The 17 000-strong East African Law Society has this week thrown its weight behind efforts to reduce growing antagonism between Rwanda and Uganda. Under its new president, Willy Rubeya, the society has offered to help with mediation, so that the border between the neighbours may be fully opened again and tensions eased.

As tensions between Rwanda and Uganda heighten, a major lawyers’ organization in the region has stepped forward to offer its help in defusing the situation. This week saw tension escalating further, with several border points between the two countries closed by Rwanda. Kigali has warned its citizens not to travel to Uganda on the grounds that Uganda has detained and deported people from Rwanda. All these allegations have however been denied by Uganda, though officials said that those Rwandans who were deported were involved in crimes that undermined national security.

Commentators have warned that war is a real possibility unless some way is found to ensure leaders of the two countries are enabled to speak openly with each other about apparent grievances.

Against this background, the East African Law Society (EALS) has made a strong intervention. The EALS is a 17 000-member organisation whose members are committed to speeding up the integration of East African communities via support for cross-border commerce among others. The current tension and any possible war would run completely counter to its aims of strengthened business ties across all the region’s national divides. The new president of the EALS, Willy Rubeya, is a Burundian and a member of the Burundi Bar Association. He holds an LLM in Philosophy, peace-building and development from Trinity College, Dublin and will clearly need all his peace-building skills if the EALS is to play the role it has outlined in its statement on the current situation.

This week the society said it observed “with profound concern”, the deteriorating relationship between Uganda and Rwanda and the effect of these tensions on both the economy and the provision of basic needs and services to the people of the affected areas.

Their statement said that the rebirth of the East African community had seen people freely crossing the borders in the region. When these borders were closed it caused a number of problems with direct implications for the two states for how they could “comply with their obligations under the Treaty establishing the East African community, and the EAC Common Market Protocol”.

“We strongly believe that the solution to the situation lies in a negotiated settlement. Towards this end, we have offered to provide a platform for negotiation of the situation in a citizen-led solution searching.”

The EALS said it had formed a fact-finding mission consisting of highly experienced diplomats, senior lawyers, representatives of business communities and civil society. The society was also reaching out to the two heads of state, offering help with mediation.

The statement said citizens were urged to remain calm and maintain their normal routine as far as possible. The lawyers further requested the leaders of both countries to order that the border should be fully opened while a solution is explored.

According to local journalists who gave the background to the situation, Rwanda was unhappy that Uganda was supporting Rwandese anti-government rebels and believed that Uganda wanted to see a change in government in Kigali. Uganda, on the other hand, even though it clearly had grievances, maintained an ominous silence or gave assurances that there was nothing untoward.

Unless both sides could be persuaded to speak about their complaints with each other, the situation could only escalate further, the journalists said.

  • Newsletter, Judicial Institute for Africa (Jifa), 14 March 2019