20 June 2019

East Africa: For How Long Will EAC Shun Its Own Problems?

It started as a rumour and then unconfirmed reports that Rwanda had closed its border with Uganda.

After complaints from businessmen in both sides who could not access the other side, the authorities then formally announced that the border crossing has indeed been closed. This was months ago.

At first no reason was given for the move and many people thought it was just a 'minor' issue which would be addressed to bring back the busy crossing into normal operations. But days turned into weeks and the border remained closed, to date. Only last week did Rwanda partially open the border for trucks.

It was hot exchanges from both countries, basically from the top leaders, which made people have an insight of the intensity of the issue.

Nevertheless, acknowledgement by the leaders has not helped to solve the problem. For many months now a common border between Uganda and Rwanda has remained closed thus jeopardizing activities of hundreds, if not thousands, of businessmen and other people who have been using the crossing point.

Standoff between the two countries, which led to the closing of the border crossing, has affected not only the two countries, but the rest of East Africa as the border is not used by Ugandans and Rwandese only.

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This action could not have come at worse time than when East Africa is striving to promote intra-regional trade under its Common Market protocol. Over the months of border closing, we have witnessed a flurry of diplomatic activities with President Paul Kagame of Rwanda visiting Tanzania and meeting President John Magufuli at State House. Few days later a photo provided by the State House showed President Magufuli receiving a special message from his Uganda counterpart, Yoweri Museveni.

Though there is no official acknowledgement, it seems that Rwanda and Uganda trusted Dr Magufuli as a go between to resolve their misunderstandings. It is encouraging to note that these two countries have trusted fellow East African member state to mediate.

But this happened after misunderstandings between these two East African countries reached a boiling point with Kagame saying that Uganda had plotted to oust him. This is a serious allegation and many believe that it was at this point that East African Community (EAC), should have intervened.

This regional body, which was re-established in 1999 as a central organ to engineer the regional economic, social and political development, was a correct body to deal with Rwanda and Uganda misunderstandings.

Unfortunately, the Community took a back seat until the two rivals saw a mediator in President Magufuli. And this is just one issue in which the EAC has failed to flex its muscles in the region. There are numerous other issues which the regional body was supposed to tackle but decided not to. Prolonged South Sudan crisis is one good example. Since the troubled country joined the regional grouping, EAC has not explicitly done enough to assist it out of the crisis.

When the country was admitted in the club, many people in the region believed that EAC would use its powers to assist the youngest nation in the world do away with the crisis which has impeded economic, social, cultural and political development of the emerging nation.

Though promoting democracy is one of EAC mandate, but we have witnessed undemocratic practices in many EAC member states and the regional body has opted to stay out of the issues.

Some in the region believe that EAC is not supposed to intervene on local issues. What such people forget is that it is these 'local issues' which makes EAC member states who they are and these members make East Africa.

This is to, therefore, say that east Africa is made up of local issues embraced by each and every member state. Staying out of these issues is like staying out of East African affairs. Taking this Rwanda/ Uganda recent spat as an example. How can regional programmes strive when a border between two EAC member states is closed?

Have we considered the effects of the border closing to hundreds, if not thousands of businessmen, large, medium and small? Have we considered the effects of the move to these two land locked countries?

It goes without saying therefore that if businessmen from Uganda and Rwanda are going to be affected by this move, then, the entire region is going to surfer because these businessmen have trade and business relations with their colleagues in other countries in East Africa and beyond. EAC is supposed to be a facilitator of free trade and movements of goods, services and people in the region. If it does not intervene on things which happen in these countries, how can it do its facilitation work? Obviously, it will always find itself secluded if it does not involve itself with what is happening to its members.

East Africa Community should take note that the continent is now moving towards a Continental Free Trade Area which has been ratified by about half of African countries. As more countries ratify the agreement, East Africa should take a centre stage as it is one of resource based regions in the continent.

Therefore, EAC should see itself with a wider and bigger responsibility whenever it comes to harnessing regional abilities and capabilities to participate in the continental and global trade.

Days of focusing on the regional trade are fading away rapidly. To be enforceable, this trade deal would create a market of $3 trillion and a market of 1.2 billion people with no tariff and border restrictions, needs signatures of 22 countries are required to ratify. After Ethiopia became country number 21 to ratify the agreement recently, only one more country is needed to make the agreement applicable.

Under such circumstances, things such as border closing which we have witnessed between Rwanda and Uganda, can only put the region at a disadvantage when it comes to continental and global trade.

Top Africa Chief Executives (CEOs) met recently to cement their support of the CFTA. They believe that this is one of best ways to harness the continental economic power. As the continent quicken its pace towards amalgamated continental economy, EAC cannot afford to remain behind.

In order to make this continental approach work, political will is a must. Regional groupings should be in the fore front to resolve problems which impede trade and economic activities in their respective areas.

CFTA has many benefits which will help to push forward local development agendas in the region. Let EAC and its members not be forces to boggle down the continental initiative.

Nyanje is a freelance journalist

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