President Kagame’s Scorecard As Chair Of The East African Community.
The current East African Community (EAC) is the continuation of a long-held dream of a united East Africa that stretches back to colonial times, twice this dream fell flat on the ground; twice it came back stronger. The most recent resurrection happened in 1999 when the presidents of Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, original members of the East African Community appended their signatures on 30th November of that year to the Treaty for the Establishment of the East African Community. As agreed then, the treaty came into force on August 7th, 2000 hence re-establishing the dream of a united East Africa.
Since then, several strides have been made towards the ultimate goal of an East African Federation: Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan, three nations with close historical and economic ties have since joined the community with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia in the waiting lounge. Save for squabbles that happen between two member countries now and then, the volume of trade between the six-member States has increased and continues to flow smoothly by and large thanks to the Community’s adoption of friendly tariffs for member countries.[i] Since it is still in existence and not at great risk of closing shop soon, the re-established community has also lived much longer than its 1967 predecessor that collapsed after a paltry ten years. Looking only at these factors, a stranger who has not lived in the region can be excused for thinking the region is closer to integration now than at any previous point in its history. Is this the case though?
Under Article 10 of the Treaty for the Establishment of the East African community, the Summit of Heads of State in the region is established. The main function of the Summit is to “give general directions and impetus as to the development and achievement of the general objectives of the community.”[ii] To help the Summit achieve its objectives smoothly, the Treaty created the position of the Chairperson, picked by consensus rotationally from the member heads-of-State to chair the Summit. It was in this regard that Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame was picked as the Summit’s chairperson on February 1st, 2019 and took over from his Ugandan counterpart Museveni. President Kagame went on to serve his two-year term and was replaced by Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta in February 2021 at a virtually held summit.
At the time of Kagame's take over, Burundi and Rwanda were embroiled in a dispute with Rwanda accusing the former of supporting groups trying to destabilize her and former counter accusing Rwanda of interfering with her sovereignty. A few weeks before he took over the chairmanship, President Kagame did not hold back in his New Year’s message where he accused some neighbors – allegedly members of the E.A.C – of supporting rebellion against his Kigali administration.[iii] Hence Kagame’s ascendancy to chairperson was viewed with some shade of skepticism. So, has the reign of President Kagame as chairperson brought the Community any closer to integration?
Far from it! The Community remains as divided as ever – if not worse. President Kagame became chairman on February 1st, 2019, and only 27 days later, on the 28th of the same month, Rwanda closed its main border with Uganda at Gatuna. The closure sent shockwaves throughout the community and heavily impacted the businesses that played along and through that route.[iv] Matters were complicated further when Rwandan authorities killed some Ugandans and accused them of being smugglers who illegally crossed the border to her side.[v]
Finally, the two countries opted to resolve their impasse amicably, but that too came with some rotten eggs thrown at the community as the two countries bypassed all structures of the community such as the East African Court of Justice established under Article 23 of the Treaty “as a judicial body which shall ensure the adherence to law in the interpretation and application of an compliance with the treaty.” The Summit opting instead to involve President Joao Lourenco of Angola of a non-member of the community, to help resolve their bilateral differences is very telling of their attitude towards the community. Unfortunately, the border remains closed two years later after President Kagame served the full length of his two years term.
While Uganda and Rwanda went about trying to resolve their differences unsuccessfully, another bilateral dispute arose between Uganda and Kenya when the latter announced a ban of Uganda’s milk products to protect local farmers arguing that the influx of Ugandan milk into their market had had a huge negative impact as it drove prices at an all-time low to the disadvantage of local production.[vi] Fortunately, the concerned parties in both countries acted fast and the ban was lifted, but the Ping-Pong between Uganda and Kenya continued with bans on poultry products and most recently maize products which again was lifted only days later.[vii]
The second term of President Kagame’s leadership - like everything in 2020 - was defined more by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) than anything else. When Kenya confirmed the community’s first case of COVID-19 on March 12, 2020, the region was put on high alert with scared citizens looking up to their leaders for answers. Each nation chose a different approach to the virus; Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda settled for national lockdowns that greatly restricted movements, Burundi and South Sudan opted for less restrictive lockdowns while Tanzania chose to keep the country open. In several speeches made by the Tanzania president thereafter, he questioned the rationality of lockdowns and downplayed the effect of COVID-19 on several occasions.[viii]
For a region so connected with back and forth movements, the threat of a virus spread by interactions became a serious challenge, the different approaches taken by member states stalled trade as trucks queued at border points. The call for a united approach in combating the virus grew louder and on March 25, 2020 health officials from Community member states met to forge a way forward.[ix] Not much materialized from the meeting, each nation maintained its approach towards the pandemic in the end. Finally, the heads of state opted for a meeting to discuss the covid-19 strategy and the way forward, the meeting happened on May 12, 2020,[x] and was followed by several meetings of the officials from the different countries. In the end, it became evident that not much came from these meetings; each nation maintained its position in the end and decided to pursue national interventions. In the end, another opportunity to unite against a common enemy was lost.
As such, not much can be written of President Kagame’s tenure as the chairperson of the Summit as far as efforts to bring the community closer are concerned. He left the region almost the same way he found it; divided and in dire need of pragmatic and clearheaded leadership that deliberately pushes for integration. As President Uhuru Kenyatta commences his term at the helm of the Summit, one can only hope that he observed these issues and will rise to the occasion; provide the much-needed leadership, to heal and unite the community and bring it closer to federating.
[i] See; East African countries turn to neighbors for more trade. Accessible on https://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/tea/business/east-african-countries-turn-to-neighbours-for-more-trade-1431010 (Visited on March 19th, 2021.)
[ii] See Article 11 paragraph 1 of the Treaty for the Establishment of the East Africa Community.
[iii] See: Rwanda’s President Kagame stokes tension with neighbors. Accessible on https://www.dw.com/en/rwandas-president-kagame-stokes-tension-with-neighbors/a-46951302 (Visited on March 19, 2021)
[iv] See: Uganda’s export earnings from Rwanda fall to an all time low. Accessible on https://www.monitor.co.ug/uganda/business/commodities/uganda-s-export-earnings-from-rwanda-fall-to-an-all-time-low--2731340 (Visited on March 19, 2021)
[v] See: Uganda businessman killed in Rwanda as talks resume. Accessible on https://www.monitor.co.ug/uganda/news/national/ugandan-businessman-killed-in-rwanda-as-talks-resume-1893074 (Visited on March 17, 2021)
[vi] See: Uganda’s diary industry suffers from Kenya ban. Accessible on https://www.monitor.co.ug/uganda/business/prosper/uganda-s-dairy-industry-suffers-from-kenyan-ban-3236348 (Visited on March 17, 2021)
[vii] See: Kenya lifts ban maize, govt awaits formal communication. Accessible on https://www.monitor.co.ug/uganda/business/finance/kenya-lifts-ban-on-maize-govt-awaits-formal-communication--3320320 (Visited on March 17, 2021)
[viii] See: I will not put Dar es Salaam on lockdown – Magufuli. Accessible on https://knowafrika.com/i-will-not-put-dar-es-salaam-on-lockdown-magufuli/ (Visited on March 22, 2021)
[ix] https://www.eac.int/statements/1705-joint-statement-by-the-ministers-responsible-for-health-and-east-african-community-affairs-issued-on-25th-march-2020-on-covid-19-preparedness-and-response-in-east-african-community-region (Visited on March 22, 2021)