20 years forward, 40 years back; Lenin haunts EAC

Thursday July 20 2017

The old rivalries between Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda that wrecked the EAC in the 1970s have re-emerged as the new points of contention today.

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Over the past three months, Kenya and Tanzania have been locked in a trade dispute over cooking gas.

In May, Kenyan officials banned gas imports from Tanzania due to what they said was a failure to meet safety standards, thus exposed Kenyan users to the risk of cylinder explosions.

Kenya and Tanzania also had a milk fight. Then a flour dust-up. Then a maize thing. Kenya and Uganda have fought over eggs, and also maize imports from Uganda.

This is a far cry from four years ago when, during the heady days of Presidents Uhuru Kenyatta-Yoweri Museveni-Paul Kagame “coalition of the willing,” it seemed like the three leaders were poised to build an elevator to the moon.

With most economies in Africa struggling to create jobs for their burgeoning armies of youth, and governments fearful they could riot and topple them from power, protectionism is becoming attractive again. Governments are again seduced by the muddle-headed idea that if they reduce foreign competition, local companies will thrive and thus create jobs.

These trade wars are, therefore, likely going to get worse in East Africa before they get better.


But these tensions were always there in some form. It seems they are getting worse today because, as far as East African leaders go, there is no longer a grown-up in the EAC summit room. There are old presidents in East Africa, yes, and clever ones too, but not really grown-up ones.

Kenya’s Mwai Kibaki was the last grown-up president. By this we mean he didn’t pick up every fight that came to his doorstep. East Africa is gifted with some energetic leaders, who are motivated to tackle issues head on. That is both a good and bad thing.

It’s bad because they don’t give opportunity to issues to burn themselves out. Kibaki managed these things partly through indifference, and partly through giving his bureaucrats authority to deal with them.

Once an issue gets to the president, the solution becomes more complex. Kibaki’s approach denied many of these problems oxygen and water, so they didn’t grow. For that he was seen as aloof, but we had fewer trade and food fights when he was president.

The second factor explaining the growing trade rifts is the generation of East Africans who worked in the first EAC that collapsed in 1977, or were officials in their national governments – like former Tanzania president Ben Mkapa and Kibaki, of course – have now all left government and politics. Several have died.

These people knew what kills a community. There is a group of them that was left too bitter by the fallout from the collapse of EAC I and remained hostile to its resurrection.

But many of them, having seen it collapse on their watch, were seeking redemption by making it work this time.

Third, the expansion of the EAC has not significantly changed its dynamics. Apart from that, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan are still caught up in political crisis and are a deadweight on the EAC.

The old rivalries between Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda that wrecked the EAC in the 1970s have re-emerged as the new points of contention today. We’ve gone nearly 20 years forward, in order to step 40 years back.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. [email protected]