The hunt for closer economic ties in the East African region is taking a beating, stymied by the conflict in South Sudan, a close ally in proposed regional infrastructure projects.
Presidents from three East African countries — Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda — called off their meeting scheduled for Kampala this week under the auspices of the Tripartite Initiative for Fast Tracking East African Integration, which is better known as the Coalition of the Willing (CoW).
Apparently, the last-minute decision was informed by the ongoing conflict in South Sudan — which joined the initiative two months ago — given Juba’s strategic importance to the economic viability of some of the coalition’s planned infrastructure projects.
The cancellation of the Kampala conference was confirmed on Friday evening after a meeting hosted at State House Nairobi where President Uhuru Kenyatta met East African Community foreign affairs ministers.
The delegation was led by Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed and included EAC Cabinet Secretary Phyllis Kandie, Uganda’s minister of State for Foreign Affairs Asuman Kiyingi, Laurent Kavakure of Burundi and Jackyline Muhongayire of Rwanda.
Kenya and Uganda have been the biggest beneficiaries of a relatively peaceful South Sudan, tapping millions of dollars in new investments since Juba gained independence from Khartoum in 2011.
The countries, as it is the case with their counterparts in the eastern Africa region, are part of a joint diplomatic effort to end the crisis in South Sudan, as well as the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central Africa Republic.
The conflicts in the three countries have left the eastern Africa region facing one of the biggest threats to stability in recent times, an issue that is likely to push to the back burner economic and trade initiatives being pursued jointly by the countries.
East African leaders, as well as those of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), Igad, African Union, the West and the UN, are grappling with challenges of the South Sudan conflict that has taken on an ethnic dimension; triggering alarms of atrocities, fears of a relapse to civil war.
In the CAR, the UN warns that the situation looks ripe for a repeat of the 1994 genocide. In the DRC, UN troops are on the alert against a possible attack from M23 rebels, who they helped the government defeat last year. In Egypt, a military-backed transitional government is battling to restore the country to constitutional rule.
Impartiality of Igad
The search for a solution to the South Sudan conflict which, according to the UN, has claimed an estimated 10,000 lives since it broke out mid-December has seen Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni admit that his troops are helping Juba defeat the rebels.
The role of Uganda soldiers in South Sudan has raised concerns about the impartiality of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) in mediating the talks in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
President Museveni’s admission of the involvement of Ugandan forces has also raised eyebrows back home, following a UN Security Council statement strongly discouraging external intervention in the conflict that pits former vice-president Dr Riek Machar against President Salva Kiir’s government.
President Kiir has accused his former deputy of staging a failed coup, a charge Dr Machar has denied and instead accused Mr Kiir of seeking an excuse to purge political dissent.
On Thursday, the South Sudan’s rebels demanded that Uganda stop supporting Kiir’s forces as a condition for signing a peace agreement.
On Friday, Ghana said it would contribute 850 troops to help in keeping the peace and assist with the humanitarian efforts in South Sudan.
The crises in, CAR, DRC and South Sudan, observers say, signal that the search for closer economic ties in the Eastern Africa region is headed for bumps as leaders shift focus to look for a long-lasting solution to the conflicts.
For example, the viability of the Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport (Lapsset) Corridor project is pegged on the inclusion of a railway, road and pipeline network into South Sudan, meaning that the continued conflict in the country places both the timelines for the implementation of these plans under threat as well as increase the threshold for commercial viability of the projects.
The project feasibility, is among other things, pegged on 500,000 barrels of oil per day running from South Sudan to Lamu.
Kenya and Uganda are betting that a joint project with the Juba will help them drive down the unit cost of the pipeline, especially as the two have already discovered hydrocarbons.
Uganda has an estimated 3.5 billion barrels of oil, while last week Tullow said two new discoveries had pushed Kenya’s gross deposits to 600 million barrels, with the company saying this could rise to over one billion in coming months as it drills new wells.
Tanzania revealed late last year that it was seeking stronger economic and trade relations with Burundi and the troubled DRC in response to the coalition shaping up among Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and South Sudan. Still, with such a huge project to track, the region’s approach to the conflict is expected to be on the agenda of many meetings.
While Uganda has already sent troops to South Sudan, Kenya seems to favour a diplomatic approach to the conflict.
A confidential dossier prepared by Kenya’s Foreign Affairs ministry last week showed Kenya feared the war could escalate into a major international conflict.
The dossier further said Rwanda may send troops. The three presidents met on Wednesday in Luanda, Angola, where leaders in the Great Lakes region resolved to support ongoing initiatives by the African Union and its partners to address the deteriorating humanitarian situation in South Sudan and the CAR.
In a communique issued at the end of the 5th Ordinary Summit of the Heads of State and Government of the ICGLR, the leaders committed to continue supporting the Igad-led mediation efforts in South Sudan.
The issue of insecurity and conflict is likely to dominate regional agenda, even at the EAC level in the coming months.
The partner states have until February 15 to ratify the EAC Peace and Security Protocol, a new directive issued by the bloc’s Council of Ministers. Ratifying the protocol is expected to promote peace, security and stability within the community and good neighbourliness among the partner states.
This comes as Ministers of Defence and Internal Security from Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda adopted and signed a common pact on the Establishment of the Mutual Defence, Peace and Security on January 8 in Kigali. The three have also opened up the defence arrangement to other EAC countries as well as other nations in the larger Eastern Africa region.
But it is not just South Sudan that will trouble the CoW leaders. Kenya’s section of the proposed standard gauge railway to run from Mombasa to Kigali — the group’s flagship project — has already run into problems with Kenya’s parliament launching investigations into the tendering process amid allegations that the price was exaggerated.
Although there is indisputable political goodwill to implement a raft of policies aimed at removing bottlenecks to trade across the three countries, several deadlines given to bureaucrats to develop supporting legal and operational frameworks have not been met.
Several promises that were made with deadlines of between November 2013 and January 1, 2014 have not been implemented.
Uganda had, for example, promised to abolish work permit fees for Kenyan and Rwandan citizens effective January 1, 2014, but government officials now say there will be an indefinite delay, citing the need to first decide the categories of people to be exempted.
Uganda promised to abolish work permit fees to reciprocate Kenya’s and Rwanda’s gesture. Officials at the Uganda Immigration department say they have continued to charge work permit fees for all non-Ugandans, as no communication has been made to scrap the charges.
This means East Africans will pay higher fees than in the past, as Uganda increased work permit fees by at least 40 per cent on each category. Uganda has been charging fees ranging from $250 to $1,500 annually. This has been increased to between $295.8 and $2,464.7.
The Immigration department is only giving free visas and student passes to East Africans as a result of the concessions made to liberalise the movement of persons in the region.
James Baba, the Minister of State for Internal Affairs, under which the Immigration department falls, says Uganda is still negotiating with Kenya and Rwanda on the terms under which the work permit fees will be eliminated.
“We are still negotiating the categories of professionals to be exempted, because not everyone can be allowed into our country,” he said.
This makes the process similar to the one under the EAC Common Market Protocol (EACCMP).
Experts now say the decision by Uganda to exempt professionals while blocking the uneducated that need free permits the most will encourage other partner states in this arrangement to retaliate. This also poses the risk to the implementation of the CoW arrangement.
Other targets that have not been achieved are the joint launch of the East Africa single tourist visa that was announced at the World Travel Market trade fair in November 2013 and use of identity cards, student identity cards and voters cards at the borders between Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda.
Geoffrey Baluku of the Uganda Tour Operators of Association said the East African single tourist visa was delayed after Rwanda delayed in issuing the visa stickers in time, after which the organisers failed to get the three presidents to launch it. Mr Baluku said the tourist visa is likely to be launched next week.
By Peterson Thiong’o, Machel Amos and Dicta Asiimwe