EAC@25: Broken, breaking, unbreakable marriage? Don’t call divorce lawyers yet

Saturday January 27 2024

The expansion of the East African Community (EAC) has introduced new things to fight over; increased both friends and enemies; blurred ancient lines of contradiction; and softened many of the old points of friction that became so intense, that they broke the Community. ILLUSTRATION | JOSEPH NYAGAH | NMG

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Once again, many people are writing the obituary of the East African Community, and saying the current crises roiling it are similar to the upheaval that led to the breakup of the first EAC in 1977.

Everywhere you look, EAC member states are involved in trade brawls, border closures, hurling non-tariff barriers at each other, and trading petty and big insults.

If these scuffles led to the death of the EAC, it would be a tragically young demise, at just 25 years of age. That would be a whole 15 years younger than President Yoweri Museveni has been chief in Uganda. It would be longer, though, than the post-independence EAC.

Though it had its roots in the colonial period, EAC1 was formally re-created in 1967 from the East African Common Services Organisation, so it lasted only 10 years.

Read: OBBO: May worst of East Africa’s fears never come to pass in 2024

Yet, for all the turbulence, it wouldn’t be a wise investment to hire a divorce lawyer.


Compared to EAC1, one of the present Community’s biggest strengths is also one of its main weaknesses. It is big and unwieldy, and the social, cultural, and economic differences between the eight member states are so wide that it would have been near impossible to even think of it when the EAC was just Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

They had a shared colonial history as a British Protectorate; the official or working language was English; its early elite nearly all went to Makerere University in Kampala, when it was the East African and sole university in the region; they were majority Christian countries; they were mostly still governed in the same Protestant and Catholic church provinces; shared Lake Victoria, and so on.

They were in each other’s face. It was family. Family fights can be furious and deadly. The quarrels that broke EAC1 were too intimate. The injury inflicted on a close family member, or a betrayal, is more deeply felt.

Today, a small businessman in Mtwara on Tanzania’s southeastern coast could well skip a station on his TV if it brought news about Zongo in the northern Democratic Republic of Congo burning down. His counterpart in Rugarama, Southwestern Rwanda, would give you a big loud-mouthed yawn if you tried to tell him about floods in Beledweyne in Somalia sweeping away dozens of people. He might be more interested, though, if you told him that the cows there produce a lot of milk.

Read: BUWEMBO: Is there reason we can’t connect EAC by rail?

The expansion of the EAC has introduced new things to fight over; increased both friends and enemies; blurred ancient lines of contradiction; and softened many of the old points of friction that became so intense, that they broke the Community.

If Field Marshal Idi Amin were around today, he wouldn’t be able to fixate on sorting out his differences through a boxing match with Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, as he did. He would have to make time to quarrel with Rwanda, respond to an insult from Mogadishu, threaten the government in Kinshasa, and issue warnings to South Sudan for eating Ugandan maize and refusing to pay for it.

Secondly, the dualisation of East Africa, the hardening of the unofficial EAC, and the alternative lived experiences of the region’s people, are deeper than decades ago. I tried to find data and a map of the number of informal border crossings in the EAC, and I was told to go and eat my shoes. I asked for an educated estimate of the number of people who cross these informal borders in a day, and I was told I was out of my mind. But there is a massive movement of people and goods, which happen to a very different rhythm.

Mid-last year, we were travelling in northern Rwanda and stopped to buy drinks at a roadside café. A party that included a friend also stopped by. He told me, very casually, that they were headed for a funeral in Rwanda near the Kagitumba border, then going on inside Uganda for a wedding, and back to Kigali in the evening. In Sebei, in eastern Uganda, I stopped by to see a friend.

Some fellows had come in from Kitale in Kenya “just to greet” him, and go back. He had been in Kitale the previous day — to see one of his parents who lives there.

Read: OBBO: EA citizens born of war are out there; let’s give them passports

A small hospital in my hometown of Tororo, and another farther on in Mbale, both in eastern Uganda, had a good problem. They were overrun by Kenyan patients, who were initially driven by the strength of the Kenya shilling against the Ugandan unit.

In the Tororo case, the surge of Kenyan patients meant that, in the first year, they were operating at a level they had projected they would have reached in ten years. With the Kenyan currency falling sharply against the Ugandan one in the past year, the trend is reversing.

Some estimates put the number of East Africans who cross through the hundreds of ungazetted border points at ten times the figure at official borders. They carry foods and other goods that have become too critical for the survival of their communities. Add to the numbers who travel through the formal border points, and you have millions of people crisscrossing EAC borders collectively weekly.

There will be border closures and feuds between one or two countries, yes, but the politicians aren’t crazy enough to act in all the member states to bring the bigger house down at the same time and pay the high political price.

Charles Onyango-Obbo s a journalist, writer, and curator of the "Wall of Great Africans". Twitter@cobbo3