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Politics

How Uganda border communities came to pin trade problems with Rwanda on Museveni

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By John Kakooza

Border communities that have been hard hit by a halt in business from the Rwandan side have taken to blaming President Yoweri Museveni for their fallen incomes, and the poverty besetting them.

An investigation by our journalist in the southwestern regions bordering Rwanda has revealed that traders, merchants, moneychangers, peasant farmers – and everyone else whose business depended on Rwandans – have precipitously lost income and many have been bankrupted. People have been imploring President Museveni “to restore good relations with Rwanda” on the occasions he’s visited, such as on one of his highly publicized wealth creation tours.

For the past eight months when news came from the Rwandan side that the government there had advised its citizens not to travel to Uganda, bunches of restaurants, hotels, bars and nightclubs, shops and other business establishments have folded in Katuna, Kabale, Kisoro, Lyantonde, all the way to Mbarara. Even in places as far away as Kikuubo trading center and Owino market in Kampala, they are experiencing bad losses.

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On the most recent of Museveni’s wealth creation tours to the south – this one in the Kigezi region – the first question representatives of the business community asked him was: “what are you doing to normalize relations with Rwanda so trade can resume?” That was on 30 July this year at the Kabale State Lodge.

Museveni did not give any reassuring answers. He only urged the people “to stay calm as talks to finding a lasting solution to the ongoing crisis were ongoing”.

But more months have come and gone and the situation has only worsened with ever more business establishments and small-scale traders closing up, turning a number of towns and villages into ghost communities. “The promises of Museveni in Kabale were just more of his empty assurances!” merchants have been angrily saying.

It’s not only the big traders; or the owners of shops and stores; or the proprietors of lodges and motels; or the eateries, bars and nightclubs; or financial services; or owners of bus fleets and others in those categories that have suffered. Even peasants that have been relying on selling crops, livestock, chickens, eggs, fruit and other produce for income have been hard hit.

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They have no one to sell their produce to. The Rwandans that made businesses thrive are no longer coming.

Inquiries in the areas surrounding Katuna, Kabale all the way to Bufumbira show that a lot of villagers have become destitute. They can no longer buy soap, salt, sugar or anything else. Any farmer one will talk to just wants the government “to solve its problems with Rwanda”, so that “life goes back to normal!”

Others, those that read news and try to keep themselves informed declare they are “fed up with Museveni!” It is a comment one hears very often in Kisoro, Kabale, Katuna, Mirama and further afield.

People’s lives have been badly affected. Farmers have watched as their crops have ripened and rotted in the fields because they can’t sell them any more. Stories from the villages in the rolling, green hills and the plains are many that the peasants are willing to sell their Irish potatoes, beans, cabbages, and everything for as little as a quarter of what they used to sell them. Even then there are no buyers!

The woman that could sell her chickens and eggs to a restaurant in Katuna and pay school fees for her children can’t do so now. Ditto the man that could sell his goats to bars that depended on border trade. Someone who used to work as a waitress in Kisoro, Kyanika, Kabale, Katuna, Lyantonde, and all places in between now is unemployed.

There are very many people like that and they are very bitter with President Museveni. Some lay the blame on Rwanda that “it closed the border to fight Uganda”.

Others however have been asking why it is the Ugandan president that seems to have conflicts with everyone else. “Why can’t we have peace with neighbors?” asked a farmer in the Bufumbira region who allowed us to use only one of his names, Senzoga.

He says he follows the news on radio. “We are not children; we have heard how Museveni picked a quarrel with Congo before,” Senzoga said. “He then picked a quarrel with Kagame. He then he picked a quarrel with Kenya because of an island! He picked a quarrel with South Sudan. Why is Museveni always the one quarreling with others?” wondered the farmer.

The more our investigation unearthed of the consequence of the loss of Rwandan customers to Uganda, the more one realizes how calamitous the consequences have been. One proprietor of an eatery we talked to at Katuna who heavily depended on Rwandan travelers gestures at his empty looking place.

“We have lost a lot!” cried the middle-aged man who gave his name only as Stephen. “A lot! We are looking for help. I used to have about 40 people for lunch in this place. Now look, no one is here!” he said during one lunch hour.

“On average during lunch I would have about forty customers, and half of them would be Rwandans. But ever since March that has completely changed! We lost all the Rwandan customers. But when we lost them we also lost most of our Ugandan customers.”

It was a knock-on effect. Stephen’s local customers were people that worked at the border post in different occupations and they all depended on Rwandan money. These were people like moneychangers, shopkeepers, taxi drivers, or manual laborers. “They have all gone, just like the Banyarwanda have gone!” lamented Stephen.

He is not exaggerating. Katuna looks a ghost town. Further afield, Kabale looks sluggish. Kisoro looks even worse. Shops, lodges, bars, restaurants and other businesses have closed down. Service stations have a desolate look. People have no sense of hope that things will return to what they were before.

Uganda Revenue Authority figures show that the value of Ugandan exports to Rwanda fell by 27 percent, from Ushs 585 billion to 426 billion between the financial years 2017-2018 and 2018-2019, and that imports from Rwanda declined by 23 percent, from Ushs 160 billion to 123 billion.

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Maize millers that used to sell thousands of sacks daily to Rwandan traders are hemorrhaging red ink. Dairy farmers are experiencing the same. Brands like “Highland” that almost entirely depended on Rwanda have drastically cut down capacity. Industrialists as far away as Kampala itself have felt the pinch, and are stuck with stockpiles of spirits, detergents, soaps, packed milk, juice, sugar, salt, and every primary consumer item that used to grace the shelves of Rwandan supermarkets.

“No wonder our industries are operating at only 40 percent capacity,” said Gideon Badagawa, Executive Director of Private Sector Federation-Uganda.

The consequences of lost Rwandan business are being felt everywhere.

In Kampala they did the math and found that when relations were still good and Banyarwanda were travelling freely, buses and minivans ferried not less than ten thousand people between the two countries, daily. The bus companies transporting people – Jaguar, Horizon, Trinity and others – would operate not less than a hundred buses between them daily.

Among others they would be carrying many traders headed to Owino market in Kampala, and the famous Kikuubo trading center in the capital.

Now Kikuubo is a ghost of its former self. In Owino Market, many stalls are vacant.

The fear of everyone is that the collapse will only worsen.

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