It’s a shame that at a time when the entire African continent has placed its guess on achieving Continental Free Trade Area, the East African Community (EAC), is embroiled in a crisis that is detrimental not only to the economic welfare of millions of EAC residents, but the continental vision of an economically integrated region. It’s even worse that the squabbling is premised not on any clear policy differences, normative misunderstandings, or legal complexities with regard to EAC treaty, but on personality differences between Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni on one hand, and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame on the other.
The overriding factor is that the crisis in great part boils down to the two leaders’ poor democratic credentials and authoritarian tendencies. Both Kagame and Museveni are known to stifle opposition parties in their respective countries, the reason why they constantly live in fear of real and perceived armed dissidents against their regimes. This kind of blame game would not exist if both leaders had allowed for the opposition parties to operate freely. In essence the discord between the leaders of Uganda and Rwanda on one hand, and Burundi and Rwanda on the other hand is likely to lead to uncertainty in the economic and political future of EAC as long as they continue to hold on to power and limit democratic playing field for opposition parties in their respective countries.
The challenge to EAC however is that these claims and counter claims hamper harmonious process of EAC integration as it sows seeds of discord between leaders and fear amongst citizens. This is further compounded by the weak nature of EAC’s secretariat, organs, and institutions ability to resolve conflicts. The same leaders, under the EAC summit, have the ultimate control of EAC decision-making process. However, due to the wrangling and suspicions amongst them, they are obviously unable to meaningfully and in good time provide solutions to issues touching on them.
Although by all indicators, the ongoing tensions is unlikely to lead to outright inter-state armed conflict, the repercussions heavily weighs down the ordinary residents of EAC. The partial closure of territories has resulted in minimal traffic of goods and services across the region notwithstanding the fact that all EAC member states are bound by the Customs Union and Common Market Protocols. This is already the case in Gatuna border crossing point where free movement of goods, services, and labour has declined due to ongoing tension between Kigali and Kampala. The claim by Rwanda that the border facility is undergoing repair is merely a smokescreen by Rwanda to punish Uganda through imposing tariff and non-tariff trade barriers on goods and services originating from Rwanda. Subsequently, the repercussions are not only felt by the two countries, but have wider ramifications even to those not party to the conflict. Such is the case with Kenya that is arguably the doorway to East and Central Africa due to its strategically situated Mombasa port that serves the export and import needs of the sub-region in addition to Tanzania’s port of Dar-es-Salaam.
It is important to note that, these existential threats to the future of East Africa are not just limited to the west of EAC, but are as well manifested in the eastern part of the regional bloc. On the eastern side Kenya and Tanzania have persistently been involved in economic disputes over tariff and non-tarrif barriers with regard to movements of goods and services mostly along the Namanga common border post. In general, these machinations provide a grim picture of the reality of EAC integration process and are likely to harm than benefit individual member states. This can be witnessed by the gradual decline in trade between EAC member states which currently is at 26% compared to intra-regional trade in other regional economic blocs across the continent.
The widening of EAC without necessarily strengthening its institutions and organs has played a key role in the slowdown of integration process. Hence there is need to deepen integration through building strong normative, constitutional and legal framework that can provide a self-regulating mechanism to deal with delinquency amongst EAC member states without necessarily over reliance on the EAC summit. This is because as the current scenario illustrates, the Summit’s capacity to provide solutions is limited in instances leading to a stalemate. The handicapping nature of the summit in resolving conflicts between individual members of the summit has recently been witnessed by the failure of Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta’s shuttle diplomacy in what was clearly an attempt to resolve tensions between Kampala and Kigali. The failure can partly be attributed to the fact that Kenya was acting out of its own national interest and not necessarily out of EAC aspirations. Secondly being a frontline state without any hegemonic status, Kenya and its leadership is less likely to be seen a neutral arbitrator in the conflict.
The short term solution to the conflict lies on engaging external actors outside the EAC. This is due to the lack of confidence in EAC summit that is characterised by suspicions between EAC heads of states. Therefore the best alternative would be for the African Union to intervene as a neutral arbitrator between the squabbling EAC leaders. However, in the long term, the EAC Summit should aim at strengthening the Secretariat, as well as other organs and institutions as mediums of conflict resolutions. This should involve reducing the decision-making powers of the summit.
Sekou Toure Otondi is a Doctor of Philosophy Student at the Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies, University of Nairobi.