Rwandans and Ugandans are waiting with bated breath to see the fruits of the peace agreement signed between their presidents Paul Kagame and Yoweri Museveni this past week in Luanda, Angola, potentially ending two years of political tensions that have affected the economies of the two countries and derailed the region’s integration agenda.
Many hope that the deal signed on Wednesday will help defuse the tensions that have paralysed many aspects of their lives.
The tensions, which surfaced in 2017, have caused a political and diplomatic crisis, a development that has affected the flow of goods and people between the two countries especially after February this year, when the largest common border post, Gatuna, was shut down.
The official reason was to complete construction works of a one-stop border post—an EAC programme—but it soon emerged that it was the crescendo of the breakdown of relations between Kigali and Kampala over allegations of security breaches, espionage, illegal detentions and support for fugitives. Both countries have denied the claims.
Now, while officials of the two countries maintain that it is too soon to measure the impact of Wednesday’s memorandum of understanding, the restoration of diplomatic channels is being seen as a positive development in an effort to resolve the crisis.
But political observers caution that it may take time before relations between the two countries are restored.
Analysts say a strong political will is needed on both sides to enforce the agreement as it will require a lot of compromises and restraint.
For example, despite the signing of the agreement, there was no immediate indication of thawing of relations as the propaganda war and misinformation remained throughout the week.
On Thursday, a day after the signing of the agreement, Uganda blocked pro-Rwandan government media websites allegedly for publishing content that is “harmful and detrimental to national security.”
Rwanda responded on Friday by blocking media sites such as New Vision, the Daily Monitor and The Observer.
Kigali, which has raised several issues with the way its citizens have been treated in Uganda — with arbitrary arrests and torture — remains cautiously optimistic as outstanding issues are yet to be decisively addressed.
Rwanda maintains its advisory against travel to Uganda as it awaits the release of its citizens allegedly held there.
Rwanda has accused Uganda of supporting rebels and dissidents opposed to President Kagame’s government, a charge that President Museveni denied in a letter addressed to his Rwandan counterpart and leaked to the press in March.
In the letter, President Museveni noted: “What is wrong is for Rwandan agents to try to operate behind the government of Uganda. I receive a lot of stories; but I will never raise them unless I have confirmed them.”
Uganda has accused Kigali of conducting espionage on its soil, and its military courts of trying citizens of both countries for spying and working for “a foreign government.”
A government official who is not authorised to speak on the matter said the MoU “is a positive step because it lays the foundation for addressing outstanding issues as both countries will actively engage in the coming months to resolve these issues.”
“But it is not a silver bullet as we have been here before (holding bilateral meetings) but no action was taken,” the official said.
The difference now is that the issues are now being handled at a regional level.
After the signing, President Kagame warned "it may take a bit of time" for the two countries "to understand each other, but I think we have come a long way".
President Kagame has been explicit about what has caused bad blood between the two countries, telling a government retreat on March 9 this year that he had brought these issues to the attention of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.
“I showed Museveni the people being tortured and those who support them in the system...I leave this problem to you. Deal with it the way you want…He promised me to deal with it…” President Kagame said expressing frustration that no action had been taken since then.
President Museveni, who has largely downplayed the standoff, has pledged that "Uganda is fully committed to enforcing this agreement."
Ismael Buchanan, a professor of political science, told The EastAfrican that the two countries now have a platform on which to cultivate good relations.
“Both countries have to co-operate instead of interfering in each other’s affairs,” he said.
The agreement was prepared by Angolan leader João Lourenço, with the support of President Felix Tshisekedi of DRC.
It is being considered a score by both leaders, who for the first time since the tensions escalated in late February, were seen to be at ease with each other.
Since late February, Rwanda has restricted Ugandan imports and even from crossing into eastern DRC via its borders. Rwanda also “strongly advised its citizens against travelling to Uganda”, saying it could not guarantee their security.
Now, the leaders have agreed to “resume as soon as possible the cross-border activities including the movement of persons and goods, for the development and improvement of the lives of their population.
The re-opening of the Rwandan border will be huge relief to area residents who relied heavily on informal cross-border trade.
Rwandan and Ugandan regulators on the other hand said on Friday they had held “positive” talks and agreed that blocking media websites was not in the spirit of the agreement. They promised to resolve the issues in “a few days.”