A long-delayed meeting to resolve a protracted political dispute between Uganda and Rwanda in Kampala has failed.
Dr Olivier Nduhungirehe, Rwanda's Minister of State for Regional Affairs on Friday said that the seven-hour closed meeting with their Ugandan counterparts had failed to reach an amicable solution.
“No agreement on a solution to the most contentious issues (Uganda's support to armed groups and illegal detention of Rwandans in Uganda). We agreed to refer the matter to our Heads of State,” Dr Nduhungirehe tweeted.
Initially scheduled for mid-October, the meeting of the Ad hoc Committee on implementation of a memorandum of understanding the two countries agreed to in Luanda in August was postponed twice amid rising tensions and counteraccusations.
A first meeting that both sides described as “good” took place in Kigali on September 16, but the follow-on meeting did not materialise, as Uganda failed to convene one within the 30-day period that had been agreed. Another attempt failed last month after Kigali requested a deferral.
Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Kutesa led the Uganda delegation, which included deputy Attorney General Mwesigwa Rukutana, ISO Boss Frank Kaka Bagyenda and leaders of intelligence agencies.
No joint statement was issued at the end of the meeting.
Rwanda sent a delegation of 17 officials led by Dr Nduhungirehe and included High Commissioner to Uganda Frank Mugambage.
The meeting was overseen by Congolese and Angola mediators.
Without volunteering any details, Uganda’s Junior minister for Foreign Affairs Henry Okello-Oryem had earlier confirmed that the meeting was on.
Rwanda imposed a partial blockade against its northern neighbour late February, restricting imports from Uganda and effectively stopping its citizens from travelling there, citing security concerns.
Until the last minute, there had been fears that the latest round of talks could flop amid reports that movement of air cargo was getting affected with several sources saying freight from Entebbe destined for Kigali was being returned to sender.
There was no independent confirmation of the claims by Rwanda or an explanation for the action but sources within the local shipping community claimed several consignments had been returned in the past fortnight.
Some traders had to reroute their goods through the Dar es Salaam, thereby incurring higher transport costs.
While admitting that there had indeed been incidents of returned shipments destined for Kigali, officials at Entebbe International Airport declined to discuss the matter further citing “sensitivity”.
An earlier order by President Yoweri Museveni barred government officials from discussing the dispute with Rwanda in the media.
The trade blockade has reduced Uganda’s previously thriving exports to Rwanda to a trickle. The Bank of Uganda’s trade statistics to the third quarter of 2019 show a drop in exports from $60.2m in the third quarter of 2018 to just $2.49m in the same period this calendar year.
Beyond the impact of supply chain disruptions, Rwanda has not suffered much of a financial penalty because the trade balance was heavily slanted in favour of Uganda.
Its exports to Uganda which averaged $19 million in 2018, were on course to maintain the same level since Uganda has not retaliated. Trade statistics show that Rwandan exports worth $14 million had been sold to Uganda in the nine months to September 2019.
Local manufacturers say they have already written off 2019 as a lost year and scaled back to producing for the domestic market as they explore new markets elsewhere in the wider Comesa region.
“Our exports to Rwanda have been zero since this crisis began in February,” said a major Uganda manufacturer who spoke to The EastAfrican.
“Matters have not been helped by the drop in domestic consumption in Uganda which has dampened our efforts to grow local sales. We are trying to open new markets but really hope that this is resolved sooner than later,” she added.
Tourism is another area where the impact of the blockade is expected to be sharply felt. Rwanda is the biggest source of visitors to Uganda, with the land border at Katuna accounting for 442,000 of the 1.8 million arrivals in Uganda in 2017.
Matter of interpretation
Although the Luanda MoU to which both countries signed is wide-ranging and comprehensively addresses the full spectrum of grievances between the neighbours, progress has been slow because differences in interpretation and expectations.
For instance, while Kampala looks at it in economic terms and expected Kigali to ease restrictions on trade and movement of people. Rwanda, on the other hand, looks at it more in terms of its security.
Kigali expects Kampala to renounce what it sees as support for anti-Kagame dissident forces that it accuses Museveni of harbouring.
Rwanda also wants Kampala to either set free or subject to due process an unverified number of Rwandan citizens it says are being held in inhumane and illegal detention in Uganda.
Kampala is holding a number of prominent Rwandan citizens that Kigali describes as business people going about their affairs in the country but which Uganda accuse of engaging in espionage and sabotage.
Although Uganda has since August dumped many low level Rwandan illegal immigrants at the common frontier, Kigali insists hundreds more are still being held in detention without being taken to court.