The East African Community is facing a test of unity and an identity crisis after regional leaders last week discussed key proposals to deepen integration without the input of Tanzania, a founder and key member state.
The Mombasa meeting of Presidents Uhuru Kenyatta (Kenya), Yoweri Museveni (Uganda) and Paul Kagame (Rwanda) was ostensibly to discuss cross-border infrastructure projects.
However, the decision to fast-track the East African political federation in the absence of Tanzania confirms the view that a “coalition of the willing” is emerging within the EAC to push for faster integration.
Significantly, the presence of ministerial delegations from Burundi and South Sudan, which has applied to join the EAC, leaves Tanzania as the only partner state not aboard the new high-speed train of regional integration.
Tanzania and Burundi were not present at the earlier meeting, in June, of Presidents Museveni, Kenyatta and Kagame in Entebbe, in what is being called the EAC’s first infrastructure summit. Officials said the two countries had not been invited because the projects under discussion — major among them an oil pipeline and a standard gauge railway — involved only the three countries present.
However, The EastAfrican has learnt from impeccable sources that while Tanzania was not invited to that meeting, President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi was invited but chose to stay away, citing scheduling difficulties.
Sources say Bujumbura stayed away from the Entebbe summit out of deference to Dar es Salaam but President Nkurunziza’s decision to send Deogratias Rurimunzu, his Minister for Transport, Public Works and Equipment to represent him in Mombasa suggests he does not want to be left out of the new core emerging in the EAC.
At the Entebbe meeting, it is understood each of the three presidents was given cross-border responsibilities: Kenya takes the lead on the pipeline and electricity generation and distribution; Rwanda on the Customs, single visa and EAC e-identity card; and Uganda the railway and political federation.
Analysts say the Mombasa and Entebbe resolutions highlight a clear move to break away from the laborious consensus model of the EAC, to one where there is a “leading tendency” by a willing few.
Tanzanian officials have repeatedly said that they have no objection to other EAC member states holding bilateral discussions as long as they do not take decisions that are binding on the community.
As the three regional leaders met in Mombasa to discuss regional infrastructure projects, business reforms and plans for a political federation, a spokesman for President Jakaya Kikwete told The EastAfrican that Tanzania had not been invited to the meeting.
“You cannot force an invitation,” Salva Rweyemamu said, speaking by telephone from Dar es Salaam, adding sanguinely, “There is no shortage of people to partner with.”
There was no immediate response from Tanzania to the joint communiqué signed by the three leaders after the Mombasa meeting but sources in Dar es Salaam indicated that the country was in the process of reaching out to President Museveni to help mediate in a dispute with Rwanda that has been raging for the past three months, after President Kikwete suggested that Rwanda should consider negotiating with FDLR, a remnant Hutu militia group that is active in eastern DR Congo.
A regional diplomat involved in both the Entebbe and Mombasa summits confirmed to The EastAfrican that the three member states had decided to build a “coalition of the willing,” which Tanzania could join later once it was happy with the progress.
“We have been moving around in circles for far too long, holding meeting after meeting without much progress, until we decided to move ahead with those who are ready,” the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The EastAfrican, adding, “The EAC Treaty allows variable geometry; those countries that want to join later can do so without slowing down the rest.”
The idea of a two-speed EAC integration process is rapidly gaining popularity, with member states that agree to move faster on integration proceeding on that premise, while leaving the door open to others, in this case Tanzania, to join later.
Privately, diplomats express frustration about what they say is Tanzania’s reluctance to proceed with integration but few are willing to openly discuss the matter. Thus the alliance between the three leaders who are “more committed” to faster integration.
The strongest public comments about the pace of integration came on Thursday in Mombasa from President Museveni, who was a guest at an agricultural show.
“We have been suffering from a sort of political anaemia on the issue of integration, but with the election in Kenya of these young gentlemen — Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto — we have got a new blood supply,” President Museveni said.
He said President Kenyatta had scrapped most of the roadblocks in Kenya that delayed the movement of goods and persons in the region, echoing praise a day before from President Kagame, who applauded the Kenyan leader for “hitting the ground running” since taking office.
Tanzania is not the only EAC member state with non-tariff barriers but a December 2012 monitoring report from the EAC Secretariat showed that the country was responsible for many of them.
While these barriers — which range from requiring visitors to carry yellow fever immunisation cards to restricting employment of EAC residents — can be negotiated away by bureaucrats from across the region, the momentum in the bloc appears to have swung north, creating a core of Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda as well as Burundi and South Sudan in the wings.
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Such has been the speed of progress that by the time the EAC Heads of State meet in Arusha in November, the three core countries should have finalised plans for a standard-gauge railway, extension of the oil pipeline to Kampala and Kigali, an oil refinery in Uganda, an electricity interconnection plan, a single tourist visa, and a draft constitution for the East African political federation.
EAC Secretary General Richard Sezibera sought to downplay the significance of these trilateral partnerships, saying in a statement that they would “strengthen the integration process rather than weaken it,” but he conceded that tensions between Tanzania and Rwanda were a matter of concern, which needs to be resolved “diplomatically and very soon.”
Arusha has had its share of diplomatic wrangles after walkouts last week by regional MPs from Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, followed, in retaliation, by their counterparts.
Ministers and diplomats from across the region were scheduled to meet in Arusha at the end of the week for the first time since the realignment of the EAC began.
Many will be watching Tanzania’s reaction and whether it jumps on board the train or begins to look more intently south in its geopolitical positioning. It is, after all, an active member of the South-Africa dominated SADC (Southern African Development Community).
Whichever direction it takes, the East African Community is undergoing rapid change that could change not just its identity, but its geography and alignment as well.
In all probability, it will expand northwards to include South Sudan and possibly Sudan and, with time, Somalia and maybe Ethiopia. Whether it will keep its southern anchor in Tanzania remains to be seen.
Additional reporting by Mwaura Kimani