Last Friday, March 1, The New Times’ Collins Mwai and James Munyaneza held an exclusive interview with Foreign affairs minister and Government Spokesperson, Dr Richard Sezibera, during which he addressed a wide-range of issues, from troubled bilateral ties with Uganda, Rwanda’s chairmanship of the East African Community, to Kigali’s relations with the new leadership in DR Congo.
He also addressed security challenges in light of the recent UN Experts report and military incursions on Rwandan territory, and the ongoing African Union reform effort.
Rwanda takes over the chairmanship of East African Community amidst a slowdown of integration projects, how are you going to help turn this around?
I think that the programmes and projects exist and we’ll discuss with our colleagues on how we can improve implementation. There are quite a number of integration projects that are critical for the political integration of East Africa. You cannot simply jump and say you want political integration. First of all, East Africans must feel East African, and to do that there has to be implementation of the single customs territory so that goods can move across the region and remove every single roadblock that prevents people from moving across East Africa. Their capital must be able to move and the infrastructure projects must be fast-tracked. We need to deal with the airspace so that people can move on the ground and in the air. Rwanda has been on the forefront of regional integration as a strategic pillar of Rwanda’s development. We will discuss with our colleagues to see how these projects can move forward.
But there is a sense that what the leaders of EAC countries tell citizens is different from what we are seeing on the ground. For example, there have been arrests of Rwandans in Uganda, there are problems with Burundi…shouldn’t the public be concerned?
Well, the public should be concerned. Absolutely. The ambition of EAC is needed, it’s critical, that’s where we need to be that’s where we need to go, it’s critical that East Africa is united; as to the gap between agreements and reality, that gap exists, it’s our duty to narrow it.
Over a period of time, (EAC) integration has faced a number of challenges.
For instance, from 2007 when Rwanda joined the EAC, there have been a number of challenges, some of them security in nature. Some time back, you remember Rwandans were chased out of Tanzania and that was a big challenge and we worked with Tanzania to stop this. It’s now much better and we are on very good terms with Tanzania. Then Burundi got its own internal problems and that posed a challenge to East Africa, which continues.
With Uganda, Rwandans have been harassed there, they are imprisoned with no consular access, some are harassed and some are deported. That is a current problem which needs to be dealt with. So, yes, that is a concern and we have to deal with these challenges and continue with integration. We cannot give up just because there are challenges.
EAC has an ambitious agenda on the development front, but there are still difficulties on even basics like peace and security. How important is peace and security in the context of the integration agenda?
East Africa Community is about agreements; in the field of peace and security, trade and business, climate, health, social sector, agriculture, sports, and so on. The challenge is to implement those agreements, which also have milestones that includes peace and security. What is correct is that there is a gap between agreements and implementation of those agreements, which is where Rwanda always focuses. For Rwanda, it’s not enough to have an agreement, you must implement it.
For Rwanda, peace and security for Rwandans is paramount, with or without regional integration. So, for the Government of Rwanda, the people and security of the country, its sovereignty, the peace and security of its people within Rwanda and outside of Rwanda is the primary responsibility and focus of the Government. This is true within East Africa, within Africa and across the world. With or without integration, for us peace and security is fundamental.
Considering what has been happening lately, does Rwanda consider Uganda a hostile nation?
The problems that Rwandans are facing in Uganda currently are three. The first, and most important, is that Rwandans are arrested, tortured, harassed in Uganda; this is an issue we’ve raised with Uganda many times at different levels, those that are not arrested, harassed, detained are deported for reasons which we don’t understand. That’s one challenge.
The second challenge, which we’ve again raised with the Government of Uganda, is that there are armed groups, individuals who head armed groups that are opposed to the Government of Rwanda, that have a violent agenda towards Rwanda who operate in Uganda; the RNC, some members of the FDLR, and so on and so forth…these are groups that have carried out (criminal) acts here in Rwanda and are based in Uganda.
The third is the challenge related to the free movement of Rwandan goods across Ugandan territory.
Rwanda is landlocked, our access is through the port of Mombasa, but we’ve had cases. In one particular incident, we had containers of goods originating from Rwanda that were held in Uganda for months for no good reason, they were eventually released but there is difficulty…those are the three challenges that we are dealing with at the moment; of course Rwandans who also conduct trade in Uganda are harassed.
Do you mean both exports and imports?
They are mainly exports from Uganda, not to Uganda, but through Uganda.
But have you discussed these concerns with your Ugandan counterparts?
Yes, we’ve been talking about them for some time. The Presidents, as you know, have talked about them, we ourselves at different levels have talked about them with our colleagues but we have not yet seen the results, but yes we are talking about them.
Has Rwanda closed its borders with Uganda, particularly the Gatuna border, as reported over the last 24 hours?
There is ongoing One Stop Border Post works at Gatuna, but that’s something specific to Gatuna. Rwanda Revenue Authority has asked heavy trucks and transporters to use other border points, it could be Kagitumba, it could be Cyanika to enable construction to go on…today (Friday last week) there is a jam at Gatuna because those trucks cannot move, those who came yesterday (Thursday last week) are parked there partly because they didn’t heed this advice, it’s a very narrow space so there is a challenge, which is a temporary challenge, I think…
Kagitumba is open and working very well, buses have crossed, those coming in have come in, trucks, buses, those going to Uganda have moved; Cyanika is open but not many people use Cyanika, most people prefer Gatuna and Kagitumba.
What of ordinary Rwandan travelers?
As for Rwandans, we have advised Rwandans not to go to Uganda because we cannot guarantee their security in Uganda. It’s been longstanding and so we are strongly advising those who do not have necessary business in Uganda not to (go there) until we can sort out this problem. It’s a challenge, that’s the advice we’d give you because we can’t guarantee security, we’ve seen incidents in the past, even yesterday we were seeing people arrested in Kisoro, in Mbarara (in southwestern and western Uganda) and we don’t understand what’s happening. Any sensible government (in this situation) would, of course, advise its citizens to be prudent about travelling there.
Rwandan and Ugandan buses await clearance at Kagitumba border post. / File
What are Uganda’s complaints about Rwanda?
I am not aware of any.
The private sector is complaining about the current situation…
The (Rwandan) private sector conducts business with and in Uganda and are having difficulty in Uganda, We are asking the Ugandan government to explain what’s happening, the private sector are complaining and rightly so, we’ve raised those issues with the Government of Uganda and we’ll continue to raise them in all proper channels.
What would be an ideal scenario in regards to the private sector?
Implementation of obligations under the common market protocol. We’ve an agreement, we are in a common market, we are in a single customs territory and the ideal situation is that we implement our agreement under those two protocols we have already signed on to.
As for Burundi, their government has claimed that Rwanda has attempted to interfere in their internal affairs...
The problems of Burundi have been managed by East Africa as a community; there is a mediator, President Museveni (of Uganda), there was a facilitator who, unfortunately, resigned in the last Summit, (former Tanzanian) President Mkapa. That is the forum where Burundi where issues are handled.
President Mkapa presented to the Summit (of EAC Presidents) a report on the Burundi issue, and in his report, there was nothing about Rwanda. So the issue of Burundi is about Burundi itself. There have been a number of attempts to link Rwanda to the problems of Burundi, first of all this is wrong, and it is not helpful to Burundi because Rwanda is not in any way involved. We are only involved in receiving refugees of Burundi as a result of the problems there. Also, because of the unresolved issues of Burundi, we have seen attempts originating from there (Burundi) to come and destabilise Rwanda, I am sure you’ve read the report by the UN Group of Experts, which detailed the number of activities, there are individuals who destabilise Rwanda and go through Burundi. But those matters we have handled ourselves and we’ll continue to do so as Rwanda, in order to enable Burundi to concentrate on their own issues and get them resolved.
Does Rwanda trust President Museveni, whose country itself has issues with Rwanda? Are you confident he’s the right person to steer the Burundi dialogue?
Rwanda is not in the business of trust; Rwanda is in the business of delivery. There are things to deliver, with or without the individuals who must deliver on them. So just judge people by the manner in which they deliver on the assignments given to them. That goes for Burundi, for EAC integration, for us we just judge people and individuals by the manner in which they deliver on their assignments, so we’ll watch and expect them to deliver on commitments that are national or regional and then make our judgment accordingly.
The UN Group of Experts on DR Congo in December 2018 released a report in which they concluded that P5 – a Rwandan rebel group based in Eastern DR Congo that includes RNC, FLDR militia (largely blamed for the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda) – has been recruiting from Uganda and Burundi. Is Rwanda of the view that the two countries are facilitating the rebel group?
Those involved have responded yes to the question. There are people who were handed over to Rwanda, some of the leaders who are now here and they have confirmed that they were facilitated by a number of actors within those two countries. The UN Group of Experts has also pointed it out. So the answer to your question is yes.
Do you mean they receive support from these governments themselves, or individuals in those two countries?
I am talking about individuals, some of who are in positions of responsibility in those governments.
How much has been revealed by two former FDLR officials – La Forge Fils Bazeye (spokesperson) and Lt. Col. Theophile Abega (head of intelligence) – who were handed to Rwanda by DR Congo authorities?
Quite a bit. They have given us very useful information. Part of it is what I am telling you, that they have been facilitated by elements within those governments.
Since the rebel group is said to have its main bases in eastern DR Congo, how are you working with Kinshasa to address this threat?
We’ve had good relations with DR Congo and its leadership, we see good momentum in dealing with these groups, hundreds have been returning from DR Congo. We have worked well together and we see good momentum building in dealing with these groups.
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Hundreds of them (combatants) have been returned from DR Congo in the last few months and many continue to come, including some of their leaders. We have also seen very good cooperation on the ground with the DR Congo itself acting against these armed groups. The cooperation is good and we are happy with it. That goes for the past and current leadership.
What’s the state of relations between Rwanda and DR Congo at the moment?
The relations are good and we can only expect them to get even better.
Are we likely to see Rwanda requesting DR Congo that the two countries conduct joint military operations against armed Rwandan groups in DR Congo, as witnessed in the past?
It is not necessary. DR Congo is doing a good job, so it’s not necessary that Rwandan troops go in.
On South Africa…The two presidents directed the foreign affairs ministers of the two countries to sort out the issues that continue to derail full normalisation of bilateral ties. This has not happened yet. What’s the issue?
Rwanda does the things that are within our responsibility and authority to do. The agreement was that relations should be restored to normal. Rwanda has done its part. South Africa has its diplomats here and we are still waiting on South Africans to meet their obligation to issue visas and facilitate Rwandans. We are just waiting for our colleagues in South Africa to reciprocate.
What has the South African government asked for to end the stalemate?
They have not asked for anything.
And why can’t you and your South African counterpart meet with view to kick-starting the normalisation process?
The question should be put to them. We have indicated that we are willing to meet anytime, anyplace. We have reached out, I have reached out and I am waiting for a response. Whenever they are ready.
Is Kayumba Nyamwasa – the Rwandan fugitive who lives in South Africa and heads the RNC – a major issue in the relations between the two countries?
Kayumba is a problem as an individual. He is a problem because he is a criminal wanted by Rwanda. He is a problem but the relationship between the two countries is much bigger than anyone individual.
There were plans to issue warrants of arrests, against him and others…
The arrest warrants have been issued and we are still waiting for a response.
The way forward on this matter…
The relationship between Rwanda and South Africa is extremely important and will be normalised. The sooner the better, because it is too important not to be normalised. That is our conviction and I am sure that is the conviction of the leadership in South Africa.
Last month, Rwanda handed over African Union Chairmanship to Egypt. What are your expectations going forward considering there is a sense of renewed vigor and purpose from the Union?
Rwanda chaired the AU for one year and President Kagame has been leading the (AU) reform agenda at the request of his colleagues. That will continue. This one year has been momentous in many ways, as we have seen the reform of the African Union become a bit more focused on the priorities. A reform on the workings of the Summit (of Heads of State and Government) itself, to have one ordinary summit that focuses on key continental issues such as peace and security, trade, and making sure we speak with one voice. There is also sharing of activities between the AU regional economic communities.
We have seen agreement on a leaner commission that is more focused and that functions in a more transparent and accountable manner.
We have also seen progress of the African Continental Free Trade Area. Today, 19 countries have ratified, 15 have ratified their instruments of ratification. That means we have only three countries to go before this comes into effect, and I hope that by July it will be fully operational. This is a game changer for Africa and also for global trade. It will be the largest global trading area both terms of volume and increasingly in terms of GDP.
The Single Transport African Air Market is slowly picking pace, a number of countries are signing up. The last summit approved the guidelines of the continental passport and the free movement of people provisions are being implemented. Finally, the Union is now more or less funding its operational activities. The Peace Fund has received currently over $89 million with 50 countries contributing. So, there has been a lot of momentum over the past one year, which is a reflection of the will of Africans themselves to reform their continent and to take charge of their destiny.
In terms of speaking with one voice, last year we had the first Africa -EU ministerial and there is a lot of momentum on the Africa Union, I expect it to continue under the chairmanship of Egypt.
What remain African Union’s major challenges and vulnerabilities?
The reforms were designed to address the key challenges that the African Union faces. They can be summarised as the need for more focus instead of being spread all over the place; the need to be better organised and be accountable for delivery, there has been a number of policy agreements that require implementation and accountability; the need to finance the Union and not depend on external partners for financing our own priorities; the need to silence the guns and ensure that Africa contributes to financing its own peacekeeping, peace-making efforts.
Those were the key priorities, the key challenges. Of course, there are many other challenges that the Union will keep addressing. The reform will continue. There are a number of organs and institutions which also need to be reformed. NEPAD is already undergoing transformation to the African Union Development Agency. The Peer Review Mechanism has been reformed but there are still others that require reforms such as courts and parliament.
But there is often a gap between what leaders publicly say and what is done in private. How does this undermine the reform agenda and how can Africa speak with one voice?
Speaking with one voice is a journey not an event. Increasingly, Africa is speaking with one voice. Much more than it did in the past. Yes, there are challenges, for instance, where publicly people say one thing and then do something else in private. That is a challenge which we have to work on. What is important is that the public voice is one. The challenge is how you implement those decisions that people have taken.
Still on African Union priorities, what happened to the AU passport that was launched in 2016? Is it one of the initiatives that you feel lack focus?
That is the aim, but you must begin somewhere. Africa has 1.2 billion people and growing. It is not realistic to say that you will begin with a big bang, 1.2 billion passports for all Africans. You have to begin with something that is realistic and then extend it to something that is more achievable to other sectors of society.
That is what integration is about, you have to be realistic, the important thing is to move one step at a time, for example, agree on a continental free trade area, then get certifications approved, it comes into effect, and then there will be time of negotiating rules of origin, tariff offers. It’s a process. It helps if Africans at all levels put pressure on everybody to move faster. It does not help if people just stay aside and say this is somebody else’s agenda, but if everybody is engaged and you want see things move then that helps put pressure on the slow-movers and join everybody else and then we move forward.
On the reforms, there has been criticism of sort from former South African President Thabo Mbeki on the approach, arguing that it is too technocratic. Is this hurting the AU reform agenda?
It cannot happen hurt the process. There are 1.2 billion Africans; you do not expect everybody to see eye to eye on the every aspect of the integration agenda. I think people are entitled to their opinion. From what I saw – I don’t know whether it is accurate –, President Mbeki thinks that the AU reform is technocratic, and not political. My own view is that you can be both and need to be both. You need a political organisation that has vision, speaks with one voice and that is also technocratic because you do not achieve a vision unless you are organised and manage your work well, and planning it will, some technical work has to be done. The two are not mutually exclusive. The AU needs to be political and technocratically efficient, so both are required. But broadly speaking, there are people who are not fully onboard the new movement and it’s the duty of all of us leaders to explain, to convince, and to perform so that people see change on the ground and I think they will join in.
Next month, Rwanda will mark the 25th commemoration of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. This is against the backdrop of growing Genocide denial and revisionism across the world, what is Rwanda’s approach on the issue?
Twenty-five years after the Genocide against the Tutsi, Rwanda and her friends can justifiably be proud of the steps already taken towards recovery, reconciliation, reconstruction and national unity. People can be justifiably proud of that that. You can also be justifiably proud that the resilience of Rwandans enabled them to liberate themselves from the forces of genocide and to restore dignity to a people that had been denied their basic rights for decades.
They can also justifiably be proud of the incredible leadership of President Kagame, who has been able to mobilise Rwandans and the country to look forward and not be stuck in the past.
There are people who have tried to complete the Genocide. There have been forces out there, some Rwandan, some foreign, that have wanted the Genocide completed. They failed, they will continue to fail and when they fail, they deny it happened or they say it happened but the victims brought it among themselves. Those are deniers and revisionists. Most are outside of Rwanda, some are Rwandans, some non-Rwandans. Denial is part of genocide and it is our conviction that these people who deny or revise the Genocide or propagate genocide ideology need to be combated in many ways: through the law, there are laws here that criminalise genocide ideology, denial and revisionism; there are some outside there who are involved in all these. We need to, therefore, fight it by law here and by explanation outside through exposure. We are not afraid of naming and shaming them wherever they are. And third, mobilising the international community to understand that Genocide denial and revisionism is part of genocide and encourage them to enact legislation in their own countries against Genocide denial and revisionism. A number have, France, Belgium, and other countries, and we are sensitising (other countries) to ensure that this is done in as many countries as possible.
The AU has issued public statements against denial and revisionism and has encouraged all member states to establish legal mechanisms to punish these, and so we continue to work with countries to do this.
What of suspects who continue live freely across world?
We have already signed a number of extradition treaties with a number of countries, in the region and beyong, and we continue to negotiate with countries that harbour Genocide fugitives. Two, we have requested that the fugitives be extradited to Rwanda to have their day in court or be transferred to international tribunals, or be judged by the courts of those countries. There are quite a number of cases going on, for example in the UK, in France, and other places.