EDITORIAL: EAC Summit - Creative tensions, anyone?

Saturday February 2 2019

East African Community heads of State

East African Community heads of State (from left) Uhuru Kenyatta, Paul Kagame, Yoweri Museveni, John Magufuli and Burundi's deputy president Gaston Sindimwo at the EAC Summit in Arusha on February 1, 2019. PHOTO | FILBERT RWEYEMAMU  

By The EastAfrican
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Finally, the long overdue EAC Heads of State Summit took place in Arusha this past week.

Coming at a time of tensions unprecedented since the Community was revived just under two decades ago, it was a feat that the meeting happened at all.

For a bloc that only a few years ago had spawned inspiring phrases such as the so-called Coalition of the Willing and espoused a grand vision for development of connected infrastructure, the current state of affairs is almost bewildering.

The passing of the leadership baton from Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni to the new chairman, due last November, was scuttled twice as a surly Burundi threw up hurdles in the way.

Matters have not been helped by a rapid deterioration of relations between summit chair Uganda and its erstwhile ally Rwanda, over mutual suspicions of backing each other’s foes.

While the change of guard on February 1 is to be welcomed, the agenda of the summit betrays the kind of political and economic tightrope the incoming chair will be walking.

The first item for discussion was the proposed Economic Partnership Agreement with the European Union, an issue that has divided members down the middle.

Kenya and Rwanda, who see immediate benefits from the EPA for their economies, are ranged against a reluctant Burundi, Tanzania and Uganda.

A ban on plastic carrier bags, already implemented by Kenya and Rwanda, for instance, remains in limbo in the other four member states.

Kenya and Tanzania remain locked in a game of chicken in matters of bilateral trade, whose result has been frequent and unexpected blockages of business people.

Though less pronounced, trade disputes also exist between Uganda and Tanzania, who until recently had blocked trade in sugar and rice with each other. All indications therefore are that this is going to be the most difficult tenure for whoever is taking over the chairmanship.

The most intractable challenge by far is going to be rebuilding trust between Rwanda and Uganda on the one hand, and on the other, Burundi and Rwanda, who have had their common border closed to official traffic since mid-2015.

While the trade disputes relate to compliance or failure to comply with rules that were established years ago, the political tensions may even be beyond the capacity of any single state to resolve.

The principals will have to confront their deepest fears before they can give rapprochement a chance.

Yet with hindsight, the current tensions may not be a bad thing after all and should perhaps be seen as an opportunity to define a more durable Community.

This is because, unlike the heady political idealism that has informed regional integration in the past, the current differences can be seen as symptomatic of the contradictions afflicting progress.

If regarded as creative rather than crippling tensions, they could be signalling the end of the bloc’s adolescence and the entry of the East African Community into self-aware adulthood.

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