President Paul Kagame was unanimously elected to the chairpersonship of the East African Community (EAC) at the 20th Heads of State Summit in Arusha last week despite earlier media reports that Rwanda had asked Kenya to take its place to avoid unnecessary hurly-burly with Burundi.
Kagame takes over the chairpersonship of the EAC at a time when the Community is faced with multiple challenges─ranging from how the Secretariat in Arusha is managed to economic wrangles between Kenya and Tanzania, to animosity between some member states, as well as reports of rebel groups forming in the region or being “revived”.
Due to this, there has been debate on social and traditional media relating to how Kagame will navigate these challenges and whether, as he has done at the African Union, he will be able to help the community overcome these trials and regain its focus.
So, what are the main challenges facing the community and what might Kagame need to do to help mitigate or resolve them?
Listening and reading what has been coming from government since Kagame’s election, there is evidence to suggest that priority might be given to the usual “integration process” issues like solidifying the customs union, common market and working on the monetary union, the political federation and removing non-tariff barriers, as the State Minister for Foreign Affairs in charge of EAC Olivier Nduhungirehe has been telling the media.
Nduhungirehe has been advancing this approach on different radio talk-shows besides advocating helping the business community to have a voice in the integration process.
Refreshingly, the Minister, on the same talk-shows, hasn’t been shy to point out other challenges facing the Community like the internal Burundi political crisis; the Uganda-Rwanda relations and Burundi’s claims that Rwanda habours individuals accused of instigating the 2015 attempted coup.
However, Nduhingirehe is also quick to distinguish problems caused by “integration” and those emanating from relations between individual member states─like the poor relations between Uganda and Rwanda, where the latter’s citizens are regularly arrested, held incommunicado and sometimes deported.
What the Minister hasn’t been able to clarify however is what happens when a member state takes actions that undermine the spirit and letter of integration and signed protocols─like Burundi’s closure of the border or the plight of Rwandans in Uganda.
He nonetheless acknowledges that there are no sanctions and penalties for a state that acts contrary to the signed protocols; a factor that perhaps encourages belligerent behavior or individual states to use the EAC only where it is convenient.
That said, while traditionally the chairperson of the EAC deals with integration pillars and other projects like joint infrastructure development as Nduhungirehe avers, today, there are far more urgent challenges that need more attention with failure to resolve them likely to undermine integration.
In general, there are five main challenges the community faces today that Kagame will have to contend with and if they aren’t resolved, it is difficult to see how issues of free movement of people, services, goods and capital can be accelerated.
The first problem is how do deal with alleged corruption at the Secretariat in Arusha, claims of incompetence and limited financial means with media reporting this January that the Community’s budget has a deficit of $1.4bn.
While Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli had promised to deal with waste and corruption at the Secretariat when he took over chairpersonship in 2016, the vices persist.
On the other hand, financial constraints is caused by member states that don’t pay their share to the Community and donors who have withheld funding due to EAC’s failure to solve the Burundi political crisis.
EAC states are Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Burundi and South Sudan.
An audit report presented to the East African Legislative Parliament (EALA) – the Community’s parliament on May 31, 2018 revealed that 57% of the audit recommendations made in 2014/2015 were not implemented due to financial constraints and incompetence.
The regional legislators, in their November 2, 2018 sitting blamed the Secretary General Libérat Mfumukeko, from Burundi, as the accounting officer of the community for the incompetence and corruption reported at the Secretariat.
The question here is, how will the chairperson help clean up that mess at the Secretariat when its Secretary-General is an ally of President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi? How can any action taken against the Secretary-General not be seen and perhaps be used to claim it is a witch-hunt due to differences between Rwanda and Burundi?
The second challenge is insecurity especially related to reported rebel groups either forming, recruiting and arming like “P5” and FDLR that is reportedly being revived. The “P5” is allegedly headed by former Chief of Staff of the Rwanda Defence Forces and envoy to India Kayumba Nyamwasa.
As a UN Group of Experts Report released last December claimed, there is an international network with bases in South Africa, Tanzania, Burundi and other countries recruiting young men and women to join rebels groups based in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The recruitment is for “P5” and FDLR.
You can trust that these rebels groups aren’t recruiting to solidify the EAC integration process, but to attack and fight Rwanda.
And these rebels groups are said to enjoy the support of some regional leaders, with President Kagame saying, in his new year message that there are “two countries” that don’t wish Rwanda well. Though he didn’t name the countries, it has been well reported that the neighbor to the north Uganda and that to the south Burundi aren’t on brotherly terms.
A related and third challenge is the unresolved Burundi internal political crisis that, as media reports indicated, the Heads of State decided to “shelve” by agreeing to “continue consultations on the matter” without offering a timeline or framework or acting on the recommendations of former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa, who resigned after handing over the report.
A forth and directly related challenge are claims by Burundi that Rwanda supports the former’s dissidents, a factor that affected relations and led Burundi to close its border.
Although Rwanda has denied either harboring or supporting any rebels, it remains a challenge since Burundi perceives it otherwise.
Finally, the relations between Uganda and Rwanda aren’t good as the latter’s citizens are regularly arrested and held incommunicado, tortured and at times deported.
So, if EAC leaders genuinely support integration, what explains the prevalence of these security threats, including rebel groups and hostile actions between some countries?
Of course, there are multiple explanations to the persistence of these threats, including the enduring culture of armed violence and egos of some leaders who still perceive themselves as the uncontested king-makers in this region; limited culture of democracy that leads to violent conflicts that spillover─like in the Burundi case, limited belief in the EAC by some leaders despite their rhetoric, and enduring belief in the nation-state rather than the supra-entity, and a host of many others.
These are the challenges President Kagame will have to navigate and, admittedly, these aren’t problem he alone can solve by his sheer power of will and charisma, but with the willingness and support of all the other leaders.
As he takes on his tenure, Kagame has two approaches to choose from. He can either choose to focus on the “softer” integration issues like dealing with tariff-barriers and rundown the clock on his mandate without touching the “bigger” threats, or he could take a pro-active approach and “wake-up” the other leaders to directly confront and resolve these existential threats.
The path he will take, we await!
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