Younger readers might not remember a time when borders opened at 6am, or whenever the bored customs officials sauntered in. They closed just before 6pm. This allowed the tax officials, immigration and security operatives, money changers, smugglers and truck drivers to melt into the nearby loud, shabby and corrugated-iron shanty towns and initiate negotiations over tax exemptions with the ubiquitous and dodgy purveyors of adult conversations.
It isn’t clear how long the practice – closing and opening times, you dirty old bag, not the negotiations! – had gone on, but that was the rule. Even as planes landed and took off late into the night at airports, land borders closed and opened with the sun.
It was in Rwanda, if memory serves me right, that this rule was first questioned. Why didn’t borders stay open longer? The answer? Not much: A few extra security and customs officials, some lights and bingo, the borders could stay open until 7pm, then 9pm, then midnight, until they never closed.
It was also in Rwanda that another basic question was asked not too long ago: Why did Africans need visas to visit the country? And if so, why not apply on arrival? And bingo, it became the first country to throw open its borders for visa-free travel by Africans.
It is thus surprising – and interesting – that Rwanda’s response to what it says is Uganda’s harassment of its citizens, is to close its main land border crossing and issue a travel advisory warning Rwandans not to travel to its neighbour. This is more so considering many Rwandans, including senior regime officials, were born or raised in Uganda and maintain friends, families, homes and ranches.
There will be time to delve into the reasons behind the latest spat, but the nature of the dispute and the tools used to make the point are revealing.
This is perhaps the most serious conflict between the two countries since the fighting in Congo almost two decades ago. Despite the best efforts of court jesters and makeup artists, anyone with a sense of history and perspective would have known that recent rapprochement was, fundamentally, papering over the cracks.
As long as the same principals remain in situ, and as long as relations continue to depend on the warmth of relations between leaders, those relations will remain vulnerable to historical injustices, real and perceived, as well as the vagaries of egos, mood swings and the evolving interests of players on either side.
The border closure and travel advisory appear, at face value (although not entirely), symbolic and an attempt to bring other players, particularly in the East African Community, into what has been a bilateral matter.
Looked at in linear terms, the two actions are a more mature way of ‘fighting’ than, for instance, Idi Amin saying he’d have considered marrying Mzee Nyerere if he had been a woman, or sending tanks across the border into another country.
But it also shows that while trade and movement of labour can be weaponised, they are in fact powerful deterrents against armed warfare: The people who have lost money in the border blockage must, I am sure, include Ugandans, Rwandans, Kenyans, Somalis, Congolese, Indians and so on.
Countries that trade together are advised not to go to war against each other. Kenya cannot drop a bomb in Kampala without hitting a Njuguna or Wanjohi, neither can Rwanda shell Kabale or Mbarara without hitting its own baturagye.
Even the travel advisory, as symbolic as it might be, reveals a shifting world. Since we got 24-hour borders across East Africa, a regional economy has emerged away from the gaze of policy makers and war planners. Consider the Kenyan mitumba traders who bus overnight into Kampala, spend the day picking out the latest fashions from their Ugandan counterparts, then bus back overnight in time to stock their Nairobi shops the next day.
Or take the young ‘suppliers of personal charm’ from central Africa, who bus into Kampala on Thursday evenings, add to the city’s famous nightlife and ambiance over the weekend, and are back home in time to tend to their market stalls on Monday morning. Will they really respect a travel advisory?
You can block all the cargo trucks you want at the border until the fish rots and the potatoes sprout, but whoever stops this commerce – especially the one of young people seeking opportunities oblivious to border lines or historical injustices – will be the one that starts the fight.
Like a wag told me, if Uganda stopped those buses from coming into Kampala some top government officials would be the first to seek regime change.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’sfreedom fighter. firstname.lastname@example.org