Burundi has confirmed that it will attend the East African Community Heads of State Summit scheduled for February 1, in Arusha, giving fresh hope that the bloc will carry on programmes key to the integration agenda.
A disgruntled Bujumbura pulled out of the November 30 summit, citing unresolved matters, forcing a last minute cancellation.
A subsequent meeting planned for December 27 also failed to take place.
Now, there is expectations that the February meeting will help unlock programmes and foster EAC integration at a time when observers have predicted a collapse akin to the 1977 one.
EAC Secretary General Liberat Mfumukeko was upbeat last week, admitting to reporters in Arusha that the past year was the darkest, but the events at the end of the year heralded a new dawn.
He said that 2018 was turbulent and served as a litmus test for the regional integration agenda.
“The 2018 challenges may have made us appear dark; but as the saying goes, it is darkest before dawn,” Mr Mfumukeko said during his first meeting with media this year, seeking to allay widespread fears of the possible collapse of the bloc.
“The EAC also registered several milestones and the integration agenda has moved on, despite the challenges we faced last year.”
At the end of last year, the East African Legislative Assembly (Eala) raised the alarm over the progress of integration programmes, calling into question the commitment of the EAC partner states and the Secretariat to the integration agenda.
Eala cited foot-dragging among partner states to remit outstanding contributions to the bloc, the collapse of the 20th Ordinary Summit and widespread allegations of mismanagement by organs and institutions of the bloc.
Suzane Nakauki, an Eala member from Uganda, tabled a motion on financial hiccups facing the bloc as a result of the partner states’ failure to remit their contributions on time.
Article 123 of the EAC Treaty requires each partner state to remit its contributions within the first six months of a financial year ending December 31, but none of them had fully paid by December.
Kenya was leading in remittances amounting to 80 per cent of its dues, followed by Uganda at 53 per cent, Tanzania 52 per cent and Rwanda at 25 per cent.
Burundi and South Sudan had not only failed to remit any contributions, but also owed the bloc $40 million in arrears.
Development partners’ support to the EAC budget has been declining over the years, with official statistics indicating combined contributions of $43 million in the 2018/19 financial year, compared with $124 million in 2011/12.
“Partner states have been making their best efforts, given the challenges they face. We get salaries and some of our overheads are catered for by them. If they were not contributing at all, the Community would have shut down,” said Mr Mfumukeko.
The EAC has been receiving between 75 per cent and 90 per cent of partner states’ contributions every year, he added.
“Institutions in other regional bodies cannot pay salaries for up to two months; we have been able to implement most of the integration agenda, regardless of the challenges we face,” said the EAC Secretary General.
Last year, the EAC earned recognition as one of the top performing regional blocs on the continent from the African Development Bank, the East African Development Bank, the World Bank and other renowned international institutions.
The bloc mobilised $2.5 billion, equivalent to over 50 per cent of $4 billion AfDB funding it competed for with other regional economic blocs across the continent.
Businesses are hopeful that the issues around the Common Market, tariff and non-tariff barriers will be addressed.
The chief executive of the East African Business Council, Peter Mathuki, said that despite the challenges to inter-regional trade, the private sector spurred the growth.
“When the integration will be private sector-led, it will be sustainable enough to uphold the momentum of the EAC, being the fastest growing bloc on the continent.,” he said.
“But this momentum requires leverage by policy and political will. All partner states should harmonise the EAC Treaty with respective national laws, and put in place legislation to abolish non-tariff barriers which adversely affect trade facilitation.”
A number of challenges, mostly those compounded by protectionist policies, continued to hinder EAC intra-trade in 2018.
The EAC intra-trade stood at only 20 per cent as opposed to 46 per cent of the Southern African Development Community, and 67 per cent in the European Union.
“It is our hope that the 20th Ordinary EAC Heads of State Summit will address challenges of ease of doing business. We have covered only some Common Market areas which made EAC become the fastest growing regional economic bloc.
“But there’s a lot more to be done. The protocol cannot be effectively implemented when it is not in tandem with national laws,” said the business council boss.
Mr Mfumukeko said that the Secretariat is now focusing on the priority areas stipulated in its 5th Development Strategy which the heads of state endorsed in February last year, as part of its 2019 agenda.
These are consolidating Single Customs Territory to cover all imports and intra-EAC trade goods; developing infrastructure; walking the Common Market talk and enhancing industrial, technological and innovation to stimulate economic growth in the region.
Also high on the 2019 EAC agenda is improving productivity, adding value and facilitating movement of agricultural goods in a bid to enhance food security.
The bloc is also going to focus on promoting regional peace, security and governance and transforming institutions at both regional and national levels.
But the rows among some partner states may not feature at the February 1 meeting, as, according to the secretary-general, last year’s agenda will be the only one on the table.
Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza of recently requested the EAC leadership to urgently consider convening an extraordinary summit to address differences pitting his country and Rwanda, which he accuses of harbouring ill motives.
But his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame shifted the blame, saying Bujumbura had repeatedly provoked Kigali.
Relations between the two countries have deteriorated over the past three years, with armed attacks resulting in the deaths of civilians and fighters among border communities.
Burundi’s EAC Minister Isabelle Ndahayo told The EastAfrican in Bujumbura that they are ready for the summit and are committed to discuss the “ issues that will be on the order paper.”
It is, however, not clear if President Nkurunziza will attend the meeting, seeing as since the coup attempt of 2015 when he was attending a summit in Dar es Salaam, he has delegated such events to his First vice-president Gaston Sindimwo.
Since then, the president has only been out of the country once, to a town on the border with Tanzania in 2017.
The Summit is expected to discuss the report by the facilitator of the Intra-Burundi dialogue former Tanzania president Benjamin Mkapa, which was presented to the mediator and chair of the EAC heads of state Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni in November 2018.
Burundi government last year boycotted the fifth and last round of the regional mediated peace talks in Arusha, saying that coup plotters were among the participants.
President Nkurunziza recently said that coup plotters wanted the facilitator to negotiate an amnesty, which his government will never accept, “since it would be promoting impunity, and denigrating the sovereignty of the Burundian people.”
Bringing the government and opposition members together on the same table was one of the major challenges the facilitator encountered during the three years of dialogue.
In a report to President Museveni, Mr Mkapa said that the situation in Burundi remained a matter of concern, a statement that angered Bujumbura.
According to the report, the issues to be resolved before the 2020 general elections, include the cancellation of the arrest warrants on the alleged coup plotters.