KAMPALA/KIGALI/KINSHASA – Rwandan President Paul Kagame was the surprise guest at ceremonies in DR Congo on Friday to honour deceased opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi hosted by his son Felix, the country’s president.
As relations between Rwanda and Uganda remain frosty, Rwanda is now looking west for trade, towards the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Kagame on Friday May 31 joined Tshisekedi and Angolan President Joao Lourenco for a central African mini-summit ahead of the long-awaited tribute.
The three vowed to “strengthen the Congo-Angola-Rwanda axis” to “wipe out Congolese and foreign armed groups,” a joint communique said, apparently referring to brutal militias which plague the DRC-Rwandan border.
Tshisekedi died in Brussels in February 2017 at the age of 84.
Relations between Rwanda and the DRC have been chilly since the 1990s when Rwanda invaded the country to back rebels trying to overthrow Kabila’s father, former president Laurent Kabila.
Recently Mr. Kagame gave contrasting messages to people living communities bordering the DRC. He encouraged them to trade more with communities across the border and seek trade partnerships.
“You have a very big market in DRC, and in towns like Goma. They also have a market here. You can cross the border and buy what you don’t have and they can also cross to buy what they don’t have,” he said.
However, on his trip to Burera, a district on the border with Uganda, he discouraged those living there from crossing into Uganda and castigated local leaders.
“I don’t understand how residents go across the border to look for services that we have the potential to provide. I don’t have a problem with the residents but with the leaders who don’t provide these services,” the president said.
Last year, Rwanda, the DRC, and Uganda implemented the Simplified Trade Regime, a tool developed by Comesa and aimed at facilitating cross-border traders.
In March, Rwanda and the DRC signed a bilateral air service agreement to bolster trade and movement of citizens. This culminated in RwandAir launching its maiden direct flight from Kigali to Kinshasa in April, a route expected to ease the movement of goods and travellers.
Before, the shortest air route between Kigali and Kinshasa was operated by Kenya Airways, via a Nairobi transit.
According to Rwanda’s National Institute of Statistics, in 2017, cross-border trade between Rwanda and the DRC generated $100 million, and up to 90,000 people cross the common border every day.
Meanwhile, Uganda is falling off the list of top trade partners for Rwanda’s goods. Uganda earned about $2.64 million from its exports to Rwanda in March this year, a drop of $11.8 million from the previous month, according to statistics from the Bank of Uganda.
At the time, Rwanda had partially closed the border preventing its citizens moving across and goods from Uganda from coming in.
Ugandan traders had to look elsewhere, particularly to Kenya, where Uganda made $26.4 million in exports, an increase of about $19 million from the previous month.
Rwandans and Ugandans have been illegally crossing the border to trade — mainly in agricultural products — since the blockade instituted by Rwanda in late February. However, they are often hampered by security personnel patrolling the borders.