It is now only a matter of time before a unified regional standby force is created to counter conflict and terrorism within the East African Community as well as to suppress piracy on the Indian Ocean.
This issue dominated debate at last week’s regional conference on peace and security.
The three-day conference — the first of its kind under the EAC — adopted 14 key recommendations — top among those the formation of a standby brigade, which will also respond to natural calamities that may hit member states.
This is a breakthrough for the bloc, whose five member-states are currently divided between two different standby brigades under the African Union charter.
By creating its own force, the EAC also becomes the only regional economic community with a force outside of the five standby brigades that draw their mandate from the African Unity charter, without contradicting the continental body.
It is right and fitting for the EAC to have its own force,” said Simon Mulongo, former security expert with the AU regional brigade, the Eastern Africa Standby Brigade. Mr Mulongo adds that this gives the EAC capacity to respond to security challenges that the AU force may be opposed to intervening in.
The standby force, which is to be named later and awaits endorsement by the Heads of State Summit — the bloc’s highest decision making organ — will work parallel to the Eastern Africa Standby Brigade but with the thrust of its work confined to Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi, giving the region a more reliable response to peace and security challenges.
“You cannot rely on an AU standby force,” said EAC Secretary General Juma Mwapachu. “Look at the EAC: Four of our members are part of the Eastern Africa Standby Brigade, and Tanzania is in SADC. Last year at the Kigali Summit, we proposed a standby force but not one that would look like the AU force. We are rather looking to this brigade beyond militarism, to promoting human security when our region is confronted by disaster or socio-political volatility.”
The force will be “a unified regional force brigade size with some reserve at the EAC, which will support other instruments of power of political and economic elements as opposed to relying on the Eastern Africa Standby Brigade, which has non-member states” such as Ethiopia that may not articulate the bloc’s agenda.
The groundbreaking conference brought together more than 400 humanitarian, diplomatic, peace and security experts at the Munyonyo Commonwealth Resort in Kampala to develop a regional peace and security architecture, with aspects of trans-boundary crime, such as drug trafficking, money laundering and cyber crime, defence, security and harmonisation of partner states’ foreign policies, refugee issues as well as conflict and governance.
Deputy Secretary-General for Political Federation Beatrice Kiraso says these issues have become even more important now that the region is set to become a Common Market, whose establishing protocol is due for signing next month.
And once the Common Market takes effect at the start of next year, the EAC should be equipped with a mandate to deal with such security issues.
While the five member states — Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi — are currently free from civil and military conflicts, the bloc remains exposed to potentially explosive situations.
The Munyonyo meeting made reference to the post-election violence in Kenya over the disputed 2007 elections, the ethnic tensions and uprising that Kampala witnessed only a month ago, as well as the perennial land wrangles in the region.
But while opening the conference, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni also voiced another security scare in the shape of the increasing vulnerability of East Africa’s Indian Ocean resources to piracy.
The EAC’s peace and security initiative is a breakaway from the bloc’s usual menu of issues of economic integration.
The revived EAC has in just 10 years covered two key steps of economic integration — having launched a Customs Union in 2005 and now on the verge of becoming a Common Market. By evolving into a regional military pact, the EAC now combines both economic and military functions.
Its model, the European Union, only became a Common Market in 1992, 35 years after taking its first steps toward integration, and it remains unlikely that the EU will take on military functions.
However, the proposed military brigade is not a silver bullet for instability challenges of the region, an issue that presents more work for the bloc’s Secretariat.
The region’s proximity to the conflict flashpoints of Somalia, the volatile eastern Congo and Southern Sudan also featured high on the list of security concerns that might spill over into the EAC.
On top of this are piracy in the Gulf of Aden and terrorist al Qaeda pockets that once in a while strike at targets in Kenya and Tanzania requiring collective protection of the region’s ocean and airspaces.
In an earlier interview with The EastAfrican, Mr Mwapachu said it remains difficult for the region to maintain peace within its borders when the neighbourhood is conflict ridden, a situation that could prompt the EAC to conscript neighbouring countries into its security initiatives.
“This whole concept of security cannot be homogenised; it cannot just be an EAC thing because we have these geographical interfaces with Democratic Republic of Congo, with Somalia and South Sudan. So we cannot say this peace and security is just for us. We need to work out a concept and institutional framework that looks into peace and security beyond our own immediate region.
“Even if Rwanda and Burundi had not joined the EAC, we would also still be talking about them, but now they are on board, and maybe ultimately some of these other unstable areas will have to be brought on board so that we can stabilise them in the interests of general peace and security. But you don’t know where the geographical instability is going to end. It can be like a moving target. So you could keep expanding the EAC in order to accommodate a larger, stable area,” he said.