Disputes among EAC nations cast shadow over the bloc's future

What you need to know:

  • A wave of intensifying disagreements amongst important members threatens its aspirational development objectives, which include investments in infrastructure and regional integration.

Dar es Salaam. The East African Community (EAC), boasting a combined population of 301.8 million across eight member states, faces a critical juncture.

Its ambitious development plans, including infrastructure investments and regional integration, stand threatened by a wave of escalating disputes between key members.

The eight-member states include Burundi, the DRC, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Uganda, Somalia and Tanzania.

However, recent tensions between Uganda and Kenya over trade barriers, Burundi and Rwanda over alleged rebel support, and the ongoing DRC-Rwanda tensions cast a dark shadow over the bloc's future.

In the $103.8 million budget for 2024/25, the EAC has prioritised promoting the execution of multi-sectoral infrastructure development, including roads, railways and airports, to enhance regional connectivity and facilitate the smooth movement of people and goods in the region.

Other areas of priorities are: strengthening information and communication technology (ICT) networks; and promoting cross-border investments and intra-regional trade by building an enabling business environment.

The bloc also wants acceleration of harmonisation of fiscal and monetary policies towards attaining the East African Monetary Policy and expansion of regional plans to increase productivity in the productive and social sectors and therefore raise the standards of living for East Africans.

The priorities include mainstreaming gender issues, youth, and persons with disabilities, and embracing a regional approach in developing sectors related to the blue economy and climate change.

However, with these priorities in place, Uganda has recently sued Kenya at the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) for blocking its use of the fuel transportation pipeline.

The move came shortly after Uganda was concerned about the emergence of non-tariff barriers erected by Kenya on bilateral trade.

This week, Burundi closed its border with Rwanda, nearly two weeks after accusing the neighbouring country of supporting rebels who carried out attacks on its soil.

Burundi says the RED-Tabara group staged an attack on December 22, 2023, near its border with the DRC, killing 20 people, including women and children.

President Evariste Ndayishimiye has since accused Rwanda of backing the rebels, claims that have been strongly denied by Kigali.

Yet, there is an unresolved dispute between the DRC and Rwanda as the two nations continue to accuse each other of supporting armed rebels.

While Kinshasa has repeatedly accused Rwanda of supporting the Tutsi-led March 23 Movement (M23) rebels, Kigali alleges the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) of involvement in the 1994 Rwanda Genocide.

The EAC Secretary General, Dr Peter Mathuki, said in a statement that in cases where two or more partner states are involved in any dispute, the existing EAC Dispute Resolution Mechanism that fully respects the integrity and sovereignty of member states should be fully utilised.

“I therefore encourage our esteemed partner states to deploy peaceful settlement of any disputes and restrain, strictly observing the spirit of our treaty and particularly on peaceful co-existence and good neighbourliness,” reads a statement dated January 12, 2024.

“The Secretariat is closely working with the Office of the Chairperson of the Summit of the EAC Heads of State to provide the necessary facilitation towards a peaceful resolution of any arising dispute amongst the partner states,” reads another part.

However, diplomatic, economic and political experts urged for an immediate and amicable resolution of disputes for the bloc to concentrate on the implementation of development issues for the benefit of individual countries and their people.

An expert in economic diplomacy, Prof Kitojo Wetengere, blamed African leaders, saying they were not serious about integration; rather, they were there for personal gains and selfishness.

“These are diplomatic disputes, but why can leaders not convene a meeting for the issues to be deliberated one after another? This is because they are not serious about integration,” he said.

Secondly, he said EAC leaders have been prioritising individual interests, cautioning that since being in the community was like a marriage, they should be ready to surrender some individual interests for the bloc's benefits.

“Our leaders don’t look at the bloc against others; instead, they are looking at individual countries. They are also the ones alleged to be affected by what is happening in the region, which reduces their trust in the region,” he said.

He cited the EAC-EU relations on the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) as an example, noting that bloc member states have divided themselves, with some countries having signed the document, and observing that other blocs celebrate over the EAC division.

“EAC member states need to come to our senses and go to the dialogue table with a clean heart,” he said.

A renowned economic academic, Prof Haji Semboja, expressed his disappointment with EAC member states, noting that closing borders meant locking the regions’ economies.

“It shows that we have huge problems in the areas of policy, legal and institutional frameworks. We are lacking specific policies, laws and institutions for the development of our people,” he said.

“I hope that the EAC Head of State has taken the matter aboard for resolution purposes. Individual countries should have policies, laws and institutions that comply with those of the EAC,” he added.

Prof Delphin Rwegasira of the UDSM School of Economics said wrangles are inevitable; however, the most important question was whether the bloc had effective and efficient dispute resolution mechanisms.

He said economic disputes could be resolved easily as compared to political wrangles, emphasising that the bloc should strengthen existing dispute resolution bodies or put them in place if they are not there.

“EAC needs a political dimension by accelerating the formation of the East African Federation to provide the bloc with a political language that provides connections beyond economic issues,” he said.

A political science and public administration lecturer from the University of Dodoma (Udom), Dr Paul Loisulie, said economic disputes could be easily resolved as compared to political ones.

“We need a very high level of political will for effective and efficient dispute resolution. Political will should come first, followed by resource mobilisation and finally the formation of the EAC army, which will be completely funded by the region's member contributions,” he said.

A political science lecturer at the State University of Zanzibar (Suza), Prof Ali Makame Usi, said that despite joining the EAC, each member country has the right to defend its sovereignty against external aggression.

“Leaders from member states have the opportunity to deliberate and resolve emerging political and economic issues. Whenever there are many united countries, emerging disputes could be a strengthening factor,” he said.