Uganda’s hostility towards Rwanda threatens Mombasa Port fortunes

In October last year, I was asked to put together a marketing-communication strategy for a campaign targeting the Rwandan market by the Kenya Ports Authority country office whose primary objective was to boost Kigali-bound traffic, currently lopsided in-favour of Tanzania’s Port of Dar-es-Salaam.
I got to work by first, conducting a communication audit, then a SWOT-analysis to inform the planned campaign’s likely strength, weakness, opportunities and threats.

One particular threat stuck-out like a sore thumb. My media review of regional news painted a rather bothersome picture of the Uganda-Rwanda bilateral relations, with a forecast that suggested the situation would only worsen rather than improve.

I picked up reports of arbitrary arrests of Rwandan business voyagers by Ugandan security, blocked Rwandan merchandise trucks and a number of other indecorous happenings that only discouraged rather than encourage traders to use the route to Mombasa via Ugandan territory.

This particular threat outweighed the strengths and opportunities that I had identified for the campaign during the SWOT analysis; this meant that it would significantly impact on the expected return on investment to the planned big-budget campaign.

During my strategy presentation I highlighted the threat posed by Uganda’s apparent bad-neighborliness to Rwandan nationals and ensured the extent of its significance was well appreciated by the client. I also suggested two responsive strategies to counter threat.

One was to delay the campaign until the bilateral relations forecast had improved. The second strategy was to invest in lobbying, which would involve engaging diplomats of both countries towards mending ties by addressing political barriers, to boost confidence of traders.

With the strategy presented and accepted, my work was done; I disengaged. Developments in the last five months show that our analysis was accurate as tension has only intensified with Uganda’s hostile treatment of Rwandans on its territory, to blame.

Reports of harassment and detention without trial of Rwandans, most of them business men have only intensified and left with no option, Rwanda took an executive decision to restrict movement of Rwandans through its border with Uganda in a bid to safeguard its citizens.

In his accountability speech during the leadership retreat, President Paul Kagame revealed that in spite of his administration’s relentless efforts to engage his Ugandan counterpart on fixing barriers to their bilateral relations, Kampala has been unyielding and instead reportedly continues to back anti-Rwanda government forces operating on Ugandan territory, to Rwanda’s shock.

When President Uhuru Kenyatta visited his Rwandan counterpart on Monday, he praised relations between the two countries as one of the best that Kenya currently enjoys, with any other state. It was the kind of statement that builds confidence and encourages deeper people-people cooperation.

Unfortunately, Uganda’s reported unsocial manoeuvres against Kigali is a barrier between Kenya and Rwanda’s blossoming ties, a factor that hurts the fortunes of Mombasa port whose principal key performance indicator (KPI) in Rwanda, is to significantly boost Kigali bound and outbound trade traffic and balance the competition with Port of Dar-es-Slaam.

In November 2015, I attended a media workshop organized by the Kenya Ports Authority in Mombasa. It was my first time there. A beautiful place. I felt more like I was on holiday than at work. We lodged at Jacaranda hotel, a beautiful facility by the sea.

During the media workshop, KPA officials led by then CEO GichiriNdua, were in a jovial mood, almost braggadocio; but they had a good reason to feel that way. They had called business reporters from the region, to brief us about their bold US$1billion expansionist investment that would boost the port’s holding capacity and ease cargo clearance; and improve port security to safeguard clients’ merchandize.

A huge chunk of that investment bill was being cushioned by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA). The port was also celebrating a major milestone.

For the first time in its history, Mombasa port, in 2014, had handled a total of 24.9 million tonnes and over one million twenty-foot containers; investing in expanding the facility was a proactive measure to sustain the port’s capacity and consolidate its ranking as a top-five in Africa port.

As someone reporting for the Rwandan public, I tried to find the relevance of all this; it was all in the numbers. When I was filing my report in 2015, statistics indicated that 76.7 percent of all transit cargo through Mombasa is destined for Uganda followed by South Sudan at 10.6 percent and 5.7 per cent to DR Congo. Rwandan traffic accounted for 3.3 percent of the total transit cargo.

Based on those numbers, I know KPA CEO was being diplomatic when he told me in 2015, that Mombasa wasn’t in competition with Port of Dar-es-Slaam, for Rwandan traffic, and claimed that ‘we are complimentary.’

Fact is, Kenya would like to see more Rwandan trade traffic through its ports but as long as long as the safety of Rwandan voyagers is not assured while on Ugandan territory, Tanzania will continue being the preferred port for Kigali-bound or outbound trade traffic for one must be alive and well, to trade.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.