Uganda and Rwanda enjoy a jovial diplomatic relationship, thanks partly to the effort of out-going polished diplomat Ambassador Richard Kabonero who has served as Uganda’s ambassador to Rwanda since April 2006, making him the longest-serving diplomat based in Rwanda.
He oversaw good and hard times as the two countries navigated through a process of building a solid diplomatic relationship that has yielded enormous results for the people of both countries. He exclusively spoke to Taarifa’s Chief Editor, Magnus Mazimpaka about the tensions between Rwanda and Uganda in the early 2000s and the long list of historic and irreversible milestones he has left behind.
Below are the excerpts.
Taarifa: So, you are going to Tanzania as Uganda’s Ambassador. How does this affect you as a person who has spent 11 years in Rwanda, made friends, connected with the country and now you are gone?
Kabonero: The transfer from Kigali to my new station is a normal process in our diplomatic career. However it was also quite a difficult time, not really difficult in terms of the transfer, but in terms of the friends, the journey we have walked together during this tour with my colleagues here at the mission, but also with the Rwandan people and to see the transformation that has taken place. So yes, I got the news of the transfer, and there was both the sense of accomplishment, but also satisfaction on what we have achieved together.
Taarifa: Looking back, what have you achieved during your tour in Rwanda?
Kabonero: I always use the word “we” because this is not something that I did on my own. It was with the team here as I said, as I wrote, in my piece to the Rwandans. Achievements have been many and valid from our deepening relations and to the bilateral level, the volume of trade, to this magnificent building which we now call our home, which was built during our time here, to the many challenges that we overcame; they are our modest achievements. Trade doubled in volume, actually tripled. We opened our borders to 24-hours operations, we got the free movement of our people and goods, we eliminated the non-tariff barriers, which were increasing the cost of trade, we worked on the security challenges, we have very excellent Police cooperation, we have hundreds of students going through the borders to our school, so there are many.
Taarifa: Among the achievement you have listed, which one was much more difficult and why?
Kabonero: I think the most difficult challenge was the non-tariff barriers, to eliminate the barriers that hinder our trade whether, it is on the operations or the mindset of the officials at the borders to speed up clearance, whether it is in weigh bridges, generally the mindset. To know that delay is costly; delay for goods is costly, delay for services but also issues to do with work permits. Trying to make sure that people who move across borders have a purpose that they are not just going to visit. They bring money to the country, they do business, and they create jobs. So changing the mindset was the most difficult.
Taarifa: What was your approach?
Kabonero: Involving the private sector and getting feedback on what they were experiencing, whether it is the lady selling potatoes across the border or the big businesses selling roofing; trying to export steel. Feedback from our private sector was critical in addressing those challenges. Remember non-tariff barriers are not static, they are always evolving. You remove bridges, then you have Police roadblocks, you remove the Police roadblock, you have the customs officer. You have to get feedback from everyone.
Taarifa: Politically? I know there were hard times…in the early days?
Kabonero: Definitely in the beginning there are always some difficult challenges in cooperation. I had to make sure that what used to be called “negative forces” would not find safe heaven, crossing our borders or people from our neighboring countries which were at war. These were addressed in our security sectors, but the key was to find solutions. The challenges will always be there irrespective of the time but the critical input was to find solutions to those challenges and finding the solutions as rapidly as we could so that the challenge does not grow bigger beyond our capacity to solve them in time. There was also building confidence, so that once our region is secure, it would effect investments, tourism; and making our zitizens felt safe.
Taarifa: Mention a particular difficult moment…
Kabonero: It is hard to recall a particular incident, but sometimes you know even the example of the conflict in DR Congo, M23 crossing the border. Those were difficult times because we had to find a regional solution not up to an individual country to solve. There were other difficult moments; you recall the LRA, FDLR, and ADF. These were all negative forces that required a solution from our region because they were trans-boundary; they were not for one country to solve. We always met these challenges together and found solutions for them, otherwise there were no specific incidences that required my specific intervention.
Taarifa: True or false? That Andrew Mwenda was somehow involved in bring President Kagame and President Museveni together?
Kabonero: You know our principals always meet. No single individual can make them meet if they don’t want to. I am just saying that these heads of states always meet, they choose where and when to meet, I really don’t think either me or anybody else can force them to meet. So the initiative was with our principals and they met and it was not the first time to meet.
Taarifa: In this particular meeting…the mood was not good between Rwanda and Uganda then, if I recall correctly.
Kabonero: It was a meeting of two heads of state and I remember the time you are recalling our president visited his Excellency president Kagame in Muhazi and President Kagame visited Uganda. He went to the President’s home in Rwakitura. There was also a trip to Mweya, this was a very good time for us.
Taarifa: Are you suggesting it was all well?
Kabonero: There were challenges that existed in terms of relations, it was a difficult time. The Rwanda-Ugandan relations are not based on individuals, it a relationship that is based on a shared sense of history and values.
Taarifa: But it was very antagonistic. Every one was nervous, we were nervous. Who was peddling this tension?
Kabonero: Actors are always there. And the key is to identify them and isolate them. There are always people who either regional or externally creating division, foreign or domestic. The key for us who have a stake in this region is to continue on a path of cooperation, to advance our own interests.
Taarifa: At one point Kiiza Besigye was making heads collide…remember later also him saying Rwandans were cross to vote for Museveni?
Kabonero: You know politicians in this region come up with all sorts of fantastic ideas, those are the actors I was talking about, those who try to weld a wedge between us. One individual cannot undermine relations unless we, the citizens allow it. We dismissed the allegation with the contempt it deserved. The citizens, in each country, determine their elections and the interference by another neighbor was and is far fetched.
Taarifa: With all the hardships you have managed to overcome. What do you think you will be remembered for?
Kabonero: I think the level of cooperation; people to people, the confidence that our population have now, that a student can cross felling secure. A Ugandan can come to Rwanda and have a good time, a Rwandan can go to Kampala and have a nice weekend and come back. A trader knows that his goods will arrive. That confidence I think is irreversible. The challenges will always be there, but the confidence by our citizens in each other is my greatest achievement.
Taarifa: Have you left any unfinished business for your successor,Wonekha Oliver?
Kabonero: I think my successor will build on the modest success we have, there are a number of challenges. I would like to see our airspace domesticated, that’s one of the critical things that I would want to see done so that a RwandAir flight from Kigali to Entebbe is not an international flight. I want to see it as a domestic flight.
Taarifa: Are you speaking of the flight cost?
Kabonero: The cost will automatically come down if they don’t have to pay those high international landing fees if it’s a domestic flight. Entebbe should be like Kamembe or Cyangugu, Nairobi-Kigali.
Taarifa: Who will work on it?
Kabonero: Our civil aviation authority and our government at the policy level. I would like to see it at the East African Community level, working on domesticating our airspace. That would be a great achievement. I still think we have problems in movement of persons; it is still hard for our people to across borders and get jobs without going through this work permit process. I should be able to go to Shinyanga or to Cyangugu from Ntungamo and get a job or a Rwandan should be able to go and work to Masaka, or Horizon Construction Company should be able to compete on a road construction project in Uganda and actually be favored over other entities outside our region. These are some of the issues that I think we can build on even after my exit.
Taarifa: Are those are the two main projects you think you did not work on?
Kabonero: No, we worked on them definitely but you know for example domesticating the airspace takes time; it takes the changing of regulations because it has revenue implications; the free movements of goods and services and the free movement of labor. We can remove any barriers.
Taarifa: You were the Dean of all the ambassadors, what was your experience?
Kabonero: It was a very enriching experience. I always represented my colleagues wherever they had concerns or complaints to the government. I represented them in various functions on behalf of the diplomatic corp. Kigali is a beautiful station to work from.
Kabonero: It is safe, it clean, it is good for families. So, for diplomats who work here this is a wonderful station to work from.
Taarifa: What about government behavior towards diplomats?
Kabonero: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been very cooperative, there are challenges, things that we didn’t get done but the officers at the ministry have been very responsive as well as other agencies that we dealt with, because I dealt with them on a daily basis and I want to recommend them.
Taarifa: You spoke on behalf of countries who were having issue with the government, weren’t discussions comfortable?
Kabonero: I represented all the diplomatic corp, both resident and non-resident and either a country has complication, it did not affect the way I interact with them. In any case some of these issues was really bilateral so they were solved at the bilateral level. My role was to represent my colleagues in Kigali and attend to anything that would arise.
Taarifa: Was there a particular case where you mediated a matter and sorted it out amicably?
Kabonero: Not a case, it is actually one of the issues that we have dealt with. For example, we have a diplomatic duty free established in the city. It is under the ministry of foreign affairs and the Rwanda Revenue Authority. We have been working on it so that when we are at the airport, we access the duty free, because airports have its own security requirements. If we had let’s say a diplomatic duty free in town, it would be easier for the diplomats to access it than at the airport.
Taarifa: Personal. You had a beautiful office. You had a good time; you had fun and made great friends. Can you share your personal experience?
Kabonero: It has been excellent. I have enjoyed my time. I have travelled the whole country. I have been to places that I had never been to before. I have interacted with people in places like Kibuye. I went to Cyangugu, on the border, this village I had never heard of. There is a village I went to called Susa somewhere in Ruhengeri and danced with baturage there. Those are very enriching experiences. It was very good. I have shared also difficult times, in April, with the people who lost there loved ones, the last one being this April. So, my interaction outside the office has been as enriching as my official work.
Taarifa: How best will you describe Rwandans, their behavior and their culture?
Kabonero: It is a rich culture, but the one thing that I think shine through is resilience. They are a resilient society. Despite everything that have befallen them, they were able to rise and look forward to the future with optimism. A number of your citizens have turned their scars into stars. It is an amazing journey and I was fortunate and privileged to be here and witness them.
Taarifa: Many Ugandans praise President Kagame, and Rwandans, starkly. They make all sorts of comparisons and inferences about Rwanda, the progress and its people. How does that make you feel as a Ugandan?
Kabonero: You can never stop people from double speaking. It is what the people themselves feel in this country. This word is not a cliché; Agaciro. I think people feel proud in their country, in their leader and I believe you don’t need any validation. The validation of your achievement come from in you.
Taarifa: You think so?
Kabonero: If Rwandans are saying ‘we are satisfied’, who are you the foreigner to tell others how to leave their life?. Sometimes you don’t need to talk, what you have done speaks for itself.
Taarifa: You had several conversations with President Kagame. How best can you describe him?
Kabonero: For me, it is his commitment to uplifting this country. He keeps his word, but ultimately he serves others before self. I think this is one of the greatest things that I have witnessed. His commitment in making sure that Rwandans look forward with optimism.
Taarifa: Did you ever have hard times with him in any case? Did you express yourself and did he express himself?
Kabonero: No, at that level I only represent Uganda and he has his colleague with whom they discuss with, but definitely I relied on his counsel and guidance during my tour.
Taarifa: What were your disappointments?
Kabonero: To be honest there were no disappointments, only unfinished business; the things I would like to see done even when I am not here. I enumerated some of them. Maybe, the security challenges for people crossing borders, the trade issues on policy, harmonising our position so that we are stronger. Have people lining up on borders to stamp documents. Borderless borders is one of the things that I am a bit disappointed that we didn’t achieve, but I look forward to a day that I can walk across a border without having to line up to having my documents stamped.
Taarifa: You left a big footprint. Big shoes. Will your successor fit in?
Kabonero: I believe she should be given a chance. She is an experienced diplomat, she will try and advance our regional initiatives. All I ask is that the same cooperation I was given is extended to her.
Taarifa: What will you miss in Rwanda?
Kabonero: Everybody. I will miss the citizens, the city, the culture. The brochette was nice. I will miss the weddings, Urukurereza, Inganzo Ngali, all the nice things. But most importantly the people.
Previous ambassadorial assignments