The six East African Community heads of state are set to miss the trading bloc’s 20th anniversary celebrations this coming Saturday, putting into question the level of unity at the regional body’s topmost decision-making organ.
The November 30 Heads of States Summit, which was planned to coincide with the EAC’s 20th birthday, was called off at the last minute in unclear circumstances.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame, in his capacity as current chairman of the Summit, on Tuesday sent out a letter indicating that the meeting had been pushed to between January and February next year.
The Summit was expected to resolve contentious issues that threaten unity of the economic bloc.
“I have no clue the way things happened. We have not received a letter from any country saying they are not attending the meeting. We were just informed by Rwanda that the Summit has been postponed,” the EAC Secretary General Liberat Mfumukeko told The EastAfrican.
Kenya also claimed to be in the dark over the postponement, raising questions about the cause of the cancellation.
“There is nobody who knows how the Summit was postponed. The Summit is organised by the chair and he is the one who sets the date. We were just informed that the Summit has been postponed until January-February next year,” said Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for East African Community (EAC) and Regional Development, Adan Mohamed.
Sources informed The EastAfrican that Tanzania is the country that asked for deferment of the Summit, which was to be held at the Arusha EAC headquarters.
Dar es Salaam is preparing for the country’s civic elections scheduled for November 24, amid a planned boycott by some opposition parties.
Three opposition parties — Chama Cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo, Alliance for Change and Transparency-Wazalendo and Chama Cha Kijamii — said they would withdraw from the polls, citing irregularities.
It is understood that Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli’s request for the Summit’s postponement angered financiers of regional integration projects and the EAC private sector.
“Strong commitments and reforms are aimed at making the region more integrated during the Heads of State Summit. The implication of the delay in this Summit means a delay in regional integration,” said Patience Mutesi, Trademark East Africa’s Rwandan representative.
“We are seeing a lot of changing dynamics politically in the region which have had an impact on trade. Intra-regional trade is not growing and it appears that each of our economies prefers to trade more with the outside world than with ourselves. So the delay is regretted.”
The EAC secretariat however said the Community’s 20th anniversary celebrations will proceed as planned, even without the heads of state.
“We have launched the celebrations; we are going to proceed as planned,” said Mfumukeko. “In each partner state there will be celebrations. The Summit is to be dissociated with any celebrations.”
Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza has boycotted the EAC Heads of State summits following a failed coup d’etat attempt in Bujumbura in May 2015, which happened while he was attending the 13th Extraordinary Summit of the Heads of State in Arusha.
Since then, the heads of state summits have suffered several postponements raising concern over the progress of several integration projects.
The 20-year journey by the bloc has not been smooth sailing, with trade and diplomatic conflicts pulling member states apart.
An increasing sense of distrust among member states has resulted in persistent trade disputes, lack of implementation of joint regional projects and imposition of non-tariff barriers (NTBs) that have undermined the benefits of the Common Market Protocol, the second pillar of regional integration after the Customs Union.
The Summit was intended to provide a good opportunity for the regional leaders to assess their scorecards in the past two decades.
It was also expected to pass resolutions to salvage the collapsing single currency regime (third pillar of regional integration), the Democratic Republic of Congo’s request to join the community and the deteriorating trade and diplomatic relations between Uganda and Rwanda.
Also on the agenda was discussions on how to breathe life into the stalled review of the EAC’s Common External Tariff (CET), a project that has delayed for over two years after the member states failed to reach a consensus on how to change the three-band tariff structure.
The EAC partner states have failed to reach a consensus in three consecutive meetings, every time going back to do “further consultations” in their home countries.
Talks on the CET dispute which largely revolves around the number of tariff bands to be included in the new taxation structure and the type of goods to be put in each new band, were scheduled to resume last month (October).
The first, second and third meetings were held in Kigali, Dar es Salaam and Entebbe in March, April and May, respectively.
Finished goods imported into the regional bloc currently attract a duty of 25 per cent, intermediate goods (10 per cent) and raw materials (0 per cent) under the EAC’s existing three-band tariff structure that came into effect on January 1 2005.
In addition, there is a list of sensitive items such as sugar, wheat, rice, garments and milk which attract higher duty of above 25 per cent, with an aim of protecting local industries from competition.
The EAC’s plans to have a single East African currency within the next five years has also stalled, sending member countries back to the drawing board. The EAC Council of Ministers, the central decision-making and governing organ of the EAC, has resolved that the 2024 deadline by which the region was supposed to have formed a monetary union and adopted a common currency is not attainable. As a result, the Council, will draw new timelines.
The implementation of joint infrastructure projects such as the Standard Gauge Railway line linking the port of Mombasa to the landlocked countries in the region have fallen behind schedule. This is largely due to financing constraints and indecisiveness by some partner states to build their respective sections.
In 2016, Uganda abandoned Kenya in favour of Tanzania in building a crude oil pipeline, citing cost of construction and security as key reasons.
Among the issues the Summit was expected to discuss are:
-The region’s scorecards in the past two decades.
-The single currency regime (third pillar of regional integration)
-The stalled review of the EAC’s Common External Tariff
-The Democratic Republic of Congo’s request to join the community
-The deteriorating trade and diplomatic relations between Uganda and Rwanda.