It is exactly 5:30am (local time) on Wednesday, June 25, 2014, at Petite Barriere – a small border post between Rubavu district of Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’s North Kivu capital Goma. The small border post is about 3km away from the main border linking the two countries.
At this small border post, business is beginning to pick up. Rwandans and Congolese have been going through this spot for as long as it has existed.However, today for Rwandans, especially students and small traders who cross the border for daily to Congo, the day is a miserable one.
“What is going on here?” wonders a female Rwandan student as a DRC soldier pushes her back to the Rwandan side.
“Let me cross the border please. I have to sit for an exam in few minutes,” she tells the mean-looking soldier, as he adamantly looks on unconcerned.
As minutes go by, hundreds of Rwandan students and traders arrive. Many Rwandan students as well as those from DRC study in either country schools.
However, both Rwandan students and traders woke up to this shocking experience. The government in Kinshasa has a new cross-border policy targeting only Rwandans.For DRC Citizens crossing over to Rwanda, the situation is normal on the Rwanda side.
“This is confusing. We are being rounded up as if we don’t have travel documents,” complained another Rwandan at the border, only identified as Vestine.
The new visa charges will be in three categories; $30 per year will be charged on Rwandan students crossing the border to study in DR Congo, $50 on small traders every 3 months, while working class people will have to pay $250 every Month.
According to Immigration officials on the Rwandan side, about 30,000 people cross the small border daily, while between 6000 to 7000 cross via the main border.
Why visas now
It all on April 21 when DRC government started overcharging VISA fees on Rwandans traveling through Rusizi-Bukavu border post- another border that connects the two Countries. Bukavu is the capital of South Kivu province and is at the border like Goma.
The Rwanda Directorate General of Immigration and Emigration engaged Congolese counterparts about the issue. Other than a laissez-passer document which costs Rwf10, 000, Rwandans had been required to have a visa which goes for $55 (Rwf37, 400) for ordinary persons and $35 (Rwf23, 800) for students.
However, the situation was even tenser on Wednesday as Rwandans were asked to pay bribes if they wanted to cross the border. Officials at the Rwanda immigration department say they were taken by surprise and the visas contravene agreements of Economic Community of the Great Lakes Countries (CEPGL) grouping including Rwanda, DRC and Burundi.
“It was a surprise to see that they have begun charging visa fees for all Rwandans going to DRC,” said AngeSebutege from the Rwanda immigration body. “Normally those who are required to process a visa are those going to reside or work in the Country as residents but visas do not apply to visitors,” he added.
Same border, different charges
The three countries also agreed to remove the requirement of passports for people from communities living along the border areas. They use border passes instead. Rwandan travelers are furious.
“They are asking us to give them bribes. They are charging us US $50,” said Chantal Uwimana, a Rwandan trader.
“We cannot accept this…we can’t afford such amount every day. They are charging students US $5 to cross the border and do their exams. And what is most confusing is that it’s only happening here. The Grande Barriere is operating as usual. It is a sign that DRC officials impose policies depending on how they woke up feeling today,”
HassanBahame, the Mayor of Rubavu District which borders Goma, said that he communicated with his counterpart in on the other side. “He blamed the new changes of immigration officials in his country and promised me that there will be a positive immediate solution soon,” said Bahame.
Lucie Ndeta, North Kivu province immigration officer defended the new visa policy saying it was implemented within the legal boundaries.
“This is a policy set by DRC government in order to manage people entering the country,” he said.
“Besides, the visa charges have been put into different categories to make them fair to different segments; businesspeople will not pay same as students. Those who are employed with permanent jobs will pay more because they earn permanent incomes in DRC.”
Regional body warns DRC
In a statement issued last month, the CEPGL Executive Secretary, Herman Tuyaga said that DRC did not inform the body before charging visa fees on every Rwandan crossing into DRC.
“We regret that DRC government doesn’t inform us (CEPGL) before putting such policies in place. There are agreements that were signed by every member Country in 2011, allowing free movement of Citizens from all member countries.
In July that year, this agreement was put in place and signed by all Foreign Affairs Ministers of member Countries. All visa fees were scrapped on all Citizens trying to enter another Country.”
Tuyaga added that the document signed indicates that only passports, Lesser-Passez and identity cards should be used by Citizens.
“We wrote to Kinshasa Government informing them about this issue…this new Policy is contrary to CEPGL’s mission of regional integration.”
According to data from the Rwanda central bank, informal cross-border trade between the two Countries accounts for 63 percent of total transactions, and 80 percent of total exports.
The survey indicates that imports from the DRC amounts to Rwf3.3 billion annually, representing 27 percent of total informal imports and other products from DRC including bananas for cooking, bananas for beer, fermented cassava and dried beans, among others.
While informal exports to the DRC from Rwanda amounting to Rwf22 billion thus representing 80 percent of unrecorded exports of Rwanda.
Rwanda’s main export products to DRC are live cattle valued at Rwf2.7 billion followed by live goats at Rwf2.6 billion, as well as maize flour.
At both border posts, Citizens from both Countries make ends meet through different cross-border trade.