By Ronald Musoke
Towards the end of November of every year, leaders of the five East African Community member states convene in one of the five regional capitals to hold their summit, called the Heads of State Summit. And this has been the case since 1999 when the East African Cooperation treaty was signed. This year was supposed to be special because the region was marking 15 years since the treaty was signed.
Surprisingly, the presidents did not meet on Nov. 30 and the summit was postponed indefinitely.
The official reason is that Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete—who only arrived in Tanzania on Nov. 29—was unable to attend because he is recovering from prostate cancer surgery—a medical procedure he underwent at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in the US state of Maryland on Nov. 8.
Although medical procedures like a prostate surgery are usually scheduled, the postponement of the summit appears to have been abrupt. The venue of the summit had been set, pavilions built, sitting areas arranged, and decorations put up in Nairobi.
According to Richard Sezibera, the EAC Secretary General, consultations are now underway with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, the current chairperson and his counterparts across the region to reschedule the summit.
Sezibera told The Nation that the summit had many issues on the agenda besides handing over the chairmanship from Kenyatta to Kikwete.
And according to the now suspended Margaret Zziwa, the summit being postponed to a later date is valid because only two of the five members had confirmed attendance, so the Secretariat had to postpone the event.
However, Phyllis Kandie, Kenya’s EAC Affairs Cabinet Secretary told Kenyan media that the meeting of regional leaders focusing on the Northern Corridor Infrastructure is still scheduled to take place, Dec.10-11.
Yet despite the official narrative, many still wonder why the summit stalled at a critical time when the region was commemorating a milestone of 15 years.
The postponement of the summit came just days after EALA members sat in Nairobi and passed a resolution suspending Margaret Zziwa, the Ugandan Speaker of EALA whom fellow members accuse of a plethora of vices.
On Nov. 26, the East African Legislative Assembly passed a resolution to suspend Margaret Nantongo Zziwa, pending completion of investigations into her conduct since she took office in 2012. Zziwa’s troubles are being fuelled mainly by MPs from Rwanda and Tanzania.
Zziwa who is a member of Uganda’s ruling NRM party, has infuriated EALA MPs by hinting that she will only resign if Museveni tells her to. In a heads of state vote, Zziwa has Uganda, Kenya, and Rwanda in her corner. She has temporarily been replaced by another Ugandan EALA MP, Chris Opoka, from the opposition Uganda People’s Congress party. Chris Opoka Okumu also told The Independent on Dec.1 that the Zziwa troubles did feature in the decision to postpone the summit.
“There were important decisions to be taken and therefore it was important for everyone to be around. It won’t take a long time,” he said.
He said the summit was to consider the application of South Sudan to join the EAC and the pacification of Somalia.
Fred Mukasa Mbidde, a Ugandan MP at EALA says the EALA Speaker’s troubles were not an issue. It was not even on the agenda.
“That is a small issue… The summit is a distinct organ of the EAC,” said Mukasa Mbidde. “Since Kikwete was the president supposed to take over, the occasion would not have been colourful with his absence,” Mbidde said, “It would not have been enough for President Kenyatta to just handover to a designated official.”
Richard Sezibera, the Secretary General of the EAC told The Independent in a telephone interview that considering that President Kikwete was the incoming chair of the Summit, there was no way the handover was going to happen without him.
But Mwambutsya Ndebesa, a history professor at Makerere University said the postponement is quite strange because the summit was not about President Kikwete.
“President Uhuru was handing over to Tanzania not Kikwete,” Mwambutsya said, insisting, “The meeting should have gone ahead.”
“This only shows that there is no cohesion in the political leadership of the EAC. There is already a crisis within EALA over the position of the Speaker,” he said.
Mwambutsya says there seems to be a lack of cohesion and political will needed to further the integration process. He says East African citizens should demonstrate to show their displeasure at the way things are going on at the moment.
“The political decision making arm of the EAC is not cohesive anymore. This is therefore letting down the ultimate goal of realizing a political federation of the region,” Mwambutsya told The Independent.
Last year, the cohesion of EAC bloc was stretched to its limits as Tanzania accused its partners; Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda of segregating her from talks aimed at fast tracking infrastructural projects in what later was referred to as the ‘Coalition of the Willing.’
The Heads of State from Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda met in July, 2014, and agreed to roll out several cross-country infrastructure projects in a move that elicited heated debate on the future of regional integration.
The so-called coalition of the willing is also credited for helping Uhuru Kenyatta get a soft landing at The Hague where he was scheduled to face charges at the International Criminal Court.
President Kagame was supposed to take over the mantle of the EAC chairman from President Yoweri Museveni, but for some reason, it did not happen, instead President Uhuru Kenyatta took over.
Rwanda said it was not interested in taking the rotational chair of the regional bloc with Louise Mushikawabo, Rwanda’s foreign affairs minister confirming just a couple of days to the summit that a crowded domestic schedule prompted Rwanda to give up the chair. Rwanda, she said, was preparing to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the genocide and the liberation.
But Rwanda’s decision reportedly followed a quiet high-level understanding between the region’s “coalition of the willing” states (Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda) whose leaders held three summits of infrastructure and integration issues.
Regional experts say the leaders agreed at the time that Kigali forfeits her chance in 2013 in favour of Kenya to enable President Uhuru Kenyatta get more clout as both political and diplomatic lobbying for the reschedule of his trial at the ICC.
By Kenyatta getting the EAC chair, it would politically insulate him against the West. But other experts said Rwanda was reluctant to head the bloc at the height of the diplomatic spat with Tanzania.
The two countries were at each other for much of 2013 and Tanzania blamed Rwanda for its apparent isolation by its neighbours.
Tanzania maintained that the willingness of other countries to enter bilateral or trilateral arrangements needed consensus before being implemented.
However, the five member states reaffirmed their commitment to work together during the EAC Summit in Kampala in November, last year.