Failed attempts by EAC Heads of States to hold a virtual conference on the unfolding Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the widening ideological rift between member countries.
Current chair of the East Africa Community and Rwandan President Paul Kagame last week said the lack of co-ordination at the presidential level has exposed the region to a wider, cross-border spread of the virus.
President Kagame had convened a virtual Heads of States summit on April 15 to discuss joint responses to the pandemic, which has so far infected more than 3.2 million people and killed over 233,000, but only two other presidents were ready to take part.
“The Summit did not happen because a number of countries—three specifically—were not able to connect with the rest of us and all members have to be available for the virtual meeting to take place,” said President Kagame at a Monday press briefing.
While Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda were ready for the meeting, South Sudan, Tanzania and Burundi were not.
President Kagame wanted the Heads of States to discuss joint measures to curb the spread of coronavirus in a region that is heavily inter-dependent on trade matters, yet is grappling with rising cases of transmission by long-distance truck drivers.
The region also faces a shortage of Covid-19 testing kits and protective gear for health workers who are too few and ill-equipped laboratories.
Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta, in a virtual address to the African Union, also pushed for closer regional co-operation.
“If we are to defeat this enemy, we need to ensure that through our regional economic communities we are able to communicate, work together and able to deal with cross-border issues because unless we fight together, we will lose together,” said President Kenyatta in his April 29 address to the AU.
The EAC has recorded a surge in the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases involving cross-border truck drivers from Tanzania and Kenya.
Tanzania, with 480 cases, has the highest number in the region followed by Kenya with 411 cases, Rwanda with 249, Uganda with 85, South Sudan with 45 and Burundi with 11 as at May 2.
President Kagame castigated the EAC for putting bureaucratic procedures ahead of co-ordinated efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic that has ravaged the globe and regional countries.
He argued that his attempt to convene a virtual Heads of States Summit was rebuffed on two different occasions, due to lack of quorum.
“Procedure takes precedence over substance of the collective responsibility and to solve the problem we have as a region,” the president said during a press conference on April 27.
“I have responsibility as one of the leaders of the partner states, and at the same time as the chairperson of the EAC. But even as chairperson you still have certain limits on how much you can do even if you wanted to.”
A quorum for the EAC Heads of States is attained when all partner states are represented according to Rule 11 of the Rules of Procedure.
Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni also voiced his frustration at the failure to hold a Heads of States meeting.
President Museveni said on his Twitter handle that he held telephone conversations with President Kagame, President Kenyatta and Tanzania’s President John Magufuli.
“I had a long discussion on the phone with H.E. Uhuru Kenyatta and H.E. Paul Kagame regarding truck drivers. President Kenyatta and President Kagame agreed that we can have a common plan for truck drivers,” wrote President Museveni. “I also talked to H.E John Magufuli on a slightly different subject.”
A letter in our possession written by Burundi’s Minister in the Office of the President responsible for EAC Affairs, Isabelle Ndahayo, and addressed to the EAC Secretary-General Liberat Mfumukeko, says that Burundi has requested to be exempted from EAC meetings until it is done with its elections to be held later this month.
“Burundi is starting the electoral period for the presidential, members of parliament and the municipal council’s elections from April 27 up to May 17,” said Ms Ndahayo.
“Burundi takes this opportunity to inform you that it would not be possible for delegates from Burundi to attend regional activities even if they’re organised by video conference as from April 27 to May 25.”
Even though the meeting was convened before Burundi’s request not to participate in the conference, outgoing President Pierre Nkurunziza is yet to attend any EAC function outside his country since the attempted coup in 2015.
South Sudan was the first to declare its absence, while Tanzania also informed the bloc that President Magufuli would not be available for the teleconference.
Incidentally, South Sudan, Burundi and Tanzania are the only states in East Africa without partial or strict lockdowns to curb the spread of coronavirus.
“I would like to highlight the importance of working together to procure equipment and test kits collectively, so that each country does not have to line up separately,” President Kagame said during the AU Bureau and Regional Economic Communities meeting.
He told the AU meeting that there are too many orders for the required kits and equipment and joint efforts among African countries are needed.
President Kagame also blamed the surge of cross-border coronavirus cases – particularly involving cargo truck drivers - on the lack of a co-ordinated regional effort to fight the pandemic.
“Rwanda is now having a problem because we had the situation under control and were reining in the coronavirus, but all of a sudden, cross-border activities have introduced new cases,” President Kagame said.
Confusion at the EAC border crossing points has seen a delay in the movement of cargo, which is likely to impact negatively on an already battered regional economy subdued by the virus.