Next month will see a change of guard at the East African Community Secretariat, when Ambassador Liberat Mfumukeko’s tenure as Secretary General comes to end. Kenya will pick the baton, inheriting empty coffers at the secretariat and a region fractured by political and economic tensions.
It would be easy to say good riddance if the challenges facing East African integration could be attributed to him as an individual. Mfumukeko ascended to the helm in March 2016, wading right into the middle of mounting tensions between his own sponsor Burundi and Rwanda on one hand and Rwanda and Uganda on the other.
Alongside Tanzania, Burundi had long fallen of the grid of regional integration when they turned lukewarm to transformational initiatives such as the One Network Area, accepting national ID’s as travel documents between member states and the Standard Gauge Railway project.
With that configuration, it could probably be argued that Mfumukeko was the wrong man for the job. It would have taken an extremely gifted person to reconcile the conflicting interests. He was already a lame duck because his own country, Burundi, had adopted a hostile posture to the rest of the region and especially to Rwanda, her immediate neighbour to the north. At some point, Burundi even applied to be admitted to the Southern Africa Development Community, a clear signal that it did not have much affinity to East Africa.
Ideally, if Bujumbura was really interested in diffusing the tensions, it should have passed over its turn to nominate a secretary general. The rest of the region probably could have made the correct choice.
Mfumukeko’s reign has at best been tumultuous.
Rwanda and Uganda’s fallout spilled into the public domain, when the former imposed a one-way trade blockade. At different times, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania had their own trade spats.
The trickle-down effect saw these tensions feed into the operations of the secretariat. At some point, passing the budget became a tall order, donor taps were reduced to a trickle and arrears from contributions by member states mounted.
Were East African integration a Shakespearean drama, Mfumukeko would come across as the tragic figure who had the best intentions but was doomed by the circumstances of his appointment. On the upside, it is to his credit that worse did not happen under his watch.
For lessons, his tenure reminds us of the centrality of the choice of the Secretary General to the workings of the EAC Secretariat and the need for regional leaders not to lose sight of the grand objectives of East African integration.
Mfumukeko’s major failure has been a deficit of leadership, and he will probably be condemned as the least impactful, in positive terms, amongst his predecessors. Somehow that sets the agenda for his successor.
Whoever Kenya nominates will also face the dilemma of Nairobi’s intermittent quirks with Dar.
However, given Kenya’s largely neutral political stance and business sense, he or she will probably be in a better position to build the bridges that bring East African integration back on course.