They have been coming. And the only border that is closed is Gatuna. Kagitumba and Cyanika and other places are being used,” President Kagame said.
In reference to efforts by the two countries to thaw relations, President Kagame said that recently something he would call progress happened, following the August 2019 meeting in Luanda, Angola, initiated by President João Lourenço.
“We went to Angola, with the President of Angola and the President of DRC, the four Heads of State. We said what we wanted to say, and agreed later on that we would do something about it. Recently the progress is that some of the people who have been held in prison for months or years were released, nine of them,”
“Well, if you add to others released before, maybe you get to twenty, but unfortunately some of them have been dying as they arrive back home. If you do a post-mortem you find they have been tortured very badly,” he said.
Regarding the 9 released earlier this month, President Kagame said that a number of them remain in hospitals where they are being taken care of, something he said the Minister of Health knows about.
“There are clear marks of torture. We get information that some of those who remain there have died,” President Kagame said.
President Kagame said that regardless of what happened to the 9 in Uganda, he still considers it good progress but the demands that have come from Kampala following the gesture are what he has a problem with.
He said that upon releasing the 9, Kampala said that Rwanda should reciprocate the good gesture by doing something, to which Rwanda asked “what?” and Uganda responded ‘open the border’ and allow Rwandans to start traveling to Uganda.
He revealed that one of the officials who came to see him told him to make a statement saying that Uganda has released 9 people ‘everything is okay, you can start going to Uganda’ but he was not buying into that.
“I told this official, suppose I start doing that, and the next day and another day more Rwandans are arrested and those still in custody are not released. Are you suggesting I would go tell these Rwandans, you know what, I was deceived? Again stop going there?”
“So I told them, look, simply do us a favour. Just stop this thing with Rwandans because most of those arrested have no case, and if they have a case it hasn’t been put to courts for months and years. What kind of situation is this?” he said.
Though one problem was seemingly being solved, there were more issues that needed to be addressed, pointing out that he told the official to go and address the second problem of Uganda associating with groups they have been giving support to in order to destabilise Rwanda.
He said if that if that is done, automatically the borders would be open.
“It’s automatic. It’s just a direct consequence, a result of the other. I said, the matter is simple. Not a question of saying I do that, you do that. No, for us it’s one thing,” he said.
President Kagame revealed that he was being pushed to say Rwandans can start comfortably going to Uganda even when their safety is not guaranteed.
“That’s what I am being asked. And I am holding on to that because I am not yet comfortable that I can tell Rwandans to start doing that. That they won’t be arrested and relatives will then come tell me you put our relatives and friends into trouble,” the head of state said.
Going back to Luanda
Without giving dates, President Kagame said that ‘soon’ the Heads of State of the two countries will be going back to Angola again to review progress where it has been made, and reasons for lack of it in other cases, but told the diplomats that what he told them was the actual situation.
He said that in the midst of all this, there is so much talk about integration but integration of regions and communities does not happen just because one is making a slogan about it.
“No, it happens because you are doing the right thing which actually needs to be done in order for that to be realised,”
“You can say people are closing borders, because borders are there. In other words, they shouldn’t be there. I completely agree with that statement. We shouldn’t have even had borders,” he noted.
He said that for many decades, the colonial borders have been in place but whether they exist or not, good neighbourliness comes first.
“To remove them you must encourage good-neighbourly relations. Treat your neighbour as you want to be treated. Not just hunt people from the neighbouring country so badly, and then go back and say these border issues are rubbish and nonsense,”
“No, what is nonsense is what you do to your neighbour that actually creates that barrier. That’s why I was saying, even if it’s not a country neighbouring another country, it will be a family homestead neighbouring another family homestead,” he explained.
Even without borders, President Kagame said, there will either be a barrier between one family and another, or there will be good cooperation and exchange and things will happen the way they should happen.
“It doesn’t matter whether somebody else comes from another neighbouring country to praise you that you are the best person who has ever lived. I have no problem with anybody being the best person that has ever lived. But we must see it,”
“Somebody has to explain to me that it is because of these reasons that I am saying it. If you did, maybe you are right to praise this person, but you can’t praise that person on my behalf because I don’t agree with you. I don’t agree that this person is the best person that has ever lived in this region because I have suffered because of him,” President Kagame said.
Using an analogy of grass-thatched houses commonly known as “Nyakatsi”, which Rwanda has eliminated, President Kagame said that when you have so many grass-thatched houses next to each other, you don’t want to play games of throwing fire because you might get burnt too.
“When your neighbour’s house catches fire, your own grass-thatched house may also catch fire. That’s why cooperation is actually the best thing you can have,”
“Not just somebody who could be praised for being the best person who has ever lived, but plays games of setting fire to other people’s houses,” he said in an apparent reference to his Ugandan counterpart.
He said that Rwanda has learned from experience and knows how bad it is to burn people’s houses or to hurt people, knowing how much it costs.
“So for us we don’t play those games of setting fire to other people’s homes. But we invest ourselves and everything we have in trying to make sure that our homes and houses are well-protected, that they don’t catch fire easily,”
“And make sure that whoever wants to set fire to our houses will do it at a very huge cost to himself. I’ve said too much, I didn’t want to say this, but sometimes you need to release. This has been weighing on me and I needed to let it go,” President Kagame said adding that Rwanda remains prepared to play her role in normalising relations.