The past few months have left the East African Community (EAC) in a state of flux following the emergence of the Coalition of the Willing (CoW) that includes Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda at the exclusion of Tanzania– the founding member and the country where also the EAC’s headquarter is located. As a counter measure, Tanzania announced it would form a mini- community that constitutes Tanzania, Burundi, and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This move and counter-move brings back a distinct feeling of dejavu – reminding us of when the East African Community collapsed in 1977 a decade after its formation.
The first EAC collapsed in the heat of the raging Cold War. Kenya was seen as a spoiler for its strong pro- capitalist Western bloc posture while Tanzania was firmly in the Eastern block. The East- West boiled over when Tanzania’s president Julius Nyerere remarked, “Kenya is a man eats man society”, to which the then Kenyan Attorney General Charles Njonjo replied, “Tanzania is a man eat nothing society”.
Eventually, relations between Kenya and Tanzania were so frayed, the union collapsed. Because most of the union’s headquarters and assets were in Nairobi, Kenya took them over, something that up to the current date animates other EAC members especially Tanzania who feels Kenya benefitted from the collapse of the EAC.
Additionally, Tanzanians and Ugandans believe a full fledged EAC will eventually help Kenya, at their expense, because, as they argue Kenyans are “aggressive”. They reckon Kenyans will take over their jobs, businesses and land once the full union is consummated.
The Trigger: Rwanda, too sensitive to be criticized?
Democratic Republic of Congo is Rwanda and Uganda’s playing field- they have either invaded it multiple times or supported various proxies to advance their agenda. Therefore, Tanzania’s suggestion that Kigali should negotiate with the FDLR genocidaire militia who went into DRC after their overthrow in Rwanda in 1994 was not seen favorably. For a start, it appears Tanzania is interfering in Uganda and Rwanda’s “sphere of influence”. Tanzania’s comment brought a spotlight to the DRC, something Kampala and Kigali would rather ignore because such a spotlight will unwittingly bring Uganda and Rwanda’s role in DRC under the regional and the international radar.
More particularly, Rwanda feels Tanzania doesn’t appreciate Kigali’s firm position- they will never negotiate with the genocaidaires. But Tanzania went beyond just suggesting negotiation, under the new United Nation’s the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), Tanzania moved a step further in addressing the DRC’S conflict by supplying troops to disarm the recent reincarnation of the ever mutating rebel movement landscape, the M23. Since the Tanzania-led intervention, the M23, which until recently with the support of Rwanda has been overrunning government forces, has been brought to the negotiating table. The group recently signed an agreement with the DRC government during Kenya’s 50 years of independence celebration.
Museveni’s grand political agenda as East Africa’s elder statesman
Uhuru Kenyatta has more similarities with Jakaya Kikwete than Paul Kagame and Yoweri Museveni; President Kagame and Museveni both initially came to power through a rebel movement as opposed to Kenyatta and Jakaya Kikwete who came to power through elections. Additionally, both Rwanda and Uganda are landlocked compared to Kenya and Tanzania who both have ports. In terms of age also, Kenyatta is closer to Kikwete than the other two. In the region, however, Museveni is the longest serving president beating the previous record holder Kenya’s Daniel Moi. Therefore, he subconsciously reckons to be seen as such, and by extension harbors the ambition of being the statesman.
The East African charter envisions ultimately the creation of a political federation, and Museveni sees himself as the person to be the president of East Africa. But that is a long shot because even domestically, Museveni’s legitimacy is slowly eroding.
Dar-es Salam’s ambition to upstage Mombasa port?
Of the EAC countries, only Kenya and Tanzania have seaports.
The port of Mombasa is one of the factors that have made the country a regional economic powerhouse. That could change with Tanzania building a mega port in Bagamoyo, north of Dar Es Salaam through a Chinese financed $10 Billion project. As part of the new port, new roads and railroads that connect to existing road and railroad networks will undergo upgrades.
When finalized, the new port will handle 20 million cargo containers a year compared to the present capacity of Dar es Salaam’ s of 800,000 containers a year. This new project will be a game changer in the regional economic dynamics and will significantly alter Dar leverage. But Kenya should also use this as an opportunity to increase efficiency, reduce corruption and cargo clearing time at the port of Mombasa that is increasing the cost of doing business in Kenya.
New efforts at upgrading the Mombasa port while welcomed, have been long over due, and if Kenya wants to retain its competitive edge, the Bagamoyo port is a real wake up call. But in the broader sense such competition and the slew of massive Chinese funded infrastructure projects in the region is welcomed, if well procured and implemented. In the grand scheme of things, the core of EAC is all about expanding economic opportunities rather than gratuitous quarrels.
Challenges and opportunities
The latest tensions in the EAC, while challenging, could also be an opportunity for the community to thrash out significant divergent points of view. But more remarkable is that the latest disagreements have nothing to do with the EAC per se, but the intractable conflict in the DRC. However, in the long term, EAC leaders will be well served not to throw the baby out with the bath water, because the EAC has tremendous opportunity and potential to transform the region and beyond. With the possible addition of Ethiopia, and maybe Somalia the EAC could prove to be a massive economic driver, and establish itself as the premier economic bloc in Africa.
However, the latest European Union meltdown provides a cautionary tale regarding rushed monetary and political unions. Therefore, the leaders should guard against a rushed monetary union and political federation. Further, the leaders will be well served to solve any emerging disagreement through the community’s existing mechanism rather than through the press, because that would only exacerbate the situation. Further, part of that solution should include Tanzania in the East African Commission.