EAC leaders in a fix as Khartoum applies to join ahead of Juba

Saturday August 27 2011

President Kibaki invited Bashir to the ceremony in Nairobi to formally launch Kenya’s new Constitution. Critics slammed Nairobi for inviting a man who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court. Pictures: File

The Republic of Sudan’s government in Khartoum has handed East African Community leaders a sweet dilemma, by applying to join the EAC before South Sudan, which is considered a more “natural” partner.

On June 15, 2011 Sudan’s President Omar Al Bashir wrote to the chairperson of the Summit of East African Community Heads of State, Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza, expressing his country’s interest in joining the EAC.

The EAC Secretariat’s head of corporate communication and public affairs Owora Richard Othieno, confirmed to The EastAfrican Thursday that Bashir had, as it were, asked for the EAC’s hand in marriage.

Owora said the Secretary- General of the EAC, Dr Richard Sezibera, had “circulated the Republic of Sudan’s communication to the Partner States,” and that the Council of Ministers “will be meeting in Arusha from September 5-9 to consider several issues pertaining to the integration process; among them will be the application of the Republic of Sudan.”

While Khartoum’s wooing of the EAC will boost the Community’s credibility and increase its attractiveness, it is a bittersweet prospect for EAC leaders.

South Sudan, which formally became independent from Sudan in July after a 2005 peace deal ended one of Africa’s bloodiest between the North and South of the country, has always been seen as a more natural fit. Not only are South Sudanese culturally closer to the rest of the East African peoples, but their war of liberation was heavily supported by countries like Uganda that gave weapons, and even sent men, to back the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.


Khartoum, in the meantime, supported the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) that has been fighting since 1988 to overthrow the Museveni government. The LRA left a trail of destruction across northern Uganda, as well as parts of the Central African Republic and the eastern areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which it has been roaming as a transitional bandit-cum-mercenary force since 2006, when it was finally pushed out of northern Uganda.


Over the past six years, the fledgling South Sudan economy has become closely integrated with Uganda and Kenya’s, with most of the banking and hospitality sector already locked down by Kenyan companies. (See related: Investors in scramble for South Sudan’s fertile land)

Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame and Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, all spoke optimistically about South Sudan joining the EAC even before it gained Independence.

In February 2011, both Kibaki and Kagame said that South Sudan would be welcome to join the trading bloc. In May 2011, President Kibaki repeated the commitment to see South Sudan join the EAC when he was opening the East African Legislative Assembly in Nairobi, though this time he didn’t mention South Sudan by name.

South Sudan too had always seemed aware that EAC membership was theirs for the asking.

Speaking at a meeting with the Speaker of the East African Legislative Assembly, Abdirahin Abdi, in Juba in July, South Sudan President Salva Kiir said the newly created country was “prepared to join the EAC” to enable it to “reap the benefits of regional integration.”

The problem for the EAC leaders is that South Sudan has been anything but the stable country eager to build a new life, that optimists hoped it would be.

Since February this year, a series of clashes between the Lou Nuer and Murle communities in South Sudan have resulted in the loss of over 1,000 lives. The attacks followed large-scale cattle raids by members of the two groups.

The violence got worse after the July 9 Independence Day. In a notably bloody event on August 18, some 600 people were killed in an attack on Uror County. They suspect that youth from Pibor carried out the offensive.

Fighting in the Jonglei State has reportedly displaced 26,800 people.

One of the reasons some East Africans were opposed to the expansion of the EAC to include Burundi and Rwanda, was because they thought they, particularly, Burundi were still at war. Burundi is the EAC straggler, and there will be a lot of wariness about admitting a new member that is in a worse economic state and more wracked by war than Burundi.

At the same time it is hard to see how the EAC can walk away from the promise for quick admission for South Sudan. Businesses in capitals like Nairobi will be pushing for South Sudan because the oil-rich new country is a magnet for the construction and reconstruction businesses, and a future market for nearly everything else.

With a population of about 8.5 million, South Sudan would bring the number of East Africans to 141 million. Considering that the Republic of Sudan has about 35 million, their entry would bring to the EAC a vast mass of land populated by 176 million people — a huge market only crazy leaders would pass up on.

The two Sudans have showed the kind of diplomatic shrewdness that can put EAC leaders in a spot. The wily Bashir, for example, actually put in an application to join the EAC before South Sudan formally became a new country in July. There is no way the EAC can admit South Sudan while dismissing Khartoum’s request without looking Islamphobic, anti-Arab and small-minded.

But South Sudan’s leaders are under no illusions that building a nation out of fractious and dirt poor communities will be anything but hard and messy. Recently, however, Juba offered to contribute troops to the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia, Amisom.

For all its recent heroic efforts against the Al Shabaab militants, the fact that the rest of Africa has failed to contribute to Amisom and left it to only Uganda and Burundi is an embarrassment for the continent.

The AU has nearly 9,000 troops in Somalia, and says it needs up to 20,000 soldiers to pacify the country.

Deng Alor Kuol, South Sudan’s Foreign Affairs Minister, said the new state was prepared to bolster the force to show its commitment to peace in Africa. Sierra Leone has now promised troops.

Uganda, which has 5,210 soldiers in Somalia, and Burundi which has contributed 4,400 and have been working hard to broaden the base of Amisom, will have been delighted to hear Kuol’s offer.

As members of the EAC, they would be even more inclined to reward South Sudan with membership of the Community because of its posture on Somalia.

Small wonder then that no EAC official is willing to even speculate how all this will play out. A very guarded Othieno could only say that, “We expect the Council of Ministers to take note of this development and give guidance on the way forward.”

Another official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “Expect the matter to be resolved at the November Summit of the leaders.”

At the start of the year, no one would have expected that the EAC would be so hot that Khartoum would want in. Many things could have encouraged Bashir. Last year in August, despite international criticism, President Kibaki invited him to the ceremony in Nairobi to formally launch Kenya’s new Constitution. Critics slammed Nairobi for inviting a man who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in the western Sudan region of Darfur, to the promulgation of a liberal new age Constitution.

He has also been invited to Kampala by President Museveni. Bashir must think that the amoral pragmatism of EAC politics is good for business.

Arab Spring

But the decisive factor must have been the Arab Spring revolts that ousted Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January and Egypt’s despot Hosni Mubarak a month later, before moving to Libya where it turned into a full-blown armed rebellion that finally toppled Muammar Gaddafi’s record 42-year-old rule last week.

In the Middle East itself, revolts in Bahrain, Yemen, rumbling in Jordan, and the current carnage in Syria have all but destroyed the Middle East and North African consensus that, among other things, offered Arab dictators protection. Bashir, in particular, looks particularly isolated in the Horn.

EAC membership could allow Sudan to reinvent itself, even as it puts new pressures on the Community. It would be the only Muslim majority country in the EAC — but the EAC would also have to come to terms with a member state that is Islamic.

Earlier this year, Tanzania proposed that Kiswahili become the second language of the EAC in addition to English. Now Burundi has proposed that French become the third official EAC language. Sudan would, naturally, ask that Arabic be thrown into the mix too. The Community might well end up being something that none of its creators could have ever dreamt of.