In the immediate post-Independence period, many African governments tended to see the foreign service as a convenient dumping ground for cronies and the undesirables within their political circles. Over time, the character of the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) has progressively drifted towards this school of thought, which sees the regional parliament as an extension of the domestic gravy train.
That is the impression one gets, looking at the ongoing national elections to nominate delegates to EALA. From a merit-focused process two decades ago, this week’s election of delegates to the assembly shows the shifting perceptions of its role and significance to regional integration.
In a string of unholy alliances, Uganda’s ruling party, the National Resistance Movement, succeeded in consigning a pile of political rejects and shady independents of largely unknown quantity to Arusha. Pretty much the same thing happened in Burundi.
The principle that requires delegates to mirror the breadth and shade of political opinion in partner states was easily jettisoned by the tyranny of numbers. The morality of the practice or lack of it, simply demonstrates the lacklustre attitude that partner states have towards the assembly.
Perhaps this should not be surprising. Over time, national politics has degenerated towards totalitarianism, manipulated processes and disenfranchisement of citizens. The risk in this for EALA and the region, is a loss of focus from the bigger goals of integration, to inward-looking petty interests.
Deviations from agreed positions aside, the tell-tale signs of integration in decline abound. Even where they have existed for a while, the ministries responsible for East African affairs are underfunded and struggle for visibility. In a number of instances, they have been entrusted to old men who are too tired or frustrated to drive the regional agenda. Elsewhere, their designation is so amorphous to make sense even to the docket holders.
That can only set the stage for more confusion. For example, just how is a minister for East African Community Affairs, Regional Development and Arid and Semi-Arid Lands, expected to execute his or her role?
Some partner states are joyriders who really don’t care which way the East African Community (EAC) goes and are comfortable staying in serial default of their contributions to the cost of running the Secretariat.
EAC’s geographical expansion and delegates with minimal regional consciousness are simply recipe for disaster. Delegates who see themselves as representing a ruling party rather than broader national and regional interests will turn the assembly into a tower of babel where discord rather than convergence of thought will be the order of the day.
It is not too long ago that such loss of focus saw the Assembly suffer damaging clashes, the unceremonious ouster of the Speaker and partial boycotts of House business.
Against the backdrop of harsh economic times occasioned by global events, EALA could not need a more exposed and focused team. In the face of pressing domestic priorities, many are the times it is going to be tempting for partner states to walk back on regional commitments.
The lofty objectives on which the EAC was founded should not be lost to shallow and narrow domestic interests. If the Community is to achieve its supranational goals, ruling parties need to get serious and give it the respect and attention it deserves.