The recent decision of Kenya to ban maize imports from Tanzania and Uganda is the latest episode in the never ending headaches and heartaches endured by those whose activities require them to cross political borders in the region and the general health of the EAC integration project. Kenya’s decision was based on what its authorities say are “high levels of mycotoxins which are consistently beyond safety limits”. This is just one of the many episodes of strained cross-border relations between the two countries which have continuously exposed the limits and powerlessness of the EAC in intervening between disputes among partner states.
The mounting losses for traders and the agriculture sector is particularly severe in Uganda where there has been another long running issue of its milk being banned to access Kenya’s market for some time now in what some regional analysts have said is a reversal of fortunes between the two countries because at the beginning of the common market project, partner states agreed to impose tariffs on some of Kenya’s products for five years to give time for the rest of the partner states to “catch up”.
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic exposed the many tensions within partner states of the regional bloc and many of the disagreements were resolved on a bilateral basis or case to case basis. Partner states do not have a common approach to dealing with the pandemic.
They rarely see eye to eye regarding trading issues with other powers like the European Union or the United States. Each partner state makes decisions based on their own realities.
During a bitter row between Tanzania and Kenya over flying rights, the two countries imposed restrictions on each other before the matter was settled. All was settled between the two countries and the two countries.
Covid-19 pandemic put strains even to some of the quietest borders like the one which Tanzania shares with Zambia.
And in all these episodes the first people to be caught in the cross fire and the politics of every row are truck drivers. In this era of the pandemic, they were subjected to some of the most frustrating and at times humiliating measures imposed by partner states. As the pandemic raged, the language changed from some forms of a united front to the point where even some leaders who claim to deeply pan-Africanists at heart, went to great lengths to point out Covid-19 cases by the nationalities of the patients.
The pandemic relegated the regional bloc to an almost afterthought.
In 2017 livestock from Kenya, which Tanzania said were in the country illegally, were auctioned off and in 2018 chicks from Kenya, were burnt as Tanzania argued that it was acting to prevent affecting the entire poultry sector from being affected.
Statements from that time show that the two governments though in contact held fundamentally different positions on the issues.
The EAC has struggled with other border issues in the region like the circuitous Uganda and Rwanda border issues which the regional bloc has never been able to resolve.
There are issues between Rwanda and Burundi, which at times come close to war declarations. Uganda and Kenya with their long running border dispute. There is the issue of fishermen being caught on the wrong side of the Lake Victoria every so often.
In part, the limits of the EAC in dealing with various cross border crises of its partner states are caused by the partner states themselves and their unwillingness to cede more authority to the regional bloc.
It is one of those oddities in the state-centric system where states need to pull together for common causes but cannot let go of most of their authority to regional bodies they do not fully trust and politicians in each country are wary about losing much of their control to a body they do not have within their grasp.
There is also the general suspicions of the people in some of the countries especially Tanzania with regard to a federated regional project.
No amount of diplomatic talks have ever resolved these issues once and for all. Every now and then, they pop up because the regional system is not fully trusted or given the authority to deal with them.
The EAC will continue to be with us regardless of how effective or ineffective it is in dealing with regional issues and with it the never ending cross border headaches, because the last time the region did not have even an ineffective regional bloc things went really south.