In his televised New Year message, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni castigated the media for focusing on “trivial” issues like European football and the presidential age-limit debate instead of discussing serious issues that affect the public like the East Africa Community integration.
While integration issues are important and deserve media attention, it was surprising that Museveni, who is the current chairperson of the EAC, didn’t outline the main challenges facing regional integration and how he and his fellow leaders plan to resolve them.
The EAC faces many problems, including limited capacity to pay for its expenses and being a top-down entity based on the goodwill of leaders.
However, there are two main groups undermining integration at the moment. The first group is what I call “hyper-nationalists” and the second is the “association opportunists.”
The two groups are up against “pan-East Africans” who are regionalists and globalist and are genuinely interested in integration. In part, it’s the incompatible and competing interests of these two groups that gave rise to the “Coalition of the Willing.”
“Hyper-nationalists” still strongly believe in the supremacy of nation-states as currently constituted and perceive the EAC as a threat to the wellbeing of “their” nations and citizens. This group still plays the politics of “us” nationals against “them” foreigners and this informs current deportations in the region and trade wars.
On the other hand, “association opportunists” don’t perceive the EAC as a supra-national entity that aims to undo colonial borders to create a bigger community of East Africans, but as a structure to advance narrow interests of individual leaders like using the EAC organs to excite legitimacy at home or regional support.
Empirically, the first group’s actions largely revolve around immigrants and their deportation as well as trade disagreements.
The second group’s actions are marked by attempts to use EAC organs such as the East African Legislative Assembly and the Secretariat to advance partisan interests of individual leaders or fight “enemies” — whether real or imagined.
For instance, currently, while the EAC secretariat is troubled by claims of bias, the regional parliament is facing a leadership challenge, which, by all intents and purposes relate to differences between Burundi and Rwanda rather how to make good laws or manage assembly affairs properly.
While this problem has been around for some time, with Burundian MPs declining to attend EALA sessions mid last year in Kigali citing “fear for their security” as the reason, it came to light in December through attempts to sabotage the election of the speaker.
The election of Rwanda’s Martin Ngoga on December 19, to replace Uganda’s Daniel Kidega in an exercise boycotted by Burundian and Tanzanian MPs has exposed part of the problem the region face.
For instance, on January 8, Burundi’s Minister in charge of the East African Community, Isabelle Nahayo, told the media that “Burundi does not recognise the recent election of the Speaker of the East African Legislative Assembly because the regulations underlying the community were not respected.”
The announcement followed President Pierre Nkurunziza’s assertion on December 29, that: “The EALA Speaker is elected following the rotation system” and that it was Burundi’s turn to chair the region’s assembly.
But, as some commentators have since argued, Burundi’s objections have nothing to do with the law but are an attempt to “punish” Rwanda for what Nkurunziza’s supporters perceive as hostility to his rule due to the “third term” contestations.
For regional integration to be achieved, leaders will have to tell each other the truth; reassess their priorities and agree to refocus their actions on things that help integration.
In part, that will mean a willingness on the part of pan-East Africans to do things they agree on together without waiting for laggards, while allowing “hyper-nationalists” time to understand the supremacy of EAC, but refusing to concede space for “association opportunists” to undermine integration.
Christopher Kayumba, PhD. Senior Lecturer, School of Journalism and Communication, UR; Lead consultant, MGC Consult International Ltd. E-mail: [email protected]; twitter account: @Ckayumba Website:www.mgcconsult.com