KAMPALA, UGANDA - In East Africa, long-distance truckers are suspected of carrying the dreaded coronavirus along with their cargo. So for weeks, trucks have stalled at border crossings — with trucks sometimes stretching back hundreds deep at some points — as governments restrict access and implement mandatory COVID-19 testing to protect their residents.
“They are calling us ‘corona.’ We are not corona, and we have certificates on the vehicles, but they are still calling us corona. Why?” asked Muhammed Ali, a Tanzanian trucker halted last week at Uganda’s Mirama Hills border crossing with Rwanda. He carried a paper certifying he had tested negative for the virus.
With truck drivers seen as high-risk COVID-19 carriers after some cases were traced to them, the Kigali government ordered that they turn over their vehicles to Rwandan drivers in a system of relay driving. The other option was to offload merchandise onto Rwandan trucks.
Drivers from other countries refused, saying they had no authorization from their employers and could be held liable for any lost merchandise.
“We drivers don’t like that thing of handing the trucks to other drivers from Rwanda,” said Benjamin Ngugi, a Kenyan trucker also stalled at Mirama Hills.
As trucks stacked up for days, Rwanda and neighboring Tanzania worked out a deal that scrapped plans for relay drivers but mandated transferring cargo at the border, “except for trucks carrying perishable goods and petroleum products destined to Rwanda,” the Kigali government said in a news release Friday. Those “will be escorted at no cost to their final destinations.”
But tensions have escalated between Tanzania and neighboring Kenya over recent days.
Kenya last week began mandatory COVID-19 testing for truckers, ordering that they undergo tests 48 hours before leaving the Port of Mombasa — a shipping hub in the country’s second-largest city — or before entering Kenya from elsewhere in East Africa.
On Saturday, the Nairobi government closed entry points with Tanzania and Somalia, except for cargo trucks whose drivers have tested negative. In an apparent retaliatory move, Tanzania shuttered several crossings on its eastern side Monday.
Kenya's ambassador to Tanzania, Dan Kazungu, attempted to ease the situation Tuesday, saying at a news conference that leaders of the East African Community (EAC) were working together to address the region’s trucking industry problems.
But Wednesday, a day after Kenya announced the return of more than 180 foreigners to Tanzania because of positive COVID test results, a Tanzanian regional official accused the Nairobi government of faulty testing.
Mrisho Gambo, a commissioner in Tanzania’s northern Arusha region, said in a statement that 19 truckers who had tested positive in Kenya subsequently had negative results after retesting in his country. He accused Kenya of “a deliberate sabotage strategy” against tourism in his country, according to local news reports.
Zambia also had closed its border with Tanzania for several days last week after several truck drivers, immigration officers and sex workers tested positive for COVID, Reuters reported.
Several heads of state in the EAC bloc — including Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya and Salva Kiir of South Sudan — last week agreed to double testing of truckers. They will be allowed to drive through the EAC upon testing negative in their country of origin and at the border.
The leaders also agreed to adopt a harmonized system for certifying and sharing COVID-19 test results and other information.
Transportation and trade barriers threaten to increase food insecurity in Africa, where an estimated one in five people already are malnourished, a World Health Organization official warned.
“Hunger and malnutrition heighten vulnerability to diseases, the consequences of which could be far-reaching if not properly addressed,” Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, director of the Africa regional office, said last week in a COVID-19 online news briefing organized by the World Economic Forum.
Speaking on the same panel, Chris Nikoi, the World Food Program’s regional director for West Africa, said border delays were “leading to increase in prices.” He said the WFP, part of the United Nations, was consulting with governments, agriculture and trade organizations to ensure that “the flow of food and goods is not overly restricted.”
Amid the pandemic, Nikoi added, “it becomes even more critical to allow trade and commerce to function in the most efficient manner.”
This report originated with VOA’s Swahili and English to Africa services. Catherine Nambi reported from Kampala, Uganda, and Amina Chombo reported from Mombasa, Kenya. Jonathan Muriithi, Kennes Odongo and Carol Guensburg contributed from Washington.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that Salva Kiir and his wife tested positive for COVID-19.