10,000 rules that have tried ­‑ and failed - to kill trade in the East African Community

Monday January 16 2023

There are thousands of rules, down to the colour of cars, ride height, tyre type, extinguishers, wattage of lights, tools that should be in a car, drivers’ vision, and so forth which, if enforced 100 percent, there would be no cars on East Africa’s roads. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGAH | NMG

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

During the week, the business press in Nairobi, quoting a government paper, reported that Kenya and Tanzania had resolved 23 problematic regulations that slowed down trade between the two countries since President Samia Suluhu Hassan visited Kenya in May 2021.

The non-tariff barriers (NTBs) ranged from rules on licences to quotas, embargoes, foreign exchange restrictions and import deposits. The reports made the point that a lot of progress had been made.

It can be difficult to imagine that there were still as many as 23 rules hindering trade between two East Afriacan Community economies, but that is if you haven’t heard the full story.

The resolution of those 23 squabbles brought the number of cumulative NTBs that were sorted and eliminated to 256 by end of June 2022.

Those 256, however, are not even the tip of the iceberg. An expert who studies the bewildering rules East African bureaucrats have imposed on what — on paper — is supposed to an open the Common Market told me there are nearly 1,000 of them governing just food trade in the EAC!

At that rate, if one adds up the regulations that get in the way of trade in the region, which include countless national legislations in the seven EAC partner states, not just the stuff in the EAC protocols, there could well be 10,000 of them.


That is 10,000 reasons why there isn’t free flow of trade in the EAC. To see the impact they are having, consider what happened when Kenya and Tanzania dealt with just those two dozen NTBs.

The reports noted that trade between Kenya and Tanzania crossed the Ksh100 billion (nearly $808 million) mark for the first time. Multiply that across the EAC and you are looking at billions of dollars left on the table because of NTBs.

If East Africa truly swung its markets open, there would be a lot of money swishing around, jobs galore for youth, and booming economies generating a lot of taxes for the politicians to feed on. It is a mystery that this national economic interest is still trumped by nationalism and small-minded protectionism.

With thousands of these trade-hampering regulations, for most business to be done, customs and other officials at the border have to behave like traffic police in most of East Africa. Most people don’t realise it, but the traffic rules in the region, going back to the colonial period, are a mountain. New rules have only piled on old ones.

There are thousands of rules, down to the colour of cars, ride height, tyre type, extinguishers, wattage of lights, tools that should be in a car, drivers’ vision, and so forth which, if enforced 100 percent, there would be no cars on East Africa’s roads.

Today, you will roll up to an EAC border point, and cross into the next country while eating roast maize or a fresh mango and no one will flag you down. If you read the rules in detail, that is not permissible. Happily, the rules are sometimes overcome by bewildering borders too.

Arua is a hectic city in northwest Uganda, situated strategically between the country’s borders with the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.

A few kilometres out of Arua, the official Uganda-DRC customs post is Vurra. It’s not as famous as Namanga, Busia, Malaba, Katuna/Gatuna, or Nimule, and no fancy one-stop border post has been built there yet.

However, it’s a fascinating little devil of a border. When you get past the boom gate on the Uganda side, you head into DRC. But that is only if you turn right. Despite having crossed the gate, if you turned left you would remain in Uganda. If you stay left, you are essentially governed by a different logic about the border, than if you if go right.

There is nothing stopping the Ugandan chap who turned left from turning right into DRC a kilometre in, or to hand a packet of maize flour to his Congolese mistress. Yet, somehow, an invisible order keeps most people in their right territorial lane.

Not always, though.

In 2021, Uganda closed the Vurra customs post for two months after Congolese youth crossed and erected a barrier and other structures 300 metres inside Uganda, claiming it was part of DRC territory. It didn’t make regional or international news. All attention was still on the Katuna (Gatuna in Rwanda) border that had been closed at that point for two years.

The matter was solved with little drama. When the border reopened, as we saw with Katuna/Gatuna last year, the people on both sides went into wild celebrations. The confusion of the Congolese youth about the border line, and the reluctance of the Ugandan authorities to use a hammer to resolve the “incursion,” was understandable.

Besides the big trucks carrying fuel and other goods to the DRC and South Sudan, the most common trade vehicles on the roads there are the lorries, young people perched on top, carrying Ugandan cattle to the borders. Some of them come from as far as western Uganda, ferrying cattle to South Sudan. It is a surprisingly orderly and big business. If the weird rules about livestock trade were enforced, perhaps not a single animal would cross the border.

And the local Congolese and South Sudan elite would miss out on their beef steak. Thank goodness for common sense, and some cross-border pragmatism.

It would be wonderful the day that spirit infected all of East African trade.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the "Wall of Great Africans". [email protected]