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East Africa’s political leadership should be bold, think long-term

By Ivan Rugambwa

Former EAC Secretary General, Juma Mwapachu, spoke to Ivan Rugambwa.

East Africa’s integration efforts date back to as early as 1919, when Uganda and Kenya first formed a Customs Union.

Why has a fully-fledged Federation of East Africa remained elusive?

Regional Integration is a political process and its development is susceptible to political whims and the dynamics political conditions in the state parties to such integration. However, it is illusionary to think that, in a globalising world, any country can be an island onto itself. And as Mwalimu Julius Nyerere quipped back in July, 1965, economic federalism through conventional integration schemes such as Customs Union and Common Markets can only take countries that far – beyond which political integration becomes necessary or else the sustainability of economic cooperation begins to falter and erode.

Nyerere had argued in his article, ‘The Nature and Requirements of African Unity’ that “the decision for unity is a political decision which has to be taken. No alternative methods of economic cooperation or integration can replace that political act. This is the reality which East African political leaders need to grasp and take bold decisions on. Unfortunately, the desirability of the East African Federation is considered by some national leaders as a mere romantic idea to toss and toast around with.

But at the back of their minds their beliefs in the sanctity of national sovereignty remains paramount. Loss of power over armed forces and diplomatic relations; where real politic stands out and authority over which vests in the Federal President takes centre stage. In my view, the East African Community Partner States needs to see the emergence of a new breed of political leadership whose mindset is in sync with 21st century realities for the idea of East African Federation to realise a critical mass of understanding and appreciation.

There has of late been a lot of anxiety between member states, and mutual trust seems to be at an all-time low. Tanzania and Burundi appear to have been left out.   What does this mean for the future of the integration process?

East African integration is going through a rollercoaster movement. National sovereignty identities are reinforcing rather dwindling. The entry of multi-party politics has transformed the politics of the region by making them more inward looking and focused. It is all about competition for takeover of national political power and governance.

You rarely, if at all, hear regional integration issues featuring in the manifestos and election campaigns of candidates in the national general elections. In a way, such a trend is equally being experienced in the European Union. Indeed, the emergence of ‘a two track’ integration process in the EAC since mid-2013 so openly demonstrated by the establishment of the ‘Coalition of the willing’ involving Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda, is symptomatic of the ‘balkanisation’ of the EAC. Mind you though, that in as much as this process is viewed in some quarters of political opinion to be dysfunctional vis a vis the strengthening of the regional bloc, the idea of a two track integration process is not only founded on legal principles as evidenced by the principle of variable geometry encapsulated in Article 7 (1) (c) of the Treaty for the Establishment of the East African Community but also on philosophical or pragmatic terms. Nyerere actually supported the invocation of the principle of variable geometry with respect to the establishment of the East African Federation. The EAC Treaty has extended the application of this principle to cover all aspects of integration.

But this is certainly not what Presidents Museveni, Moi and Mkapa had in mind when they decided to revive the East African Community.

Of course, there certainly is a potential danger in the broad application of the principle of variable geometry. In fact, faced with a request from the EAC Council of Ministers in 2008 for an Advisory Opinion, the East African Court of Justice whilst endorsing the intended objective of the principle as provided for in the Treaty cautioned that the over application of the principle could in the long term undermine the ethos and thrust of regional integration.

But On the other hand, economic logic would question the sensibility of one or two laggard countries pulling others back from moving forward to implement projects of strategic importance to scaling up their economic outputs and performance. As Professor Peter Singer put it in his book, One World-the Ethics of Globalisation, “rule by the veto of minority through consensus decision making undermines rule by the majority.”

However, it is also worth noting that Tanzania is the first country to ratify the East African Community Monetary Union Protocol. So hopefully, the political leadership of the country is realising that the benefits that are likely to accrue from the integration.

You were Secretary General of the EAC during the early implementation stages of the Customs Union Protocol by member states, and the signing of the treaty establishing the Common Market. How do you rate the success and implementation of the two protocols among member states?

It was during my term, April 2005 to April 2011 that the CU was effectively implemented, and I was involved in the preparation and adoption of the Common Market (CM) Protocol. In brief, the CU is one of the success stories of EAC’s integration. Intra-EAC trade has grown from US$ 2.2 billion to US$ 5 billion in 2012. This is no mean achievement considering that the EAC is yet to fully tackle several challenges. The region still has sensitive lists in some member countries and Tanzania and Kenya in particular have growing value of goods that are subject to tax exemptions and remissions.

But one would say that very little has been achieved as regards the Common Market Protocol. In late 2013, over 1000 people mainly of Rwandan origin were expelled by Tanzanian authorities. Kenya in July 2012 amended its immigration laws to prohibit granting of residence/work permits to foreign workers, if they are 35years or younger or not earning a minimum monthly salary of US dollars 2000. In institutions of higher learning, foreign students from member countries continue to be charged more fees. What do these imply, as regards commitment to implementing this protocol?

True, there is not much to celebrate as regards the Common Market. Rwanda and Kenya have been more liberal in implementing the protocol especially in the area of free movement of labour. However, what most East African citizens would have wished to see is free movement of persons, the way it is in ECOWAS. East African passports have done almost nothing to elevate this ethos. The use of National Identity Cards has now been endorsed by Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda for purposes of movement of persons across the borders of the three countries.

The good news is that Tanzania has finally, in May this year, agreed to liberalise its current account and allow Tanzanians to transfer capital in the EAC region for purposes of partaking in the shares stock markets. There are significant cross-border investments in banking, insurance, financial services, higher education, specialist health services and airlines.

Overall, the Common Market has provided stimulus for growing cross-border investments to the extent that the EAC now boasts of regional business champions such as East African Breweries, Bakhressa Group of Companies, Transcentury, IPP Media, Bidco, Chandaria Group, Nakumatt, Alam Group etc. There is need for the political leadership in the EAC Partner States to think long term and thus be bolder and liberal in making the CM work.

One of the silent concerns hindering member states’ commitment to fully implementing the above protocols is the difference in the economic levels of member states just like it was in the defunct East African Community which collapsed in 1977. As of 2010, of the $11.1billion worth of exports by all the partner states amongst each other, Kenya accounted for $5.2billion (47%). Kenya also led in investments. There is a fear that Kenya may become to the Community, what Germany has become to the European Union. What’s your take on such fears?

Accession to the EAC is voluntary. It is axiomatic therefore that every acceding country would or should know that some member states are more developed than others. No integration succeeds where it is confronted by zero sum dynamics because such sentiments create mistrust.

It is instructive that when the Republic of Ireland joined the EU, the Irish people felt that they would end up being a mere market for goods from the more developed members of the EU, especially Germany, UK and France. But in a matter of few years, the Irish Republic became one of fastest growing countries in the EU.

It may also be noted that if there is one country in the EAC that has made strong strides in improving its exports to other EAC countries since the on-set of the CU it is Tanzania. From the exports base of 2005, Tanzania leads in incremental exports outturn.

Of course, Kenya is still the leader in intra-EAC exports because it enjoyed a higher exports base as at 2005. So the so-called fears about Kenya seem to be overplayed. And seriously, if Tanzania were to, for example, liberalise commercialization of its agriculture, it would only be in a matter of a few years before it overtakes Kenya as the largest EAC economy.

Of course, I am not sure how the oil and gas markets will play out in the next decade in the economic dynamics of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. As a clear and firm integrationist, my view is that the citizens of the region will reap the benefits of the prosperity that will emerge through a process of ‘prosper thy neighbour’ which the late Nelson Mandela coined in 1994.

Aside from economic matters, the question of identity and identity consciousness among the people of East Africa has also been blamed by scholars for delaying and frustrating any attempts at meaningful integration. Yet Kenya’s new constitution introduced the idea of devolving power to county governments, which aside from promoting balkanization are also inherently tribal entities.

In Uganda, more chiefdoms continue to clamor for and be granted kingdom status. The Union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar that created the United Republic of Tanzania also faces its greatest test since coming into effect, with Zanzibar seeking autonomy. What is the implication of these identities?

Identities are not necessarily evil; they can be force for good. I believe that positive identities, whether ethnic, tribal, cultural, religious and even national where they are not exploited by misguided political interests for power and wealth are merely a demonstration of the richness of human diversity.

I think the challenge arises where like in South Sudan nationhood is undermined by conflicts are driven by tribal or ethnic diversity. We are all witnesses of how evil such ethnic diversity caused the worst genocide in history in Rwanda. What is clear is that we need to have political leaders who are not tribal, ethnic or religious driven. The East African Federation idea which Mwalimu Julius Nyerere propelled from 1960 failed to materialize partly because of tribal identities in Uganda which were well structured, entrenched and embedded in the Ugandan national governance system from colonial times.

These Kingdoms saw the federation idea as a recipe for the erosion of their powers and authority within the traditional nation-state. They are still here. The County governments in Kenya, on the other hand, well intentioned in the language and purpose of development-based devolution manifest a reinforcement of tribal and ethnic categorisations. Of course in Kenya there has also arisen a new phenomenon around religious identity with the Mombasa Republican Council, an Islamist organization, seeking secession from Mainland Kenya. In my own country Tanzania, we are increasingly seeing Zanzibar asserting its autonomy. How this development plays out remains a paradox.

The East African Community and some of its organs like the East African Court of Justice(EACJ) and the East African Legislative Assembly(EALA) have often times been criticized for their  limited mandate and jurisdiction. What can be done to strengthen the power and mandate of these institutions?

These are important institutions in the EAC yet both institutions were established without strong political will. To have given the EACJ wider jurisdiction would have entailed acceptance of ceding some element of sovereignty from the nation-states and accepting supra-nationality. The same argument goes for EALA. First, the Assembly does not represent the people. It represents the political interests of the Parliamentarians who elect them at the National assembly levels. How to strengthen the Court and the Assembly? Again, this depends on the political leadership.

With the exception of the political actors and the top bureaucrats in the integration process, there seems to be minimal involvement of ordinary citizens in the integration process. Why is that the case?

It is true that whilst the EAC Treaty pronounces that EAC shall be ‘people-centred’, what exactly this pronouncement entails is not quite clear. Some people would say that the establishment of EALA is one way in realizing such objective. But then EALA is not directly elected by the people the way the members of EU Parliament are. So how do citizens of EAC get their voices heard on integration matters? This is one of the most complex of questions about the EAC. The weakness does not lie with the EAC Secretariat or EALA but with the governments.

Kenya has of late been grappling with terrorism related insecurity but there has not been any assistance rendered by partner states even with the presence of a defense pact, that was signed in 2012.Why has that been the case?

The EAC Defense Pact is yet to take off. However, the EAC has strong institutions in the areas of defense, police, and intelligence cooperation. The US Africa Command has been helping the EAC in improving the capacity of the defense forces in the area of counter terrorism. But as we all know, even the US faces challenges in arresting cases of terrorism on its own soil. It is a challenge to be coped with.

Despite all these challenges, more countries are applying to join, notably Somalia and South Sudan. What is the attraction?

Peace and stability in Somalia and South Sudan means peace and stability for the whole EAC region. It is important therefore that the EAC allows membership of the two countries so as to garner force of censure and sanction over them.

Finally, 50 years after Nkrumah made that call for a Union of African states in Addis-baba, what’s your take on the progress made so-far?

I am a Nyerere disciple and have all along accepted Mwalimu’s view about the objective process towards the construction a federal African government. In reaction to Kwame Nkrumah’s proposal to the Organisation of African Unity that Africa immediately forms a continental government, Nyerere stated:

“We do not believe that there is a choice between achieving African Unity step by step and achieving it in one act. The one act choice is not available to us except in some curious imagination. It has not been given to us human mortals to simply will things into existence—-to rule out a step by step progress towards African Unity is to hope that the Almighty will one day say, ‘Let there be unity in Africa’, and there shall be unity; or to pray for a conqueror—the only choice open to us is the choice of step by step, both territorially and functionally.”

I do not believe though that it should have taken Africa this long since Nkrumah’s exhortation for Africa to be still without a continental African government. Evidently, Africa’s top political leadership is to blame. It is apt to cite Nyerere again. In his article, ‘The Nature and Requirements of African Unity’, Nyerere writes what to me caps Africa’s endemic failure to realize African Unity: “The man whose contribution merits a footnote in the history of United Africa will deserve more of the future, than he whose obstinacy, fear or pride, prevents or delays the day when that history can be written. I believe that the people of Africa will be worthy of their great opportunity.”

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