The East African Community: A Lesson to Other African Regional Blocs.
Updated: Dec 10, 2019
The East African Community has been going through some hard times for the past four years. Some of these challenges are the ongoing Burundian crisis; the lack of solidarity among members on the signing of a deal with the EU; the worsening tensions between Rwanda and Uganda. What lessons can other blocs get from this?
The East African Community
The first truly East African Community economic integration was established in 1967 and collapsed in 1977, due to political disparities. The current East African Community treaty began in 1999 and was enforced in July 2000 following ratification, building upon the old East African Cooperation agreement which was signed in 1993. As of today the organization is composed of six Partner States: the Republics of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, the United Republic of Tanzania, and the Republic of Uganda.
The EAC aims at widening and deepening co-operation among the Partner States in, among others, political, economic and social fields for their mutual benefit. But the recent trends in the region have clearly shown that the EAC is still far away from achieving its core goals.
Core Challenges to the EAC
The Burundian crisis
The Burundian political and security crisis began when Nkurunziza (who has been in power since 2005) sought a third, five-year term in office, in 2015 – a move that was viewed by commentators and political opponents as a power grab by him and his party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD). Nkurunziza won the subsequent election, but there were violent clashes – and a failed coup. Today, more than 380,000 Burundians remain in exile in neighboring countries. 1.7 million, nearly 15% of the total population, face food insecurity.
The EAC has somehow failed to push the two sides to sit down and reach a peaceful agreement.
The EAC appointed Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to lead the peace talks between the Burundian government and the opposition. Thereafter, Museveni appointed the former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa as the facilitator for the Burundi peace talks. However, Mkapa was accused by the Burundian opposition of supporting the government.
Until this day, the talks between the Burundian government and the opposition leaders have not been borne any fruit. Also, seen the little will and investment of the Burundian government to reach an agreement with the opposition leaders who are mainly composed by those that led the anti-3rd term protests, one may say that the talks are now deemed to fail.
The EAC has somehow failed to push the two sides to sit down and reach a peaceful agreement. Meanwhile, Burundi is organizing presidential elections next year, and the internal political climate is not at its best.
The still pending EU-EAC Economic Partnership Agreement
The EPA, whose signing and ratification has stalled since October 2016, allows duty-free, quota-free access of EAC products to the European market. The pact requires all EAC countries to sign and ratify for it to take effect, but until today, only one country has signed and ratified the agreement.
The EPA has tested the level of unity among the EAC Member States on signing an agreement together as a bloc, and the results are not positive at all.
The EPA has caused two blocs within the East African Community; on one side we have the pro-EPA deal, Kenya and Rwanda, and on the other Tanzania and Burundi that are opposed to it. Uganda is somehow in the middle: it is understood that Uganda, which has expressed interest to sign the agreement, is keen on the principle of solidarity, which requires all countries to sign and act as one. Kenya, seeing that its national interests are somehow threatened, it's planning to join the agreement alone.
The main reason why most East African countries are reluctant to signing the agreement, is the existence of another EU's scheme, The Everything But Arms. The EU's EBA grants full duty free and quota free access to the EU Single Market for all products (except arms and armaments). However, there's a condition for a country to be granted the EBA status; it must be a Least Developed Country (LDC) as by the UN Development standards.
Kenya does not benefit from the EU's EBA because it is a middle-income country. Without the EPA deal, Kenya would have to start paying duty fees for its exports to Europe. Kenya exports mainly flowers and horticultural produce. The other EAC member-states are classified as Least Developed Countries and can export anything but arms to Europe duty-free.
The EPA has tested the level of unity among the EAC Member States on signing an agreement together as a bloc, and the results are not positive at all. Countries still privilege their national interest over the regional interest, and this behavior does not benefit the union at all.
The ongoing tensions between Rwanda and Uganda: No solution yet
"I think Uganda and Rwanda will most likely degenerate into war; something I have shared with friends since October last year[...]", wrote Andrew Mwenda, a Ugandan journalist and former adviser to President Kagame in his column of March 11, 2019.
In another recent article appeared earlier this month, Mwenda goes on saying that "Both sides have deployed their armies across the common border in irritating contact with each other." This comes following the recent incident at the Rwanda-Uganda border where two men were shot dead by Rwandan soldiers. Uganda claimed that Rwandan troops had crossed into Uganda and shot two people dead. Rwanda said the incident took place on its soil.
This incident comes worsening the already bad relations between the two sister countries.
The tensions started when Rwanda accused Uganda of mistreating its citizens visiting, living and/or doing business in Uganda. Different cases of Rwandans being arrested, tortured and dumped back at the border have been making the buzz on the local (Rwandan) and regional media. Furthermore, Rwanda also accuses Uganda to back Rwandan rebels that have a plan to attack and remove the current government by force. These two rebel groups are the Nyamwasa's RNC and the FDLR, which is still composed by some of those who participated in the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi.
The arrest of two FDLR top leaders at the Uganda-DRC border earlier this year, somehow gave reason to the Rwanda's government accusations.
On the other side, Uganda says it has no problems with Rwanda. However, the closure of the Gatuna/Katuna border raised a lot of criticism from Ugandan officials, who have accused Rwanda of sabotaging the EAC free market protocol, by not allowing Ugandan products in Rwanda.
Today, the Gatuna One Stop Border Post is open again to heavy trucks as per Rwanda Revenue Authority's announcement for a period of two (2) weeks from 10th up to 22nd June 2019. The government of Rwanda says it needs to carry out trials for the heavy trucks movement at Gatuna OSBP. However, the tensions haven't faded away. It was reported that Uganda has advised its citizens to not to use the Gatuna border post, and let "The Rwandans their own trucks to test the roads they built themselves."
Meanwhile, Rwanda hasn't yet removed the travel ban on its citizens who would like to visit Uganda. The safety of Rwandans in Uganda is still not guaranteed, according to the Rwanda's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Richard Sezibera.
Given recent developments in relations between Rwanda and Uganda, it is clear that the situation is deteriorating. The EAC, as a regional bloc to which both countries belong, should have been able to address these issues among its members from the beginning. The EAC needs to have channels and tools to be used in order to deal with issues happening within its borders.
The visit of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, first to Rwanda and then to Uganda, was seen as a positive attempt by another EAC head of state to end the disparities between the two neighboring countries. Unfortunately, the plan didn't succeed.
Lessons to be learned
War between and among regional bloc members should be avoided at all costs
A year after the collapse of the first community of East Africa in 1977, something terrible happened in the region. In 1978, Idi Amin invaded Tanzania and annexed Kagera province. This was the beginning of the six-month conflict between Uganda and Tanzania that ended the Idi Amin regime.
The habits of interference in the internal affairs of neighboring countries, support to armed groups with the aim of destabilizing peace in neighboring countries should be a thing of the past.
The relationship between the collapse of EAC and the increasing of tensions between Uganda and Tanzania is obvious. If there was a platform that would have allowed the two countries to meet and negotiate peace, the conflict would not have degenerated into an armed conflict, or in the worst case, it would not have lasted longer.
Neighboring countries should live at peace with each other, they should build good relationship, rather than creating insecurity between themselves. In other words, the leaders should embrace the culture of peace within and outside the regional bloc. The habits of interference in the internal affairs of neighboring countries, support to armed groups with the aim of destabilizing peace in neighboring countries should be a thing of the past. Leaders have a responsibility to allow their citizens to live in peace.
Build strong socioeconomic ties
Regional integration is sustainable when backed by strong policies that create a good environment for business activities. Business is not possible when people can not move freely, can not trade with each other or even can not do business elsewhere in the regional bloc.
In this regard, the East African Community has achieved good results so far: the citizens of Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda can move freely from one country to another by using their national identity card. Although, with the current tensions between Rwanda and Uganda, things are not good at all.
Integration should flow from the peoples
The impact of EAC on the identity of the East Africans is still very low. In fact, only a few number of citizens of the EAC member countries are aware of what is the EAC or its benefits. And I ask myself, how are we going to achieve the EAC political federation while the citizens do neither know what are the advantages of being part of EAC, nor understand how they can participate in the the development of the latter?
According to recent national census data for Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda, about 80% of their population is below 35 years. Therefore, the majority of The EAC's population is composed by youth. Therefore, this clearly shows where the EAC's priorities should be, the youth.
The EAC is today in jeopardy, not because it doesn't have good vision, policies or institutions, but instead, because it hasn't yet fully involved its huge potential, the Youth; in its crucial activities.
The youth of the EAC should be empowered and helped to rise out of poverty through the enactment of laws and policies that facilitate business activities, the movement of people and the assurance of personal safety throughout the community. The youth should also be facilitated to be among the leadership of the Community, and therefore participate in the EAC's decision-making activities. The EAC needs to be owned by its youth, the "East Africanness" spirit among the youth is the key to building a sustainable and successful East African Community.
The recent request by DRC President Felix Tshisekedi to join the EAC should be seen as a positive sign for the strengthening of the regional bloc.
To be sustainable, regional integrations must invest in their people, showing them the real interests of being part of them. People should be able to study, work and move freely within the regional bloc. In this way, the integration of the real beneficiaries - the people - will give a lot of work to politicians who might intend to jeopardize the Union.
Europe, the once war-torn continent has now achieved prosperity, peace and sustainable development. These achievements were results of strong will and significant contribution by its members towards building a peaceful and prosperous Europe. As a matter of fact, France and Germany, which could very well be seen as the main protagonists in both world wars, reconciled and are now key partners in the EU.
The recent request by DRC President Felix Tshisekedi to join the EAC should be seen as a positive sign for the strengthening of the regional bloc. However, without strong and capable EAC institutions, a larger number of Member States would mean more problems, more challenges for the Union.
Political stability, youth participation and economic interdependence among members are key to the sustainable success of regional integration. On this issue, the East African Community has many challenges to overcome as soon as possible. If the status quo remains, the EAC political federation project is unlikely to be realized sooner.