Ugandans and Rwandans have taken the current crisis involving the two countries to the East African Court of Justice (EACJ). Those representing the Ugandan traders association allege the “continued closure of the border” is in “total contravention of the East African Community treaty.” The Rwandan nationals' Kigali-based lawyer Richard Mugisha alleges that his clients were “illegally arrested and tortured” by Uganda's security agencies “in total disregard of its obligations under the treaty establishing the EAC and the common market protocol that calls for the free movement of people and goods across member states territories."
Ugandans say that the border closure has resulted in “a total loss,” from a business perspective. Similarly, Rwandans are demanding for compensation for the violations of their human rights as a result of prolonged torture.
For the Ugandan traders, the case comes on the heels of advice from their trade and cooperatives minister, Amelia Kyambadde, urging them to give up on the Rwandan market (Read The Daily Monitor, “Trade minister advises Ugandan traders to forget about trade with Rwanda, find alternatives,” June 28, 2019). The advice was part of the announcement by the minister that Uganda had faced a decline in trade to Rwanda from $430 million to $203 million over the FY 2018/19. The minister was concerned that “the spat between the two countries is heavily weighing down on trade … Uganda has lost a lot in terms of trade, exports have gone down,” she was quoted in The Daily Monitor.
President Museveni had also given Uganda’s traders the same advice only a month earlier on May 15 when, during a retreat of NRM Members of Parliament at Kyankwanzi, West Moyo MP Tom Azaa asked him about the issue of declining trade with Rwanda, “Uganda will find better markets,” Museveni told him.
As a result, Minister Kyambadde has told Ugandan traders to improve the quality of their products so that they may access those markets, “brand your products, make sure you have sufficient quality then you can market elsewhere,” she told them as she couldn’t resist the condescending attitude to other countries that has become Uganda's hallmark diplomatic language, “I was negotiating for DRC but then there is Ebola!”
Commenting on “the economic cost of the Rwanda-Uganda standoff,” on May 14, 2019, Uganda’s leading economist and Makerere University lecturer, Ramathan Ggoobi, dismissed as casual talk this “elsewhere” business of the Ugandan authorities. On his comment on ‘the economic cost of the Rwanda-Uganda standoff’, he wrote that, “Rwanda is more important for the health of Uganda’s economy than China, India, Japan, the UK and USA!”
The academic provided further details, “to show why it is in Uganda’s best interest to ensure that the ongoing conflict ends.”
“Rwanda may look a very small economy relative to Uganda's other trade and economic partners. However, available data shows Rwanda could actually be more important for the health of Uganda’s economy than some of the world’s largest economies. Here is how:
Over the years, Uganda's trade has smoothed in intensity and direction away from inter- to intra-regional trade. In 1999 the European Union (EU) was Uganda's main trade partner contributing over 57% ($280m) of Uganda's total export receipts then ($490m).
Last year Uganda exported goods and services worth $1.6 billion to EAC, COMESA and the rest of Africa which constitutes 44% of the total export receipts. In the same year, Uganda earned only 15% ($542m) of her total export receipts ($3.6 billion) from the EU.
Rwanda bought goods and services from Uganda worth US$257m (Ushs. 950 billion) and earned only US$18m (Ushs.66 billion) from Uganda. This implies a favourable net balance of trade of US$239m for Uganda. In other words, last year Rwandans donated to Uganda over Ushs.884 billion.
Actually Rwanda is fifth among the top buyers of Uganda's exports.”
Almost a year ago on September 3, 2018, Museveni’s own quasi economic advisor, Andrew Mwenda, provided statistics that are in line with Goobi’s argument and even reached a similar conclusion:
“Uganda has been a huge beneficiary of Rwanda’s economic growth. Our country is Rwanda’s supermarket. Our farmers and industrialists make hundreds of millions of dollars every year selling their products and produce to Rwanda. In the last ten years (2007-2016) we have sold goods worth $2.2 billion to Rwanda yet it has sold to us goods worth a paltry $85.5 million – a trade surplus of $2.1 billion. Now this is not to mention export of services and capital. Ugandan professionals work and earn foreign exchange for us in Rwanda. Our schools, from primary to university, are teeming with tens of thousands of students from Rwanda. We receive the largest number of visitors from Rwanda and they stay the longest. Ugandan investors go to Rwanda more than any other country in this region.”
Mwenda wondered why Uganda would be willing to subject its traders to such losses rather than to appreciate and protect, “our national interest,” he ominously wrote at the time, almost urging Ugandan traders to pressure Museveni into de-escalating the conflict.
“The state in Uganda seems dis-articulated from the interests of its farmers, traders, investors, and workers. Since these quarrels began, scores of our traders and investors have been asking me what is going on and what can be done to stop the slide.”
Uganda’s Central Bank Governor, Tumusiime Mutebile, also told the public, “Uganda’s economy is at risk,” and placed some of the risk as a result of slowing regional trade, especially with Rwanda: “BoU is also concerned about slowdown in regional trade which the central bank said had declined by 8 per cent in February following Rwanda’s closure of her border with Uganda at Gatuna/Katuna,” The Daily Monitor of April 2, 2019 reported.
Border community hurting
Most of the commentators have focused on the trade statistics at the national level and have ignored the suffering of the border community from the collapse of the Kabale economy. On March 20, 2019, The Observers’ Alon Mwesigwa wrote an article titled, “Winners, Losers in Uganda-Rwanda,” that focused on the livelihoods of these communities.
Wilfred Niwagaba, the MP for Ndorwa County East, told him that the conflict “is taking a heavy economic toll on his constituents,” adding that, “It is us [who have been] supplying foodstuffs and trading. We have also been getting some foodstuffs from there [Rwanda] like beans,” Niwagaba said. “The Kabale economy alone has been supplying Irish potatoes worth Shs 4bn [annually to Rwanda].”
Some residents of Nuwagaba’s constituency told The Observer, “We have spoken to the area MPs but they have said ‘no, don’t talk about that.’ What should we do?”
The fact that people have no answers to these questions is why some have turned to the EACJ for remedies. However, Exhibit A against Uganda is expected to come from it’s own Minister of Trade and Cooperation who concedes that “Mirama Hill is open.” Ishimwe, the Kabale resident who petitioned his Member of Parliament, also says that the Kyanika border is open, but inconveniencing, “They are telling us if you’re crossing over to Rwanda, use Kyanika but people have never used it.”
In other words, Uganda has two border crossings that it can use freely to access Rwanda’s market. Moreover, the decision to undertake construction at the Gatuna border, which has been closed for this purpose since February, is intended to remove inconveniences to trade, as agreed upon by the two countries (Uganda is yet to begin construction to fulfil its part of the agreement).
The two cases at the EACJ are significant because they will bring to the surface the fact that Uganda’s problem with Rwanda is that its traders have been inconvenienced by something that was mutually agreed upon. However, in the face of the torture that is faced by their Rwandan counterparts in illegal detention centres across Uganda, the crime of inconvenience will come off as a privilege that Rwandans in Uganda cells wish they could enjoy.