How Ugandan traders are coping with the Rwanda border closure

While Ugandan and Rwandan leaders exchanged accusations of spying, political assassinations, and meddling, the populace looked on, unsure of the economic outcome of the closely linked neighbours who have historically played key roles in each other’s development. Then came the border closure. What started off as silent silent tears of the populace became sobs. Sadly, there are those whose wailing has been drowned in the mass complaint; those living at the border.

For the past two years, Uganda and Rwanda have been entangled in a diplomatic row. This conflict escalated in February 2019 when Rwanda closed its borders and while many have found a way to meander around the situation, those particularly affected are those whose livelihoods depend on the free movement of goods, services and people across the Uganda-Rwanda border like Rogers Manishimwe.

Manishimwe, a Ugandan having finished his advanced level (secondary education) in 2014, took to the streets of Chanika in Kisoro District district, Western Region of Uganda in search of greener pastures. Knowing the great economic prospects the Chanika border held owing to the influx of people on a daily basis, the young school leaver who had no plans of furthering his education began selling alcohol on a small scale.

Speaking to TheNerve Africa, Manishimwe said that for years, the business was booming so much that he began fiddling with the idea of going back to school. From selling little shots of alcohol and making over Sh200,000 (about $55) each day, he secured admission into Makere University, got accommodation in the school and raised funds for his tuition fee. Although his parents who were also in the retail business supported here and there but with the alcohol business being strategically stationed between the two countries, Manishimwe’s dreams of becoming a graduate and someday a successful importer and exporter will be realized; or so he thought.

While in school, the then 20-year-old partnered with a friend who had big expansion dreams for the business. What began as a small kiosk, transformed into a small hotel, offering room services, food and alcohol to Rwandans, Ugandans and other countries national who ply Chanika border route. The money was used to grow the business and attend to the needs of schooling Manishimwe and his friend who now manages the business.

With such plan in place, all was well. Until it wasn’t.

The border was the center for all goods and many country nationals, especially Rwandans, who having no where else to sleep after a long days journey would sleep in their hotel but all this began spiraling downwards and people like Manishimwe who rely on cross-border trade to make a living are struggling to get by with the border closure.

Sadly, business closure and the loss of money is not the only thing people resident at the border suffer. Manishimwe, who went on to become the Minister for students with disabilities, having contested as student guild representative noted that, “To date, we do not have clean water in Ugandan part of Chanika and we have to fetch from Rwanda. Even young men who used to ride motorcycles within this central were in number but as I am talking to you, getting one to take you to Kisoro town is hard. We are suffering.”

Prior to the border closure the challenge in Chanika, if there was any at all, would be that people had no time to rest because the district was always alive. The people worked round the clock and this was evident in the large monetary proceeds made at the end of each day. In a matter of weeks, the lively city became dead. Businesses shut down, hungry bellies sang and broken hearts bled.

Rwanda and Uganda have a peculiar relationship that many Ugandans go to Rwanda’s Rugarama market in Kidaho and Kumugu to sell their agricultural produce because the closest market for those at the border are clothing and textile market and now they are left with little or nowhere to sell their goods.

Hoping for a change, a Ugandan lawyer Steven Kalali sued the Government of Rwanda over the closure of the Uganda Rwanda border points in Gatuna and Chanika in June. The case was filed before the East African Court of Justice.

Kalali argued that Rwanda’s insistence on border closure infringes on people’s rights and freedom, is causing financial loss to hundreds of traders in Uganda and Rwanda as well as traders from the neighbouring countries and as such is illegal.

In the affidavit sworn by Rwanda’s Senior State Attorney Nicholas Ntarugera, Rwanda in defence contended that the borders were closed for a number of reasons including protection of Rwandans from harassment. Rwanda also admitted that the closure of the border was to expedite the completion of the one-stop order post-construction with an aim of facilitating smooth floor of goods and services at the Border Post.

In what seemed like a glimmer of hope, on August 21, Presidents of both East African countries signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to end the months of tensions and supposedly the reopening of the borders but so far, nothing has changed. Nothing plans to, at least not anytime soon.

Filip Reyntjens, a professor of law and politics at Belgium’s University of Antwerp, who has written extensively about Rwanda and Uganda stated that Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame and Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni “might sign all sorts of documents but if they don’t try to convince the other that they are acting in good faith, that can only inspire pessimism.”

Manishimwe who shares the same view noted that “We Bafumbira in Chanika speak the same language with Rwandans and our people get clear information from Rwanda than we get from Uganda. So far, the Bafumbira are very angry. Even the old men and women who used to be great believers in Museveni may not vote for him come 2021.”

“Another challenge is that some of us Ugandans share the same names with Rwandans and for that we get a lot of bad responses from people who accuse us of being Rwandans. All because of border closure,” he added.