The pain, costs of ruined border trade

Sunday February 23 2020

No business. Many shops at Katuna border post remain closed following the closure of the common border between Uganda and Rwanda on February 27 last year. PHOTO BY ROBERT MUHEREZA

It is only four days short of a year since Rwanda closed its key crossing border point with Uganda at Katuna, the focal point of business transaction between the two countries.

The communities along the common border are kinsmen and kinswomen, who use the border-crossing for day-to-day dealings.

Closing the Katuna border meant the families would be separated and economies of the two countries adversely impacted.

Prior to the closure, Uganda and Rwanda’s relationship had been getting colder over the years.
Rwanda had accused Uganda of sheltering its dissidents, while Uganda accused Rwanda of infiltrating its security machinery.

And at the height of this slow-baking conflict, Gen Kale Kayihura was arrested in June 2018. The former IGP was accused of aiding and abetting the forced repatriation of Rwandan nationals. This would turn out to be one of the sticky issues in Uganda-Rwanda ties.

In the months that followed, President Kagame was quoted as saying: “You can attempt to destabilise our country, you can do us harm, you can shoot me with a gun and kill me. But there is one thing that is impossible: No one can bring me to my knees.”


President Museveni on his part declared: “Those who want to destabilise our country do not know our capacity. It is very big. Once we mobilise, you can’t survive.”

Such was the public spat on both sides, and closing the border was only part of the wider disquiet.

Many have praised Kampala for keeping cool over the matter, which seems to have defused the time bomb.

In the weeks that followed, the private sector was up in arms over lost business earnings. The executive director for Federation of SMEs Uganda, Mr John Walugembe, one of the major players in the private sector, accused Rwanda of using trade as a chip in political dispute.

The trucker on his knees
Mr Wycliffe Musinguzi (not real name) is a professional transporter. He owns more than 30 long-haul lorries, under his Lubaga-based company. He started off two decades ago as a small-time trader in Kabale, buying produce from his village in southern Kabale and crossing the border to sell in Rwanda for a profit. That was 1997.

Over two decades later, Musinguzi is based in Kampala, and owns several trailers. Over and above trading in produce, he deals in transportation. He used to do his business in Rwanda until last February when the border was closed.

“Before the border was closed, I always made at least eight trips to Rwanda per month. When I was not transporting my produce for sale, I was hired by large-scale Rwandan traders to transport their merchandise from Kampala to Kigali. Such merchandise included cooking oil, plastics and so on. Mukwano Industries was one of the main sources of this merchandise. Each trip brought me no less than Shs3m in profit.

“But ever since they closed the border, I have gone to Rwanda only five times. Five paltry time in the whole year,” he repeats for emphasis.

From above, Musinguzi was averaging a profit of Shs24m per month. In comparison, he made only Shs15m over the last one year, since the border was shut.

Desperate measures
The five times Musinguzi’s trucks have made the Rwanda trip, he has had to devise means to get merchandise into Rwanda without entering Rwanda. Musinguzi’s trucks have had to use the Mutukula border, South of Masaka, through Tanzania. In Tanzania, the tucks go westward towards the western tip of Tanzania.

Here, the trucks would stop near the Lusumu border between Tanzania and Rwanda and offload the goods. It is from here that the Rwandan traders would pick up the merchandise and enter Rwanda safely.

“While the Kampala-Kigali route takes two days, maximum, the Mutukura route takes close to two weeks,” Musinguzi says.

“Other times, we have had to use the Bunagana border between Uganda and DR Congo in Kisoro. Here, the goods would enter Congo and then into Rwanda. These have been desperate times.”

Ugandan goods barred
Tyson Uwimana [not real name], a Rwandan trader, told Sunday Monitor that Rwandan traders were prohibited from buying Ugandan goods just before the border was closed.

Uwimana said: “We were called for a meeting early last year and told not to buy merchandise from Uganda anymore. We were asked to buy from Tanzania instead. This posed a problem. Rwanda heavily relies on building materials from Uganda, among other things. Most of the cement in Rwanda is bought from here, yet we were told to buy cement from only Dar es Salaam. A round trip from Kigali to Dar takes at least five days as opposed to a two-day round trip to Kampala.”

He added that they were promised concessions just to bridge the gap between operational costs and profit.

Exorbitant maize prices
After the border was shut, Ugandan produce stopped flowing into Rwanda. Ugandan traders and farmers were suddenly faced with a lack of market for maize. But this dilemma was not limited to Uganda.

As a result of the border blockade, a kilo of maize in Rwanda rose from 180 Rwanda Francs to 500. This, according to Musinguzi, had never happened.

Pessimistic about the border opening
While the two presidents have agreed to open the border, Musinguzi and his colleagues are pessimistic about the state of affairs and wait to see what tomorrow brings after the expected border-opening on Friday flopped.