It’s now time to make EAC stronger


A truck driver at the Malaba border. FILE PHOTO | NMG

For a moment, it looked like we were headed for a major diplomatic spat with Tanzania over movement of trucks across our borders.

Tanzanian authorities had announced a ban on Kenyan trucks entering its territory, accusing Nairobi of sabotaging its battle against the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Dar es Salaam was responding to a statement by President Uhuru Kenyatta who announced mandatory coronavirus screening for all truck drivers at border points. As it turned out, a phone call discussion and consultations between Mr Kenyatta and his Tanzanian counterpart, Mr John Magufuli, averted a diplomatic conflagration between these two founding members of the East African Community.

Under an economic integration arrangement, any unilateral decision is deemed to be hostile action. Clearly, Kenya has learnt its lesson. For me, the bigger lesson here is that the diplomatic spat speaks to the growing feebleness of the Arusha-based East African Community bureaucracy.

Whether that bureaucracy is the mediating institution it was supposed to be, serving as a bridge between member states.

Whether it stands above members states and has the capacity to issue orders to member states that breach the spirit of agreed trade protocols and has the wherewithal to manage and control disloyalty among member states. It seems to me that partner states of the community need to go back to the drawing board to look at the structure of the Arusha-based bureaucracy with a view to making stronger and less dependent on the personalities and whims of presidents and heads of state of partner states.

How many times and how often are scheduled meetings of the Summit postponed? When was the last summit convened?

Even the latest summit meeting where heads of states were supposed to discuss a common approach in battling the coronavirus was posptponed. Igad, a much younger economic grouping holds more regular summits than the EAC.

And, the idea of appointing a chair of the summit or secretary general of a regional grouping just because the turn of the country to take the seat has come needs a rethink. Today, the Chairman of the EAC is Rwanda President Paul Kagame. The Secretary-General and CEO of the bureaucracy, Mr Mfumukeku Libert, is a Burundi national. Don’t we all know the state of diplomatic relations of those two neighbours? The Speaker of the East African Legistlative Assembly, Mr Martin Ngoga, is also from Burundi.

Despite the fact that the Sudanese government is still work in progress, the Prime Minister of Sudan, Dr Abdalla Hamdok Abadalla, was elected as chair of Igad. Clearly, there is a strong case for looking afresh at the corporate governance of the bureaucracies running economic integration schemes in Africa.

In East Africa, we put emphasis on trade liberalisation. We focused on achieving a customs union, and a common external tariff and a common market protocol. We have even signed a protocol for a monetary union, including a single currency by 2033.

This whole process is being steered by the supranational bureaucracy based in Arusha, which is run by highly-paid bureaucrats with very big titles.

I keep wondering whether the bureaucracy in Arusha as currently established has the capacity to lead the process of integrating the economies of the region beyond just trade liberalisation.

The trend we are seeing in Africa is that regional groups that focus on developing their supply chains and putting investment in the infrastructure connecting trade and transport between them will progress faster in integrating the economies of member states. More and more, we are going to see willing neighbours signing memoranda of understanding committing them to come together to build oil pipelines, railway lines, and power transmission lines to connect their economies. In future, economic integration will achieved through developing supply chains. Instead of formal EU-style integration, what will bring East Africa together or to separate them will be large infrastructure projects.

I see bilateral negotiations conducted within intergovernmental levels playing a bigger role at integrating the economies of the region than that supra national bureaucracy sitting at Arusha.

This not to say that Arusha will not play a big role in the future.

It must take trade liberalization to the next level. More than fifteen years since we signed and operationalized a customs union, we still don’t have a common customs administration. Non-tariff barriers-especially road blocks, police checks, bureaucratic process and the Mombasa Port remain a big issue.