Statements by African leaders calling for economic and political integration appear to be mere lamentations as they largely remain on paper at least that is the situation in East Africa.
For instance, the years 2019 and 2020 have been very bad for East African integration as most member states have been fighting each other either for security and political reasons or economic interests.
Yet intra-EAC trade remains low at a paltry 20 per cent compared to trade within other regional economic blocs such as the South African Development Community, which stands at 58 per cent and the European Union at a high of 68 per cent.
Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania are currently embroiled in several trade disputes and experts warn that unless these conflicts are resolved regional integration will keep stalling.
Some member states including Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi have slowed down the pace of regional integration because of security and political concerns.
Since 2018, Rwanda and Uganda have been fighting a cold war, which resulted into President Paul Kagame closing the border separating the two countries.
Mr Kagame, the Rwandan leader, closed the border in February 2019 immediately he became chairman of the East African Community. At the time he was also chairman of the African Union and ironically has been advocating for Africa Free Trade Area.
Both Rwanda and Uganda accuse each other of wanting to destabilise the other through the support of rebel groups and mistreatment of citizens.
Hopes of resolving the spat were restored last July when the presidents met in Luanda in a summit facilitated by Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The summit was followed by two more in the Angolan capital and the latest meeting at Gatuna.
On 21 February, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and his Ugandan counterpart Yoweri Museveni met at the shared Gatuna border post, the main transit point for the flow of goods and people between the neighbouring countries.
The key outcome was a memorandum of understanding (MoU), which committed both parties to release imprisoned citizens, refrain from supporting destabilising groups and create a commission to monitor the implementation of the agreement.
Yet despite progress in some areas, observers believe distrust will continue and the border will remain closed in the absence of a mutually acceptable solution to the thorny issue of rebel groups.
However, civil society groups; SEATIN-Uganda and Centre for Food and Adequate Living Rights (CEFROHT), have instead petitioned the East African Court of Justice to rule on the border closure.
While Kampala was pouring cold water on the tension with Kigali, neighbouring Kenya was busy blocking goods from Uganda on grounds that they are counterfeit and flouted the EAC rules of origin.
According to UMA Executive Director, Mr Daniel Birungi, manufacturers are unhappy about Kenya’s decision to block Ugandan-made exports into their country for the last two years before intensifying it in the last 12 months.
Kenya has always benefited from both access to cheap Ugandan raw materials and fresh produce for their agro – processing industry and market for finished products.
With time however, Uganda has developed capacity to manufacture and process goods that were originally being imported from Kenya from her own raw materials as well as imported inputs to survive and promote her economic independence.
This has been facilitated by the progressive initiative such as the Buy Uganda Build Uganda (BUBU) Policy and the Reservations and Preference Schemes under the PPDA Act. Kenya has in addition been accused of institutionalising harassment of its traders dealing in Ugandan manufactured products with the view to discourage dealing in Ugandan products especially poultry, milk and sugar.
Farm gate prices for milk in some cattle corridors have dropped by 90 per cent according to Uganda Manufacturers Association records while sugarcane, a primary raw material for sugar, is rotting away in the fields as some farmers and processors look on helplessly. The same story applies to poultry products and liquid petroleum gas canisters meant for export to Kenya.
Apparently, Kenya’s move to block access of Ugandan products on its market started in 2017 when Kampala reported the first ever trade surplus with East Africa’s largest economy.
It is also possible that Kenya is punishing Uganda for awarding the oil pipeline deal to Tanzania
In retaliation, Ugandan traders have decided to run to the East African Court of Justice to block entry of Kenyan products onto its market.
Tanzania-Kenya trade dispute
The relationship between Tanzania and Kenya is similarly not rosy. Last year, Tanzania imposed a 25 per cent import duty on Kenyan confectionery, including juice, ice cream, chocolate, sweets and chewing gums, claiming Kenya had used zero-rated industrial sugar imports to produce them.
Kenya in turn banned Tanzanian tour vans from accessing the Maasai Mara National Reserve, arguing that Tanzania had banned Kenyan operators from accessing the Serengeti National Park.
Tanzania escalated the trade spat when it imposed fresh quality verification standards for Kenyan products. Spirits and tiles are among Tanzanian products that were subjected to quality verification before entering Kenya even if they bear a Tanzania Bureau of Standards quality mark.
Dar retaliated by detaining Kenyan products on its borders for more than seven days pending quality verification saying it was merely reciprocating Kenya’s decision to impose similar conditions on goods originating from Tanzania in breach of a mutual agreement on the standards of goods traded within the region.
Dar also remains opposed to issuance of work permits to Kenyan nationals to work in its territory. President John Magufuli is keen to implement a 2007 livestock ban going against the ideal of free movement within the region.
During Covid 19, the Kenya-Tanzania trade row hit through the roof. The two countries failed to agree on Covid-19 protocols to be followed in the cross-border movement of people and goods.
Kenya ordered that cross-border long distance truck drivers must be tested for Covid-19 before being granted entry into Kenya. Tanzanian authorities retaliated against Kenya’s decision to restrict movement between the Kenya-Tanzania border over Coronavirus by forbidding all automobiles and persons from Kenya.
The diplomatic tiff between Kenya and Tanzania came shortly after President John Pombe Magufuli skipped the video-conference between EAC heads of state and governments on 12 May 2020. According to the EAC, the consultative video-conference was meant to assess the development of Covid-19 in the region in a bid to develop a regional approach. President Magufuli would later in June suggest that Tanzania is free of Covid-19 as God had “answered” their prayers.
In July this year, Tanzanian government banned Kenya Airways and other Kenyan carriers from flying into its territory ostensibly to retaliate against Kenya’s move to remove Tanzania from a list of more than 30 countries allowed resuming international flights into Kenya from August this year.
Kenya-Somalia cut diplomatic ties
While Kenya and Tanzania haggled over their economic muscle, in the north, Somalia was announcing to end to ties with Kenya. Somalia ordered withdrawal of its diplomats from Kenya and gave Kenyan diplomats seven days to leave Mogadishu. But Kenya said they wouldn’t withdraw their diplomats from Somalia.
Somalia followed up its threats with deployment of troops on its common border with Kenya, hours after severing diplomatic relations with Nairobi.
Somalia claimed that the tension with her neighbour was because Kenya had started meddling in her internal politics as protests and gunfire erupted in the capital Mogadishu over delayed elections.
Tension escalated after Muse Bihi Abdi, the President of the self-proclaimed independent Somaliland, in Somalia’s far north visited Nairobi.
Somalia has also long objected to what it believes is Kenya’s support for Ahmed Madobe, the president of the Somali southern state of Jubbaland, which borders Kenya and includes the key Somali port Kismayo.
Modobe has been at odds with Mogadishu as the central Somali administration prepares for presidential and parliamentary elections due in early 2021.
However, Kenya appeared unperturbed by Mogadishu’s reaction and instead Nairobi announced plans to open a consulate in Hargeisa, the capital of breakaway region of Somaliland, and direct flights by Kenyan airlines, including Kenya Airways.
The plans come barely five months after Kenya’s low cost carrier –Jambojet put on hold plans to launch direct flights from JKIA to Somali capital Mogadishu due to high insurance needed to ply the route.
Somalia has also been embroiled in a maritime dispute with Kenya over oil and gas. The Kenyan accused Somalia of auctioning off oil and gas blocks in Kenya’s maritime territory, which actions according to Nairobi amounted to an ‘act of aggression’.
The diplomatic row comes at a time when Kenya was negotiating with Somalia to resolve the stalemate that has seen Kenya lose millions of shillings in foreign earnings after miraa was banned from accessing that market.
Miraa farmers will have to wait longer before they regain access to Somalia market. Somalia currently allows Ethiopia to export its khat to the country, technically locking out Kenya out of this crucial market.
Ethiopia, Sudan & Egypt fight over R. Nile
Again, in north of Kenya, war is being drummed up between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Nile River.
The African Union-sponsored talks on the GERD filling and operation are at deadlock due to failure by the three parties to reach an agreement on several sticky issues including future upstream developments, binding nature of the agreement and dispute settlement mechanism.
The Ethiopian government does not want to sign a legally binding agreement under the international law saying such it would subject its future projects on the Blue Nile to the consent of Sudan, Egypt or an international court or arbitration body.
Sudan proposed that the agreement under negotiations protect Ethiopia’s right to future development as it plans to build two other dams on the Blue Nile. Also, the Sudanese proposed new negotiations on these projects to protect the interests on the downstream countries.
However, Ethiopia rejected the Sudanese proposal which is backed by the African Union experts saying its future projects even if they affect the would-be agreement on the GERD should not be considered as a breach because it exercises its right to use the Blue Nile waters.
To complicate matters, the United States President Donald Trump gave Egypt green light to bomb the Ethiopian dam.
Ethiopia is also having an internal civil conflict. Ethiopian government forces have been fighting against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the Tigray region.
The conflict, which has already claimed thousands of lives and displaced tens of thousands, has caused trepidation in foreign capitals that it could lead to one of the largest state collapses in modern history, with significant implications for peace and stability in the Horn of Africa and beyond.
Despite the government’s declaration that it has already concluded the operation, it is far from certain that the capture of Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, by government forces will bring the conflict to an end any time soon—with the TPLF retreating to the mountains and, in all likelihood, positioning its fighting forces for a costly and drawn-out guerrilla war.
It has come as a shock to many that a civil war is raging in Ethiopia, with the Ethiopian government waging what it startlingly called a “law enforcement operation” in the Tigray region, branding the former ruling party in Ethiopia—the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—a criminal organization and vowing to destroy it.
There is a palpable fear that the war might induce civilians unfamiliar with the rules of war to actively engage in the conflict, and this could lead to a dire human tragedy. Evidence is emerging that the recent massacre in Mai-Kadra in Tigray state was perpetrated by vigilante groups—the Amhara group Fano and the Samri youth organization—with loose connections to their respective regional governments, the Amhara and Tigray states.
The African Union, the European Union, the United Nations Security Council, and leaders of several countries have expressed their angst about the looming disaster and are appealing to the warring parties to resolve their political differences through dialogue. Abiy has rejected peace talks with the TPLF until “the rule of law is restored,” and his ally and predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, faults those calling for dialogue as naive do-gooders with an “attitude of false balance and bothsidesism.”
DRC on a time bomb
In the west of East Africa, in the DR Congo, political analysts warn of another potential conflict that may arise out of the political divorce between President Félix Tshisekedi and former President Joseph Kabila.
Tshisekedi has freed himself from the grip of Kabila and his Front Commun pour le Congo (FCC) that controls the National Assembly and most of the country’s provincial governorships.
The Tshisekedi-Kabila alliance was made up of two groupings: on the one hand, the Cap pour le Changement (CACH) composed of Tshisekedi’s Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social (UDPS) and Vital Kamerhe’s Union pour la Nation Congolaise (UNC). On the other, the FCC under the ‘moral authority’ of Kabila and his Parti du Peuple pour la Reconstruction et la Démocratie.
Kabila plans to counter Tshisekedi. Both sides have embarked on a diplomatic campaign to garner regional, continental and international support for their respective camps. The move has set off a scramble for new alliances, bringing in players such as Moïse Katumbi and Jean-Pierre Bemba.
Tshisekedi is also counting on the rallying of Modeste Bahati Lukwebo, senator FCC and leader of the Alliance of Democratic Forces of Congo and Allies (AFDC-A), the second political force of Kabila’s coalition. Rejected by part of the FCC since his candidacy for the presidency of the Senate by Alexis Thambwe Mwamba in July 2019, Bahati was confirmed as the sole leader of his party by the High Court of La Gombe.
Tshisekedi took office in January 2019 following widely disputed elections. Observers from the Catholic Conférence Épiscopale Nationale du Congo found that Martin Fayulu won the election. Tshisekedi and Kabila are believed to have signed a secret deal in January 2019 for a coalition government which has established a DRC with two centres of power led by each of them.
Rwanda, Burundi reconcile
The only East African member states that seem to be tired of conflicts and have embarked on reconciliation path are Rwanda and Burundi. Foreign Affairs Ministers of the two neighbouring East African states recently met to iron out the security concerns between themselves that led to closure of the border partitioning them. Bujumbura expressed the willingness to talk to Rwanda, with this being the first meeting for the Foreign Affairs Ministers since 2015.
This crucial meeting came at the heels of that of security chiefs of the two countries in late August. Officials of the two neighbours have not met nor cooperated since 2015. The military intelligence officials that met agreed to “work towards the return of security to their common borders.”
A clash over the M23 rebel group in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo at a meeting of regional leaders in November 2012 saw a marked worsening of the relationship between President Pierre Nkurunziza, who has since passed on and President Paul Kagame.
Diplomatic relations further deteriorated in 2015, after President Pierre Nkurunziza was re-elected for a third term.
In October 2015, Burundi expelled Rwanda’s top diplomat, Desire Nyaruhirira, over allegation of plans to destabilise the country, and both countries increasingly been accusing each other of supporting its opponents.
An estimated 230 000 Burundians fled to neighboring countries since April 2015, many to Rwanda, leading Kagame to criticize Nkurunziza’s decision to seek his controversial third term in office.
However, after the unexpected death of Nkurunziza on June 8, 2020 and the swearing in of a new government headed by President Évariste Ndayishimiye, Burundi and Rwanda are back to talking terms.
Burundi refugees have also started leavin their camp in Rwanda. About 60,000 Burundian refugees have been living in Mahama camp, in eastern Rwanda, since the 2015 political crisis over the late former President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term.
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