Amb. Janet Mwawasi outlines her key priorities for strengthening Kenya-Rwanda relations

By Wycliffe Nyamasege
On 2 June 2024 at 08:35

It has been slightly over two months since Janet Mwawasi officially assumed office as Kenya’s High Commissioner to Rwanda.

When she presented her letters of credence to President Paul Kagame on March 26, the High Commissioner committed to strengthening bilateral relations between the two countries as well as helping Kenya retain its position as one of Rwanda’s top three trade partners.

Notably, Kenya exports foodstuffs, beverages, pharmaceutical products, cement, iron, and skin products to Rwanda, while Rwanda exports coffee, tea, horticultural foods, and raw hides and skins to Kenya. Kenya is also the main route for Rwanda’s exports and imports through the Port of Mombasa.

In an exclusive interview with IGIHE, the Rwandan ambassador discusses, among others, her efforts to strengthen ties between Kenya and Rwanda, ongoing economic and social cooperation, and the crisis in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, which poses a significant security threat to the Great Lakes region.

You have been in Rwanda for a few months now. How has your experience been so far?

Before my posting here, I had not been to Rwanda, but I had heard a lot about Rwanda. Rwanda is one of the countries that Kenyans speak a lot about. I was really looking forward to coming to Rwanda, and when I got this posting, I was quite excited.

Having landed in Rwanda, the first thing that struck me was the reception that Rwanda gave me as a Kenyan ambassador. It was very warm, and that spoke to the relationship that Rwanda has had with Kenya ever since they began bilateral relations. I had a very warm welcome here. Very cordial relations between Kenya and Rwanda are evident because, although I have been here for a short period, we have hosted quite a number of high-level dignitaries.

We have had Cabinet Secretaries (CSs) here in a span of two to three months. We had the CS for Sports, who came to attend the late Gervais Hakizimana’s burial. We had our CS for Transport, and then we had our Deputy President attending Kwibuka, representing our President. Then, just last week, we had our Head of State attending the CEO forum. That just shows how cordial we are with Rwanda. That is one of the areas that really impresses me as a new High Commissioner here.

Another thing I must say about Rwanda is it has beautiful and receptive people. We share a lot in terms of traditions, culture, and customs. When they speak Kinyarwanda, I understand it, being Bantu. We have a shared history and customs that make it very easy for a Kenyan to assimilate in Rwanda.

I will not finish this without talking about how organized Kigali is. I have not yet been able to move to other parts of Rwanda. I intend to do that within a short period of time, but I can speak about Kigali. The infrastructure is just amazing, with a very organized way of doing things. It has been a great experience.

Did you ever envision being an ambassador?

Not at all, actually. It was a surprise, but it’s something that I received with a lot of gratitude. I’ve worked with UNON and UNEP before, so I am not completely new to bilateral and international relations. That background gives me a good backdrop to deliver on this posting. It was a very exciting appointment, and what better country than Rwanda?

Kenya and Rwanda enjoy strong bilateral relations. What will be your key priorities in strengthening this partnership?

My main priority is to strengthen the already existing very good relations. My second priority would be trade and investment. We have many Kenyan companies doing business here, and there is a lot of trade between Rwanda and Kenya that I would love to see strengthened. Of great importance is the Northern Corridor, with Rwanda being a strategic country for Kenya that I want to see strengthened.

We have had a couple of engagements. Just last week, Kenya Pipeline and Kenya Ports Authority paid us a courtesy visit, and we had quite a number of engagements with the Rwandan authorities in the Ministry of Trade to see how we can enhance our use of the Northern Corridor. We also had MoUs signed when the President came here last year in April for a state visit, invited by His Excellency Paul Kagame. A few have been implemented, while others are still awaiting a mid-term review sometime in June. It’s very important for me to see that the MoUs are implemented and to take care of our large diaspora presence. We have about 8,000 Kenyans living in Rwanda, and I want to ensure that their concerns are addressed.

During President Ruto’s visit to Rwanda in April last year, Kenya and Rwanda signed 10 MoUs aimed at enhancing cooperation in several areas, including education, ICT, health, gender and child development, youth and capacity development for the public service, as well as correctional services. What is the progress in the implementation of the agreements?

We have two of them actualized. We have a couple going for midterm review, and we are in touch with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs here. We are looking at June to fast track implementation, with a few still waiting for signatures. We are actively working to push the MoUs to fruition.

Early May, Transport Minister Kipchumba Murkomen met with his counterparts from Uganda, DRC, South Sudan, and Rwanda to discuss plans to extend the railway network to these four countries. Previous plans to extend the railway network to Uganda faced financial challenges. For someone hearing this for the first time, how is the new plan different?

What they agreed upon is that Kenya is going to work together with Uganda to build a railway from Naivasha, where it has currently reached, to Kisumu and Malaba. I am aware that Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya are collaborating to finance the railway network.

If actualized, Rwanda will pay less for products. Using the SGR has been a challenging area for them because their products come to Naivasha, where they have to store them and then use the road. So, they end up paying twice: once for the road and once for the SGR. This will be a win for both Kenya and Rwanda once actualized.

Instability in the eastern DRC poses a significant security threat to the Great Lakes region. President Ruto said recently that dialogue is the only solution to the problem in Congo. Beyond the TV remarks, what are some of the steps Kenya has taken to ensure there is peace in the region?

We already have the Nairobi-led peace process for the DRC and the Luanda process. We are depending heavily on those two processes to deliver a solution. He [President William Ruto] is very committed to both processes.