Breadth versus depth: Why East African Community is doomed

Friday December 02 2016

Tanzania's President John Magufuli (right) with his host President Uhuru Kenyatta at State House Nairobi on October 31, 2016. Kenya and Tanzania are important trade partners. PHOTO | FILE

It is not the thing one says in polite society but, barring a dramatic reset, the East African Community is in a terminal crisis, barely a decade and half since it was re-established.

Conventional diagnosis blames the usual three suspects: Its location in a dangerous neighbourhood with unruly DR Congo to the west and fractious Somalia to the east; a crisis of governance in each member state defined by democratic clawbacks, threats to media and scrapping of presidential term-limits; and intractable internal conflicts, especially in Burundi and South Sudan.

The diagnosis is correct but partial. East Africa’s problems are deep-seated: They include a lack of fit between the interests of Kenya and Tanzania; inability to agree on shared values; and a mistaken expansion strategy that favours geographical breadth over institutional depth.

The three problems need to be fleshed out. Kenya and Tanzania are important trading partners: Kenya is Tanzania’s fourth largest export destination after India, South Africa and China, even more important to Tanzania than Japan. It is also Tanzania’s fifth largest source of imports after India, China, United Arab Emirates and Switzerland.

Conversely, Tanzania is Kenya’s second most important export destination. Tanzania is not among the top five sources of imports for Kenya. Yet, because they are both on the Indian Ocean littoral, each misses out the strategic and commercial advantage it would have had if the other were landlocked.

But the strategic problem is deeper still. EAC is a region of landlocked countries — South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi — whose access to the sea is through Kenya or Tanzania. History and geography has favoured Kenya.


History because the Northern Corridor from Mombasa to Kigali has had better infrastructure since colonial times.

Geography because the distance to Kampala and Juba on the Northern Corridor is shorter than the alternative route through Tanzania. The driving distance from Dar es Salaam to Kampala is 1,680km, 600km longer than that from Mombasa to Kampala. And, although the distance between Mombasa and Kigali via Kampala is 2,063km — longer by 500km than between Dar and Kigali, such a route only makes sense for Rwanda and Burundi, whose combined trade with Tanzania and market size (17 million people), is less than half that of Tanzania.

In competition for regional markets, Kenya has a clear advantage over Tanzania. Regional trade volumes reflect this reality.

Kenya is Uganda’s top export destination, Rwanda is second and South Sudan is third. Kenya is also Uganda’s third largest source of imports after India and China. The top export destinations for Rwanda are Tanzania in first place and Kenya in third position. In terms of origin of imports for Rwanda, Uganda is second and Kenya is fourth. Tanzania does not even make top five.

Feeling in but not of East Africa

Looking at this picture, Tanzania must feel in but not of East Africa. It also finds itself in a bind. Commercially, its interests are strongly aligned with those of Kenya, but not as strongly with any other EAC member state.

Tanzania’s frequent trysts with the Southern African Development Community arise from this calculation. After all, South Africa is a major trade partner.

Strategically, even though the commercial interests of Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda are strongly aligned with those of Kenya than with those of Tanzania, their landlocked nature exposes them to political problems in Kenya. After the 2008 blockade, they feel that they need the insurance of a Tanzanian corridor.

The EAC is a community strategically misaligned: Kenya and Tanzania have interlocking interests with each other but are in competition with regard to the other four members.

Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan and Burundi’s interests are interlocking with those of Kenya and Tanzania but all four are, strategically, more vulnerable to Kenya’s erratic and often failing politics. Ironically, the risk that Kenya poses to its commercial hinterland is what will keep Tanzania in the EAC, if anything can.

This risk analysis must have played a part in two crucial infrastructure decisions made by Uganda and Rwanda earlier this year. Uganda’s decision to pull out of the pipeline project under the Lamu Port-Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (Lapsset) and Rwanda’s to re-route its cargo via railway through Tanzania instead of the standard gauge option through Kenya.

These decisions were, in theory, justified on commercial grounds: The pipeline through Kenya would cost $5 billion, compared with $4 billion on the Tanzania option. According to Rwanda, the standard gauge railway would cost at least $100 million more than the option through Tanzania.

That the dollars made a difference is not plausible. After all, the two had initially committed to the Kenya options fully knowing the available alternatives through Tanzania. It is hard to ignore that, on reflection, Uganda’s pipeline would traverse the bad lands of Kenya that are spillways for small arms and Al Shabaab’s crossing points.

Kenya the weakest link

The real question for Tanzania now is whether these projects are enough to align its long-term interests with all of East Africa instead of only Kenya. And, more important, whether that necessarily means that it should remain in the EAC.

The lack of strategic fit in the interests of member states is compounded by a lack of shared norms. Tanzania aspires, in rhetoric if not practice, to a community of values. Kenya wants one of free commerce. Rwanda, with an eye to its youthful not-so-well educated population, wants free movement of labour.

Kenya, looking at its large pool of educated people, wants only skilled labour to move freely. Kenyan and Ugandan professionals want mutual recognition of qualifications across East Africa, reckoning that they have a head-start here; Tanzania fears a professional invasion if that were permitted.

Rwanda feels that a prosperous and cosmopolitan community will help bridge its ethnic faultlines and stanch future conflicts. Kenya’s aggressive businesses and its boisterous professional and commercial elite provokes suspicions and resentment across all of East Africa, except perhaps in Uganda.

Here, Kenya is the weakest link. The country’s chauvinistic stance stems from its elite’s unwarranted belief that the country is strong enough to stand alone and sufficiently industrialised to be the workshop of the region. This problem is compounded by inept diplomacy.

Kenya’s foreign policy has always been tactical rather than strategic and it has become more so under President Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration, pressing for little advantages in the present than wider benefits in the future. The country often behaves as if it faces no dangers for which it may need the help of its neighbours, even in the face of the debacle in Somalia.

But in diplomacy it is sometimes more important to address other people’s fears than to press one’s claims. In the rush to community, member states — especially Kenya — have often been too loud about their own interests and too less concerned about the fears of fellow members.

Nested games and interests

Kenya is too brashly invested in its commercial interests; Tanzania is too fretful about Kenya regional role and prickly about the corrupting influence of her acquisitive culture; Uganda’s heedless ambition outstrips her capabilities and Rwanda is too invested in its “big dog” role in DRC to invest wholeheartedly in the EAC. The result is a community of “nested games and interests” rather than common values.

This lack of shared norms has a disastrous knock-on effect that is easy to overlook. Regional integration rests on the idea that shared commercial ties eventually align national interests, build trust and, in that way, reduce disagreements and conflicts. This should create a long-run ethical basis for “common defence” and mutual security.

That virtuous circle assumes, of course, that over time members’ interests will converge rather than diverge.

Without shared values, inaction is the default choice. Down that path grief lies in wait. Conflicts — as well as diseases, climate change, cross-border rivers and wildlife — have “fugitive” characteristics, that is to say, they cross borders willy-nilly and must be contained through common rather than unilateral action.

By failing to act on Burundi, the EAC is stoking a three-way regional crisis: One, a refugee problem in Tanzania; two, the growth of anti-Burundi rebel groups in the DRC; and three, a real risk of destabilising Rwanda which is peopled by Tutsis and Hutus, the co-ethnics of the Burundi population.

Community without political glue

By pursuing non-interference in Burundi, the EAC has brought upon itself that which it has always feared from the start — a community without political glue to hold it together. It has also proved that its grand commitment to Article 6 values: “Democracy, the rule of law, accountability, transparency” as well as “the recognition, promotion and protection of human and peoples rights” is just a timid boast — oxymoron excused.

The lesson for future interlopers is that truculence pays. A dictator can undermine community values and risk no sanctions at all. Strategically, this has two implications.

One, by seeming to endorse inaction in Burundi, the Community has paid a huge political cost with little compensating gain in power or influence. A justly jittery Rwanda will now think that with the political capital of the EAC this debauched, it must act unilaterally to stave off the risk of destabilisation. Sadly, this will create the very chaos the community’s timorous strategy was meant to avoid.

The EAC has been keener on the breadth of integration than its coverage or depth. Leaders have found it much easier to embrace more members – expand geographically — than to agree what policy issues to cover such as movement of labour, right of residence, common currency, political federation, and how deep to go in terms of surrendering part of their sovereignty to make integration work.

The problem is that EAC leaders would rather increase membership than tackle the hard questions. This is because the hard questions would force them to fix equally difficult problems back home.

Perhaps there is nothing to this pessimistic analysis. Yet the truth of the matter is that East Africa has a serious credibility problem. The Community’s image of itself is not matched by ability to live up to it.

Wachira Maina is a constitutional lawyer.