In a historic move, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) under the leadership of Félix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo has become the 7th member of the East African Community (EAC).
Heads of State of the EAC have approved its admission during the 19th extraordinary summit of heads of state which was held virtually under the leadership of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, the current EAC chairperson.
The admission of DRC follows a recommendation by the EAC Council of Ministers to the Summit of EAC Heads of State after concluding negotiations held between a team of experts from the EAC and the DRC from 15th to 24th January, 2022 in Nairobi, Kenya.
The Council made the recommendation during its 46th Extra-Ordinary meeting that was held virtually on February 8, 2022 under the chairmanship of Hon. Adan Mohamed, Kenya’s then Cabinet Secretary in charge of EAC and Regional Development.
The Council noted that the negotiations with the DRC were concluded and a negotiation framework matrix was jointly adopted. The Ministers recommended to the Summit of the EAC Heads of State to consider admitting DRC into the Community in accordance with Article 3 (3) of the Treaty.
The Council further directed the EAC Secretariat to develop and share with the DRC the proposed Treaty of Accession upon admission of the DRC by the Summit.
The Council also directed the Secretariat to develop a draft roadmap for the integration of the DRC into the Community and submit to the Council for consideration.
The East African Community is one of the most vibrant and best-performing blocs in Africa. This is according to the African Regional Integration Index which ranks blocs on five aspects of integration – trade, productive, macroeconomic, infrastructural and movement of people.
Previously, the bloc comprised of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda.
The DRC’s admission would give the bloc its first port on the Atlantic coast. At the moment, the region relies on Indian Ocean-based seaports of Kenya and Tanzania for trade with the rest of the world. The challenge of intermittent piracy off the Somalia coast has exposed the need for an alternative trade route.
The DRC is also set to significantly expand the regional trading bloc’s size. The DRC’s geographical area is far much larger than all the six East African states put together.
The DRC has a geographical area of 2.4 million sq km while the bloc is about 1.8 million sq km. The additional geographical area – known uniquely for its copper, coltan, cobalt, tin and other minerals – is set to boost East Africa’s profile as an investment destination.
On a world stage, the East African Community gains a bigger clout with the DRC’s huge population (consumer base) of about 90 million people and an economy of nearly US$50 billion . It is estimated that the bloc has a population of 177 million people and an economy of US$193.7 billion.
What’s in it for the DRC?
The DRC is already doing substantial trade with the East African Community bloc which could benefit from lower or eliminated tariffs. Goods produced in the DRC will no longer be subjected to customs taxes at any of the region’s border points.
It already has established trade relations with Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. For imports, parts of the DRC rely on the trade corridor that runs from Mombasa port via Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. These connections are set to firm up as national agencies of the East African governments ease tariffs and administrative barriers on the new bloc member.
Does it matter that this is the third bloc the DRC is joining?
Generally, membership in more than one customs union is technically impossible. Firstly, one country cannot apply different common external tariffs. Secondly, integration agenda differs from one bloc to the next meaning overlapping membership may lead a country to conflicting obligations.
According to the World Trade Organization, the practice hurts global trade liberalization, especially when affected traders have to meet multiple sets of rules.
But analysis of the treaties of the Southern African Development Community, the East African Community and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa shows they do not preclude members from maintaining prior trade arrangements or entering into new ones.
The DRC is already a member of the Southern African Development Community and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa. But it won’t be the only East African Community country with overlapping membership of regional blocs. Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi are members of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa while Tanzania is a member of Southern African Development Community.
The East African Community, for instance, has not been able to establish a full customs union since it had to allow Tanzania to grant preferences to its southern Africa partners.
The three blocs are currently harmonizing their agenda and laws with the aim of integrating their economies and markets. This fits into the broader objective of the African Union, of accelerating economic integration of the continent.