As East African Community leaders headed for their summit in Arusha on Friday, most of the talk was about whether, as expected, they would admit Somalia as the eighth member of the bloc or, at a minimum, give it observer status.
One of the sub-plots was South Sudan President Salva Kiir becoming the chairman of the bloc. South Sudan became a full member of the EAC in 2016, and this is Kiir’s first stab at the chair. South Sudan descended into a hellish conflict again in December 2015, two years after its independence.
After many failed attempts, the long-troubled peace settlement seems to finally be coming to fruition. But, with parts of South Sudan still restless, Kiir will be the first leader of a tail-end conflict-state, who presides over the admission of another conflict-state into an economic bloc.
It all speaks to the unusual political fortunes that have visited Kiir in the past year. For many of the years of the worst conflict in South Sudan, Kiir and other belligerent rivals like the current vice-president Riek Machar, or their representatives, were frequent visitors to the Sudan capital Khartoum, to talk peace.
On April 15, 2023, all that changed when war broke out in Khartoum between the Sudan army led by its chief and de facto state president General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) of one-time militia leader General Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, better known as “Hemedti”, who was vice-president of the Sudan junta.
In seven months, more than 10,000 people have been killed and up to 12,000 others wounded. By the end of last month, more than 4.8 million were internally displaced and more than 1.3 million others had fled the country as refugees. In a reversal of direction, thousands of them have fled to South Sudan; 10,000 in the first two weeks of the conflict in April alone.
In the South Sudan capital, in recent months there have been Sudanese delegations coming and sitting at Kiir’s feet, this time with him as their mediator. From the shadows of Sudan’s war, Kiir and South Sudan have emerged smelling of roses. Kiir has rinsed his mouth with Sudan, and it’s as well he is taking on the East African crown.
Somalia, though, is likely to be one that he can’t cover in fragrance. The cynicism about the value of Somalia to the EAC is unusually strong in the forums where East Africans express their opinions; several times more so than it was against the Democratic Republic of Congo, when it was admitted in early 2022, with its eastern regions wracked by a long-running, brutal conflict.
A part of this is because Somalia comes to the EAC facing the kinds of anti-Arab-Islamic prejudices by a majority Christian East Africa that DRC, South Sudan, or Burundi didn’t. Somalia would be the first majority Muslim state in the EAC.
Secondly, three decades of instability have bred a stereotype of Somalis as lawless and unresponsive to rational governance. Many East Africans also fear that admitting Somalia will bring the dreaded Al Shabaab insurgents to their doorsteps, and before long they will be blowing up nursery schools and churches in their neighbourhoods.
There is a lot of ahistoricity in those perspectives. If the European Union is the world’s most successful example of a common market today, then it bears to remember that it was born in the throes of World War II. In fact, the idea had been proposed as early as 1920, after the end of World War I, as a customs union for the struggling post-war European economies. The building of the modern EU started in earnest in 1950, when Europe was still clearing away the rubble from World War II.
A country still at war or emerging from one can be rich pickings. Its economy is weak; the population is poor and broken and thus unable to resist; the political class is scattered or discredited; and there are no organised vested interests to capture state policy, or to fend off foreign competition and keep the domestic market as their monopoly.
A devasted post-World War II Europe was rebuilt, to a considerable degree, under the famed Marshall Plan, where the US contributed $13.3 billion in aid — about $150 billion in today's dollars — to 16 European nations between 1948 and 1951, mostly to build back infrastructure.
There was some filial altruism, yes, but in cold, political terms, with that largesse America bought Europe as a modern-age colony and market that it dominated. It cashed in for nearly 60 years, getting very handsome returns for its investment.
The other face of the Somalia question — and DRC for that matter — therefore, is that no “stable” East African nation or the EAC collectively can go in and do what America did with the Marshall Plan in Europe.
Sections of the Kenyan business community sniffed opportunities and moved early into DRC. Many of them are crooning Daudi Kabaka’s Harambee harambee tuimbe pamoja all the way to the bank. They also did so in South Sudan, as did hardy Ethiopian and Eritrean entrepreneurs.
The one group of people who should be cheering — but aren’t — are the Kenyan and Somali smugglers, and the syndicates at Kismayu port. The cost of doing business is likely to drop considerably with Somalia in the EAC, and their profits would soar. But there’s a risk too; a stable working administration at the Kenya-Somalia border might also be bad for business.
East Africa can be a slippery bet.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the "Wall of Great Africans". Twitter@cobbo3