Thursday May 16, 2019
Yoweri Museveni (L) and Rwanda's Paul Kagame (R)
The people living on either side of the Ugandan-Rwandan border at
Katuna never much considered the boundary: Children crossed for school,
workers moved freely and trade thrived.That harmony evaporated in
February when Rwanda abruptly closed the crossing, with queues of cargo
trucks and thronging merchants turned back as soldiers from both armies
marshalled along the forest-clad border.
The blockade is a result
of the worsening animosity between Rwanda's Paul Kagame and Uganda's
Yoweri Museveni, once close allies who backed each other into power, but
whose relationship has turned deeply hostile.
between the presidents has burst into the open in recent months, with
the pair trading accusations of espionage, political assassinations and
meddling in each other's backyards.
spat risks dragging in their neighbours, threatening economic
integration and regional stability in an already conflict-prone swathe
of the continent.
The standoff escalated dramatically in March
when Rwanda publicly accused Uganda of abducting its citizens and
supporting rebels bent on overthrowing the government.
who has admitted meeting, but not endorsing, anti-Kagame rebels -
harbours his own suspicions about his erstwhile ally. His officials have
accused Rwandans in Uganda of spying, and some have been detained by
military courts or deported.
"What is wrong is for Rwandan agents to try and operate behind the government of Uganda," Museveni wrote to Kagame in March.
following month, Kagame threatened perceived enemies as he digressed
during a speech marking the 25th anniversary of Rwanda's genocide.
who think we have not seen enough of a mess, and want to mess with us,
whether from here or from outside, I want to say: We will mess up with
them big time," Kagame declared to applause, before an audience peppered
with foreign dignitaries.
The sabre-rattling has not turned violent to date.
troops are busy at Katuna, the border town, where earth-movers can be
seen clearing a road to a hilltop military base. Rwandan forces,
meanwhile, are patrolling their side.
But the interruption to trade is taking its toll.
prices have jumped in Rwanda, which relies heavily on imports from its
larger northern neighbour. The blockade has also severed Uganda's land
access to export markets in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and
And for communities straddling the border, the leaders' row has proved disastrous.
have lived and worked here most of my life... business has never been
this bad," said Philemon Mugasha, a Ugandan clearing agent at Katuna,
surveying the deserted streets usually buzzing day and night with money
changers, food vendors, truck drivers and prostitutes.
are taking great risks to cross the border under the cover of darkness.
In May, a bean trader was shot in the arm by Rwandan troops as he
attempted to enter Uganda.
"If they see us, they will arrest us
and beat us for defying their order... it is dangerous," said one
Rwandan worker who crossed illegally at Katuna to find work, and could
Friends to foes
armies commanded by Kagame and Museveni fought shoulder to shoulder in
East Africa, thrusting their generals into high office, and overthrowing
the DRC's rapacious dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997.
appointed Uganda's military intelligence chief after his army of
Rwandan exiles helped Museveni take power in 1986. Museveni later
returned the favour, backing Kagame's invasion of Rwanda that ended the
1994 genocide and secured his grip on the country.
But by the turn
of the century, the romance was over. A festering unease between their
armies during the DRC campaign erupted into open warfare in the city of
Kisangani, leaving hundreds dead between 1999 and 2000.
relationship never recovered. But despite the bad blood, Rwanda and
Uganda maintained full diplomatic ties, and troops stayed in their
The neighbours both enjoyed robust economic growth and
strong relations with the West. Rwanda is a major contributor of
peacekeepers, and Ugandan soldiers are fighting terrorism in Somalia.
Kagame did not name his enemies in his recent speech, shadowy rebel
groups seeking to oust him have proliferated in the region.
Rwanda has boosted security in its southwest region bordering Burundi - with whom it has long had sour relations - and the DRC.
have been several bloody incursions into Rwanda by one anti-Kagame
rebel group known as the National Liberation Front (FLN), based in the
Western allies have advised their citizens to steer clear as the attacks target a region popular among foreign tourists.
UN has also reported that Kayumba Nyamwasa, a Kagame foe and former
military chief who runs the Rwandan National Congress, could be raising a
rebel army in the DRC.
Kagame sees Museveni's invisible hand in the move against him.
is a contest to determine who between them is the kingmaker in the
region," said Christopher Kayumba, a political analyst in Kigali.
War seems unlikely, experts say. But the brinkmanship is inflicting casualties each day it drags on.
"They say when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. We are suffering," said Mugasha, the customs agents at Katuna.