The protracted standoff between the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) and the East African Community Secretariat highlights the dissonance in the political bureaucracy in East Africa. The battle of wills reached fever pitch last week, with a section of the legislators in the regional assembly scuttling business. The regional assembly has suspended debate on the 2020/21 annual budget, worsening the cash crunch facing the trading bloc.
The immediate consequence of that is that business has ground to a halt. Suppliers and even Secretariat staff cannot be paid their dues.
At the core of the standoff between the Secretariat and MPs are two largely self-serving issues. Dissenting MPs are resisting pressure to pass the financial year 2020-21 budget, before payment of their allowances.
They also want member states to remit their mandatory contributions to the Secretariat budget. On the other hand, the Secretariat, which enjoys other sources of funding, needs the budget passed so that it can legally spend the resources at its disposal.
Clothed in high sounding ideals initially, the real bone of contention only became apparent when some EALA MPs decided to go plain, explaining that they would not discuss the budget anymore, until outstanding arrears in allowance are paid by the Secretariat. The Secretariat owes the legislators millions in sitting allowances.
The MPs feel that the Secretariat is taking them for granted since their funding can only come from annual contributions by member states, while the Secretariat’s funding can be drawn from donor funds. The reality is a little bit different because in reality, EALA and the Secretariat are caught in an egg and chicken situation.
Until EALA passes the budget, the Secretariat lacks the authority to spend any money. To compound matters, member states can only begin to remit their statutory contributions after the budget is passed. The other reality is that a good number of member countries are years in arrears on their contributions. That means that even if the Secretariat was willing, it lacks the budget lines from which it can legally draw cash to pay the MPs.
What is not in dispute is that the MPs are owed money, an obligation that will be settled one way or another.
It has been suggested that funding for the EAC should be restructured so that all organs are financed from a single pool of funds. Convenient as it would be, such a move may not be practical because the region would be surrendering ownership of the integration project.
A more viable option might be to force member countries to pull their weight. If some member states are not keen on paying their contributions, maybe they have nothing to lose if their membership was suspended or even revoked.
The current standoff portends the loss of reason to emotion. The three arms of the EAC are the ultimate arbiter of regional issues and need a reasonable degree of consonance on key issues. Coming against a backdrop of deepening divisions in the trade bloc, the political heads of the community need to demonstrate their commitment to the EAC project by arresting this gradual, if dangerous drift.