President Yoweri Museveni wants citizens from Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan to keep away from land ownership in Uganda.
This is the first time President Museveni, who is known for being generous to foreigners, is expressing fear that Ugandans could lose their land to other East Africans unless restrictions are plugged into law.
Mr Museveni says land ownership has strong “cultural attachment” and therefore its management should be left to governments in partner states.
In Uganda, land has become the most valuable commodity that has caused heightened tension between tenants and landlords on one hand and the government and citizens on the other.
So many people have been displaced by “powerful people” who are either government officials or are friends of government and as a consequence the ruling National Resistance Movement government lost miserably to the Opposition in central Uganda in the just concluded 2021 general elections. Central Uganda is hot spot of thousands of land disputes.
Consequently, Mr Museveni has proposed his country’s land law be amended to pave away for compulsory acquisition of land by his government before approval of compensation to land owners to stop delays of infrastructure projects.
Mr Museveni has also expressed reservations on mailo land ownership in Buganda, under which system land belongs to Buganda Kingdom and only leased out to occupants.
He says land owners should be entitled to full ownership of their land like elsewhere in Uganda.
Not to further antagonize the prevailing situation in Uganda, Museveni wants East Africans looking for jobs and other economic opportunities in his country to be restricted to urban areas and not rural areas where they will be tempted to procure land belonging to the indigenous people.
In a study on fast-tracking political federation conducted a few years ago, Tanzanians also expressed fears that in a political union other East Africans would “invade” their land.
Mr Museveni’s suggestion to restrict ‘foreign” East Africans to urban areas, however, contradicts the spirit of regional integration that provides for free movement of people and right of establishment under the Common Market protocol, which has been ratified by all member states.
“On the issues of natural resources the president was of the view that issues of land management specifically should be left to partner states because of cultural consideration. Yes, we should allow free movement of people. We should also allow the right of establishment but when they (other East Africans) come we should restrict them to urban areas. They only come for employment and not to come and take land of wanaichi,” one of the members of the panel of experts consulting on East African Political Confederation that preferred to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the president’s views, told this publication in an exclusive interview.
The Ugandan leader was one of those consulted on how the East African confederal authority should work.
About 1,000 Ugandans including political leaders, local authorities, civil society, private sector, academia and opinion leaders were consulted by the team of experts that was appointed by the EAC Heads of State in 2018 to consult and propose a model constitution for the EAC Confederation.
The 14-day national consultations for the drafting of the EAC Political Confederation Constitution in Uganda were held in Kampala Entebbe, Kabale, Mbarara, Mbale, Gulu and Arua between late May and early June this year.
On February 1, 2019, the East African Community heads of state determined that political confederation is a top priority and nominated Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni to provide guidance towards reaching that goal.
Mr Museveni also wants funding of the Confederation by partner states calculated on the basis of the gross domestic product (GDP) and not equal contributions as is the current situation.
Equal funding of the East African integration has been a controversial matter with some partner states defaulting on payments and others choking in arrears.
In 2016, the East African Community almost imposed sanctions on member states that failed to meet funding obligations resulting into budgetary crisis.
Under the EAC’s rules, each member state is required to contribute $8.4m every year towards the bloc’s operating budget.
Museveni’s proposed formula if accepted by other partner states will see some economic heavy weights like Kenya and Tanzania pay more compared to economies like Rwanda and Burundi.
What may also be contested under this formula is whether those that pay more will have a bigger say in decision making under the Confederation government.
Mr Museveni has also proposed tariff increment on commodities purely manufactured from within East Africa using local materials although the economic bloc agreed to have a common tariff regime.
For instance, a shirt manufactured by NYTIL in Uganda and sold in Rwanda or Burundi should be taxed more with a view of raising revenue to fund the confederal authority.
This is also likely going to spark intense debate since it gives economic power houses in the region an edge over others.
Justice Benjamin Odoki, the chairperson of a committee of experts says though that national sovereignty would be largely retained under the envisaged East African political confederation.
Odoki says the political confederation would ideally be vertical in that it would deal directly with the partner states rather than the East African citizens.
Mr Museveni argues that the confederal authority is purposely being created to focus on strategic security and economic prosperity (markets).
Constituent states of the confederation will have the freedom to join and/or withdraw from the arrangement as they so wished, being sovereign states.
The confederal authority will, however, have the right to suspend or expel a member state that violates the confederal constitution.
The political confederation, which is a transitional model to the political federation, would be highly dependent on the goodwill of the constituent states.
“Under the confederal system, the decision-making process is based on consensus or unanimity. The member states do not lose their sovereignty. The supreme power of states to manage their affairs would remain. There would be no creation of a new state or some centralized authority,” says Justice Odoki.
The confederation is a major milestone in the organization’s long push for regional integration. The process looks to answer questions such as what form the new government will take as well as how much sovereignty member nations are expected to relinquish, which has been a major source of tension in recent years.
Although the consultations have been considered a success in Uganda there were setbacks to the process in the initial stages.
The most recent consultation meeting held in Ngozi province in Burundi, was boycotted by Rwandan representatives. This is illustrative of the sour relations between the two countries, with talks in Rwanda having previously been conspicuously avoided by Burundian representatives.
Additionally, there remains no monetary union in place amongst the partner nations. The latest plans for a 2024 introduction recently collapsed, and there remains a lack of policy alignment in key areas such as fiscal policy and the establishment of a central bank.
The 2023 deadline for confederation will almost certainly be missed as a result of these issues.
It is difficult to see how confederation and then federation can occur in the current climate. With the global pandemic exerting economic and political pressure, national leaders are prioritising the immediate needs of their respective countries rather than expending any serious effort on forming this hypothetical superstate.
The main obstacles to further progress revolve around mutual distrust and economic policy divergence. The region is still beset by inter-state distrust taking the form of trade disputes.
The border between Rwanda and Uganda has been shut since February 2019, as has the border between Rwanda and Burundi. All three nations suspect the others of sponsoring opposition to their respective regimes.
While the EAC is already a customs union and a common market – supposedly in the process of forming a monetary union, and even a future political federation – the region is beset by all manner of trade wars. Trade conflicts in the region include border closures and denial of national airspace to commercial flights from partner states.
Tanzania has locked out Ugandan timber, sugar and maize. Meanwhile, Kenya is reluctant to open its market to manufactured products from Uganda and more recently, milk.
Perhaps, the EAC’s handling of the coronavirus crisis is most indicative of the dysfunction in the region’s integration process.
The leaders of the East African Community have been reluctant to forge a coordinated regional response to the pandemic.
But integration has led to tangible benefits for the East African Community’s population of 177 million as well as a sharply growing economy. Recent reports show that the region’s economy grew by an average of 5 percent in 2019. This allowed East Africa to maintain its lead as the continent’s fastest-growing region.
Experts argue that much of this success lies in the East African Community’s lowering of trade barriers for regional businesses, which has encouraged investment and promoted stability in a region once convulsing with war. This has had the effect of lowering both production costs and consumer prices, which then contributes to rising demand and an increase in employment as a consequence.
The idea of creating an East African ‘superstate’ has been around since the immediate post-colonial era. The essential concept is a political union of six East African nations – Burundi, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and South Sudan – as a federated sovereign state united under a single president. It has proved difficult to implement, with movement towards federation collapsing in the 1960s and the original East African Community (EAC) falling victim to internal disputes in 1977.
The benefits of forming such a state would be numerous. Firstly, and most clearly it would give landlocked nations like Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan access to the sea. With the Somalian coast to the north and Mozambican coast to the south, the East African Federation would offer the most politically stable access to key maritime trade routes on Africa’s east coast.
The East African Federation would be one of the largest states in Africa (both in terms of population and land mass), would be distanced from political strife in the west and would be surrounded largely by relatively weak neighbours. It would theoretically be in pole position to become a regional great power.