27 July 2014

East Africa: Is the Time Ripe for South Sudan to Join the EAC?

A little-reported development on South Sudan's application to join the East African Community bloc raises some interesting perspectives.

The EAC Secretary General, Dr. Richard Sezibera, led a high-level technical mission from the regional body to meet senior officials of the South Sudanese government to discuss the country's application for membership.

It was reported that four technical sub-committees were formed dealing with legal, security and political affairs; trade, finance, economic and productive sectors; environment, health, education and culture; and infrastructure and services.

A Secretariat has also been established to coordinate the work of the technical teams. Less than three months ago, the Summit of EAC heads of state held in Arusha said that the South Sudan government had sought postponement of the process until September/October ostensibly to allow time for national preparations and consultations.

The more plausible explanation, of course, was that the country was seriously embroiled in civil war and needed to focus its attention on solving the crisis. Again, member states of the EAC would have been uncomfortable admitting a country into its fold that was in the middle of such ferocious self-destruction.

The logical thing was to politely postpone the process of admission of South Sudan until it first sorted out its problems. Now that activity towards South Sudan's admission to the EAC seems to be picking up even before the September/October date given by the region's heads of state, it is only logical to ask whether those problems that were bedeviling our northern neighbour have now been resolved.

To the best of our knowledge, the civil war is still raging in parts of the country. Although there is relative stability, the ceasefire agreement is still not being respected to the letter, with frequent breaches reported.

Hundreds of thousands of the country's refugees are yet to return home, and many more live in deplorable conditions as internally displaced persons in various camps. In the circumstances, the terms under which the talks are being done to advance South Sudan's application for membership need to be clear to avoid splitting the current members of the Community.

There are those countries that argue against quickly expanding the Community, saying there is nothing to be gained by bringing in partner states that are close to becoming failed states.

Other stakeholders, however, believe that incorporating such states will do good to the cause of regional stability. Whatever take one may have on this matter, what cannot be denied is that it would be difficult for a country that is in the middle of conflict to be incorporated into a larger grouping of countries that aim for monetary union and political federation. How can macroeconomic stability be attained in such circumstances?

What happens to issues of currency conversion, fiscal policy and market stability under such circumstances? Is this the environment under which to discuss political integration?

Doubtless, the technocrats engaged in the negotiations are alive to these questions - at least that is our hope. But sometimes technocrats tend to proceed with specific briefs given to them and fail to appreciate the big picture.

That is where political leadership is needed to give sober direction. The priority at this time remains to bring calm to South Sudan. The country needs to heal the rifts of the recent past and craft a way forward that will ensure peace, stability and inclusiveness of all its peoples in the political and development spheres.

Given its recent past, it would perhaps be best to stretch the timetable for inclusion of South Sudan into the EAC by a few more years. That will provide time not only for national healing, but also for the present members of the EAC to come to a concurrence of opinions on South Sudan's admission.

With Somalia also on the waiting cards, it would be tragic to give Al Shabaab sympathizers the right to move unhindered across the length and breadth of East Africa by admitting Somalia into the EAC before the terrorist nightmare in that country has been dealt a deathblow. In the final analysis, the EAC is supposed to deliver peace and prosperity to the people of the region.

We cannot desert our brothers in neighbouring states that are currently in turmoil, but neither should we rush to include them in the EAC before they have sorted out their internal conflicts.

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