Proponents of East Africa’s integration may need a healthy dose of fortitude just to cope with the flow of bleak news coming out of Arusha.
Barely a week to the end of the financial year, the East African Community secretariat was yet to make known its spending plans for the financial year that starts on July 1.
Considering that the budget must be deliberated upon by both the EAC Council of Ministers and the legislative assembly before it is passed, the region is clearly short of time.
As usual, the disruptions caused by the coranavirus pandemic have come in as a convenient fall guy. But looking at this failure in terms of the Covid-19 pandemic does not add up.
Annual budgeting is not a fly-by-night affair. Ordinarily, annual plans fall into a broader, pre-agreed medium term expenditure frameworks. So, it is difficult to imagine that the corona pandemic that has rattled the region for the past three months could have resulted in a misalignment so significant that it prevented the Council of Ministers from even considering a draft budget.
Somehow, a section of the principals who have not been able to hold a summit, managed to scramble a minimum agreement on how to handle cross-border Covid-19 cases. And as the national budgets that were presented over the past few weeks demonstrate, it is actually possible to have a budget regardless of the Covid-19 turmoil.
Even without considering the legal consequences, the implications of operating without a budget are grave. The institution will sink deeper into debt at a time of growing uncertainty about its future.
Failure to generate a budget will also have ripple effects down the line, setting back other functions and the smooth running of EAC agencies.
The budget crisis should be a wakeup call to the waning commitment to the EAC. The region has been slowly but surely drifting apart, pointing to a deeper malaise that has been nibbling away at the spirit of East African integration for a while now.
The Heads of State Summit is nearly eight months behind schedule. There is no sign that a meeting of the principals is anywhere close on the horizon, with one excuse after another being presented in a desperate bid to conceal the deepening gorge.
But the signs are there for everybody to see. The past two years have seen a rise of unilateralism that has made a mockery of the once seminal regional protocols.
Despite existing rules to guide regional trade, Kenya and Uganda are negotiating a bilateral trade agreement to resolve differences that should not have been there in the first place.
In February, Uganda and Rwanda completed one year with their common frontier shuttered one way. At the secretariat in Arusha, Burundi has been engaging the East African Court of Justice to arbitrate on partner issues.
What is at stake now, is the loss of a vision that offers so much promise, for short term and mostly temporary gain. The EAC Ministers show commitment by setting aside time to discuss the budget, and other business of the critically important regional bloc.