By Ronald Musoke
Amb. Dr. Richard Sezibera is the outgoing Secretary General of the East African Community. In this interview with The Independent’s Ronald Musoke, he talks about his highly successful tenure and the challenges that still lie ahead for the EAC.
How would you describe your tenure as Secretary General at the EAC over the last five years?
It has been an exciting time professionally and personally. Our Community has strengthened its customs union and is now a single customs territory. Non-Tariff Barriers have come down; intra-EAC trade has grown to 26%, from less than 10% a decade ago. The free movement of persons and labour provisions of our Common Market have picked up. Member States have started the use of Identity Card and other national documents for travel within the EAC, and the 17th Summit has launched a new internationalized New Generation East African Passport. Our Community is, for all intents and purposes, now a Common Higher Education Area, with an East African Qualifications Framework. Mutual Recognition Agreements among professionals are being signed.
Since 2013, partner states have signed and ratified a Monetary Union Protocol with a 10 year roadmap to a single currency. While the Monetary Union is an important step, perhaps even more important is the work done in financial integration and fiscal harmonization, allowing for currency convertibility and an East African Payments system to ease demand on foreign currency for intra-EAC trade.
The region now has a prioritized infrastructure plan and investment strategy in rail, energy, ports and harbours, inland waterways and ICT. The Summit of Heads of State now holds Infrastructure Summits every two years, to review progress. The Standard Gauge Rail is being laid, and investments in electricity generation, as well as the construction of inter-connectors to facilitate cross-border energy exchange have increased substantially. We have developed an Industrialization Policy and strategy, with prioritized sectors, and this is now under implementation.
The region has agreed on a Vision 2050 launched by the Summit of Heads of State, aiming to turn our Community into an Upper Middle Income region by 2050, with per capita income of over $10,000. Significant progress has been made on the type of political federation East Africa will have, and on the process towards this important milestone, which is the ultimate aim of our community. The people of East Africa have increasingly become key players in the integration agenda: the private sector, women, youth, parliamentarians, local governments, civil society, the media fraternity, religious leaders, all are playing a critical role. So the EAC agenda is deepening. New institutions have come onboard including the East African Science and Technology Commission, the East African Health Research Commission and the East African Kiswahili Commission. And finally the community has grown with the admission of the Republic of South Sudan as a new member. This was a historic decision by the Summit.
What were some of the hurdles you encountered while at the helm of the EAC?
Domestication of regional decisions, regulations, laws, and directives to further integration is sometimes slow. This delays full implementation of the Common Market Protocol. As integration deepens, the Community will have to design mechanisms for faster, cost effective decision making, pool partner states sovereignty into central entities capacitated to drive the agenda, and agree on a sustainable financing mechanism for the very ambitious integration agenda.
What would you say are the major threats to the EAC?
The only strategic threat I see is lack of focus and leadership, as well as a focus on narrow nationalistic concerns and agendas. The other challenges, including Non-Tariff Barriers to trade, are technical and can be resolved. The most important thing is to keep focus on the bigger picture, and build capacity for execution.
Fear of loss of national identity by member states is sometimes blamed for frustrating meaningful integration. What is your take on this?
We are all one people with one destiny; around the region we share the same culture and history. My belief is that the challenges associated with identity-based politics can be attenuated with deeper integration. What matters is that we build a Community that advances and defends our collective prosperity. We should not be building a Community that is the sum total of all our fears.
Is the two-track integration process which was triggered in 2013 (the so-called `coalition of the willing’) a viable route to fast-tracking integration?
I don’t know what you mean by a two track integration process. I reject the notion of a `coalition of the willing’. In 2004, a Special EAC Summit of Heads of State decided to fast track all phases of our integration agenda. Through Variable Geometry, our Partner States singly, or in association with others can choose to fast track implementation of agreed decisions. That has happened on the Northern Corridor with incredible success. It is now happening on the Central Corridor, and I expect it to happen on the other eight corridors that the East African Community has.
Infrastructure remains a critical component for the overall success of the EAC. How would you rate its progress?
The region is focused on infrastructure, with a 10-year investment strategy expected to cost over $100 billion. The region has begun implementation of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) project under the East African Railways Master Plan. The East African Roads Networks plan has been successfully implemented, with regional roads, bridges, one stop border posts, water and sanitation programmes, etc successfully implemented.
In the areas of energy generation, installed capacity across our region is growing. We expect Kenya to have an installed electricity generation capacity of over 7,000MW by 2018, while Uganda over 4000MW and Tanzania aims to produce over 10,000 MW. Rwanda’s electricity production will eventually get to 1,000MW while Burundi should have 500MW. While this is commendable, more will have to be done to increase access to electricity by our citizens. Access is woefully low.
In 2015, a major milestone was achieved by Africa when the Tripartite Free Trade Area between COMESA, EAC and SADC was signed. It’s been argued that when it is fully implemented, the TFTA has the potential to move the continent from the periphery of global trade. What will it take for this tripartite to succeed?
Over decades, initiatives to boost intra-regional trade have been undertaken by the three regional economic communities that are now coalescing to form the proposed Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA) of 26 countries of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), the East African Community (EAC), and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). The plan is to liberalize trade between the three trading blocs and lay a foundation for a Continental Free Trade Area. It also aims at developing infrastructure, an industrialization pillar, as well as the free movement of business persons. Available data shows that merchandise exports among the members of this new FTA have steadily increased from $2.3 billion to $36 billion between 1994 and 2014. We are serious about regional trade integration. Countries are now willing to drop customs barriers, build inter-connected infrastructure, and drop unnecessary tariffs. For this to happen, effective, sustained leadership at the highest levels will be critical.
South Sudan was recently admitted into the EAC during the 17th Ordinary EAC Heads of State Summit in Arusha. What is your position on the mixed reactions?
South Sudan applied for EAC membership soon after gaining its independence in 2011. It has been granted admission. It is a new country, with a number of challenges, but the community is its natural home. To fully participate, it must take a number of steps. For example, it will take three years to be ready to join the Customs Union. There is a clear agreed agenda and roadmap and I think the people of East Africa should welcome our brothers and sisters from South Sudan with open arms. Our region is now a bigger market and provides potential for further growth for the over 160 million citizens.
South Sudan and Somalia applied around the same time and it is the former which got admitted first. What is holding back Somalia and when can we expect them to join the EAC?
Three years ago, Somalia first applied to join the EAC. We are yet to be given the green light by the Government of the Federal Republic of Somalia to conduct a verification mission to Somalia so that the process can officially start as was the case with South Sudan.
What is the progress of Burundi and Tanzania joining the One Network Area?
To date, the implementation of the framework on the harmonized roaming charges is one of our priorities as a region. Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda have already implemented the voice and SMS charges under the Northern Corridor projects. Tanzania asked for more time to set up compatible systems. Burundi is also working through the technical details required for it to join the Frame work.
Recently, the EAC presidents launched the e-passport which is set to be issued starting January 2017. In which ways will the e-East African passport enhance movement across borders?
The new electronic passport will be highly secure and difficult to duplicate when compared to the existing passports. This new passport will provide travellers with benefits such as use of automated border clearance or “E-gates”, automated issuance of boarding passes, and faster travel arrangements with airlines. An e-passport’s database with Automated Fingerprint Verification System (AFIS) will guard against multiple passport issuances to the same person and enhance imposter detection. As an extra security measure, this new passport contains an electronic chip that is encoded with the same information found on Page 2 of the passport – the surname, given name, date of birth as well as sex. The Passport will also be used for international travel. We encourage the use of National Identity Cards for travel within the EAC.
You recently decried the high-level of vote buying by politicians seeking public office within the regional bloc but how should ordinary East Africans respond to such politicians?
I don’t think politicians should buy votes, nor do I think the electorate should allow itself to be bought. This is just corruption. Public service should be a calling, not a business venture. That is my strongly held belief.
Where are you headed next?
Home. As you know, I am an East African of Rwandan origin and I am excited to be going back home after five years of service to East Africa. As the saying goes, East or West, home is best.