No free movement of goods without free movement of people

A view of the Gatuna One-Stop Border Post whose construction has reached advanced stages. (File)

The thing that continues to astonish – in the ongoing Museveni-created hostile relations between Kampala and Kigali – is how up to now so few Ugandans have shown concern for the more than a thousand Rwandans incarcerated in Ugandan prisons, or in the torture dungeons of its security agencies. 

There have been endless reports of Uganda Police in the border areas, most notoriously in around Kisoro, singling out Rwandans from buses at roadblocks and arresting them on charges of “illegal entry”. There have been equally numerous reports that “illegal entry” is a favorite concocted charge to harass, jail and torture Rwandans.

Media has interviewed very many Rwandan victims of Ugandan security forces, when taken into custody on concocted charges. Each and every one of the victims has said even when they showed a valid travel document, Ugandan security agents just confiscate them, and charge the Rwandans with illegal entry! They then take them away to unknown locations, from where, after torture they are transferred to prisons. 

None other than the Rwandan head of state has said, “If these people have committed crimes, why not try them openly in courts? Why not give the issue transparency?” 

There have been numerous reports that Uganda’s continued illegal arrests of citizens of a member state of the East African Community violate the protocols that established the EAC Common Market – specifically the laws on freedom of movement of peoples and goods. It has reached a point whereby Rwandan citizens are suing Uganda in the East African Court for violation of their rights.

The acts of Museveni’s operatives violate the very spirit of the EAC, “for if people can’t be allowed to have freedom of movement, how can there be free trade?” analysts not only in Rwanda, but in the region have repeatedly asked. The Museveni regime that always tries to portray itself as the best proponent of free trade is, with all the violations of the rights of Rwandans, its main impediment.

The arrest in October 2018 of Rwandan businessman Patrick Niyigena, 38, illustrates this hypocrisy perfectly. Niyigena was only transiting through Kampala to Nairobi when CMI goons pounced upon him at Owino market before boarding his bus to Nairobi. He told them why he was in Kampala – he showed him his ticket to Nairobi, and documents proving he was traveling there to buy refrigerator parts.

He said they still dragged him into their vehicle, of dark-tinted glass and drove him, blindfolded, to one of their “safe-houses” – ungazetted places of detention better known as places of torture. They beat him for three days and also injected him with a substance he had no idea of, all the time accusing him of being a “Kigali spy”. Then, after robbing him of his money, US$ 2600, dumped him on a roadside.

A country that shows such hostility to citizens of others cannot talk of free movement of people, or free trade. The act of Ugandan authorities to block two container trucks carrying 40 tonnes of minerals – specifically tantalum and tin – from Rwanda, then holding the trucks for five months even when all the paperwork was in order, spoke more loudly than anything about how Ugandan regards “free trade”.

A year before that, in August 2017 Uganda had blocked sealed tankers of Rwandan milk – 78,000 litres of it – that were enroute to Nairobi. All the documentation was in order, but they still insisted on stopping the milk. It would go bad.

In effect Kampala was erecting non-tariff barriers on Kigali, for no other reason than that Museveni had picked a quarrel with Rwanda. 

The hostility was extended to innocent Rwandan nationals. Media highlighted countless stories of Rwandan victims of CMI, some that were tortured so badly they ended up disabled. They for instance almost killed Fidele Gatsinzi – whom CMI operatives abducted working hand in hand with agents of RNC, the anti-Rwanda terror group of Kayumba Nyamwasa in December 2017.

But they produced no proof to back accusations that Gatsinzi was a spy. Neither CMI, nor ISO, nor any other Ugandan security agency has produced a single fact to prove their allegations against the Rwandans whose lives they so wantonly ruin. Gatsinzi is confined to a wheelchair. 

A man like Rene Rutagungira, a private businessman, was taken from a bar in Bakuli, Kampala, in August 2017 in a public abduction for no other reason than that he is Rwandan. Ugandans saw that in the papers. There was no lawful procedure of arrest. The operatives just accosted Rene Rutagungira as he in lawful company was with a friend, surrounded him, and dragged him away kicking and yelling.

CMI held him incommunicado – despite a note verbale from the Rwandan High Commission in Kampala to Ugandan authorities to have access to the prisoner – and tortured him. His family too wasn’t allowed to see him. A case of Habius corpus was lodged in court demanding CMI produce Rutagungira. All this was in violation of international norms, and basic human rights.

Such mistreatment reached a point when Rwandan authorities after exhausting all political-diplomatic interventions; and issued a strong advisory against their nationals crossing to Uganda. That decision, in March this year coincided with another by Kigali to close the Gatuna Border Post to heavy truck traffic to Kagitumba/Mirama Hill OSBP and Cyanika Border. It was a move to give time for completion of works on the One Stop Border Post.

But Ugandan businesses, feeling inconvenienced by this temporary diversion began crying foul. All of a sudden the country’s officials and journalists began crying that, “Rwanda is violating free trade!” Philemon Mateke, Uganda’s state minister for regional cooperation threatened to run to the EAC Secretariat, “to report Rwanda for economic sabotage!” (This is the same Mateke that coordinates the activities of RNC, FDLR and other anti-Rwanda groups, at the instructions of Museveni).

Uganda media reacted as furiously as Mateke and the others, claiming that Rwanda was “behaving very unfairly to choke off Ugandan trade!” They were saying that, even though traders and businesses were advised to divert to Kagitumba Border via Mirama, which has always remained open. The complaints have been in the same vein up to now. Very recently Amelia Kyambadde, Uganda’s trade minister, with bitterness towards Rwanda, issued advice to Ugandan businesses, “forget trade with Rwanda; look elsewhere!”

It is apparent that, to very many Ugandans, their goods are much more important than suffering Rwandans. Instead of taking their government to task for the criminal behavior of its security organs against citizens of the same Rwanda that they are so eager to trade with, they instead choose to blame the victim!, marveled an observer.

“Truly Ugandans are an astonishing people,” he continued. “How can they cry so loudly that Rwanda, supposedly is closing out their goods while saying absolutely nothing about the torture and illegal imprisonment of thousands of Rwandan citizens by Museveni’s goons?

“If Ugandans are OK with the torture of Rwandans, they should also keep quiet about the supposed none-entry of Ugandan goods into Rwanda.”

Other analysts point to the hypocrisy of senior Ugandan officials like Mateke and Kyambadde in failing to do their part helping solve the problems created by Museveni but only indulging in blame games.

The East African newspaper reported on 16 June, the preceding month, that in the few months since Rwanda closed Gatuna off to heavy traffic from Uganda, the latter has lost more than US$ 664 million, in export revenues to Rwanda.

Ugandan officials should be urgently solving this self-inflicted wound, by respecting international laws and norms, instead of merely politicking, many even in Kampala realise now.

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