As delegates to the first session of the fourth assembly of the regional parliament converge on Kampala for business, the event is overcast by a squabble between Rwanda and Burundi over the election of the speaker.
It remains uncertain if Burundi’s delegates will attend the session. Should they boycott it, it would only be the latest hiccup to the House’s business.
For several months last year, business remained in limbo because Kenya could not send its MPs until after the August 8 elections. Nairobi eventually sent its nominees last December, but rivalry over the Speaker’s position, possibly feeding off the embers of their less than cordial politics, immediately flared up between Burundi and Rwanda.
Before that, in 2013, there was a subterranean split with Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda on one side and Burundi and Tanzania on the other. This resulted in the “Coalition of the Willing,” which later lost steam when Uganda shifted the alignment of its oil export pipeline from Kenya to Tanzania.
Although the politicians have now mastered the art of brazen-faced talk about the possible benefits of integration, the present state of affairs reflects the thin glue holding the Community together.
Part of the problem has been the failure to learn from history. While pursuing the economic benefits of regional integration, the partner states have failed to develop a common set of values to define their politics, hence the frequent strains and failure to hold each other to account.
While Kenya and Tanzania have been through a couple of transitions, Burundi defied its own Constitution, creating the current tension in which it remains suspicious of its neighbour to the north and has closed the common border to bilateral traffic.
Uganda is trudging through its own controversial constitutional amendment to remove caps on the presidential term and extend the tenure from five to seven years.
This political culture of do or die has now crept into the regional assembly. The current standoff stems from Burundi’s insistence that it was its turn to nominate the speaker by alphabetical precedence, after it emerged that new member South Sudan has to go through an incubation period before assuming the role.
That development exposed a lacuna in the regional protocols because, under the principle of rotation, the framers of the EAC charter did not foresee a situation where two member states could simultaneously be eligible to contest the position.
Burundi did field a candidate and lost to Rwanda’s Martin Ngoga, but has been unwilling to accept the outcome. The question then is what next?
The assembly needs to get down to work to shepherd regional integration to a point where the project can work for citizens. Although it will not be easy, it is important that the assembly tackle these fissures by taking a fresh look at the governing principles of the Community and making changes where necessary.
The changes need to anticipate the evolution of the Community and create the procedures for resolving any lacunae.
Most importantly, however, is the evolution towards common political values that put people and not politicians at the centre of the Community.