President Paul Kagame’s three-year leadership of the East African Community (EAC) has left the trading bloc more bruised than ever before.
Although the Rwandan leader claims to be a Pan Africanist, since 2018 when he became chairman of the EAC Summit his relations with some member states have become fraught.
He has accused some of them, including former close allies, of harbouring dissidents set on toppling his administration. He has publicly disapproved internal policies on management of Covid 19 in Tanzania and challenged governance policies in Uganda, which is widely seen as abuse of leadership.
During the same time Mr Kagame has been the chairman of the African Union and was a lead sponsor of the African Continental Free Trade Area.
Unfortunately, with his credentials he remained in an open dispute with Uganda and Burundi, while there were rumbling discontents in his relationship with Tanzania.
His leadership has also seen member states pursue unilateral trade policies and some have gotten embroiled in unnecessary economic wars under his watch.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame took over the chair of the East African Community in 2018 from his Ugandan counterpart Yoweri Museveni, after heated consultations compounded by hostile relations between Rwanda and Burundi.
Burundi opposed the takeover of the chair by Rwanda, arguing that its neighbour should not assume the chairmanship before a lasting solution to their disputes had been found.
The closed session of the EAC Heads of State Summit delayed the plenary session for over four hours as the leaders reportedly debated the issue.
Nevertheless, Rwanda was eventually allowed to take the chair. But no sooner had President Kagame taken over leadership of the six-member state bloc than he locked horns with his erstwhile friend and counterpart, President Yoweri Museveni of neighbouring Uganda.
Kagame shut the border with Uganda claiming irreconcilable differences. Once great allies, presidents Kagame and Museveni are becoming more and more critical of each other, risking conflict in East and Central Africa. At stake are big investments, regional leadership, the future of the EAC
In 2019, relations between Uganda’s President Museveni and Rwanda’s President Kagame sunk to their lowest ebb for two decades.
It is in 2019 when two Rwandan soldiers crossed into south-western Uganda in the district of Kabale in pursuit of a Rwandan national. When the man resisted capture, they shot him dead along with a Ugandan citizen who had tried to protect him.
The soaring relations between the two neighbours started by Kagame’s government blocking Ugandan trucks from entering Rwanda at the Gatuna/Katuna border station, one of the busiest border posts between the two countries.
Then Rwanda’s foreign minister, Richard Sezibera, barred his country’s nationals from travelling to Uganda – ostensibly for security reasons. He told the BBC that Rwandans faced harassment, arrest and sometimes indefinite detention by the Ugandan authorities.
Behind all this was Kagame’s core accusation that Museveni is backing dissidents and militias intent on overthrowing his government.
Kagame was particularly angry that Museveni stubbornly maintained close friendship with Rwandan dissidents such as tobacco magnate Tribert Rujugiro and former Rwandan chief of army staff General Kayumba Nyamwasa.
When the dispute started in February 2018, Kagame gave a tough message – without mentioning Uganda – to a national leadership retreat at Gabiro: “You can attempt to destabilise our country. You can shoot with a gun and kill me, but there is one thing that is impossible: no one can bring me to my knees.”
To which Museveni fired back, at the opening of a new manufacturing plant and surrounded by bemused foreign businessmen: “Those who want to destabilise our country do not know our capacity. Once we mobilise, you can’t survive.”
As a result of the border closure between Uganda and Rwanda, Kampala lost more than $664 million’s worth of exports to Rwanda while Kigali lost $104 million during the three months the Gatuna border was closed, according to Uganda’s East African Community Ministry.
In the period between August 2019 and August 2020, cumulative export earnings from Rwanda, according to Bank of Uganda, fell to just $5.1m (Shs19.2b) from $131.8m (Shs494b) in the same period between August 2018 and August 2019. Before the closure, Uganda had been fetching an average of at least $18m earnings per month.
Rwanda’s minerals, tea, and coffee are transported to the port of Mombasa through Uganda. Now, more than 80 per cent of Rwanda’s imports pass through Tanzania.
This conflict has affected negotiations between the EAC and the European Union and trade talks between EAC and the United Kingdom as well as disrupting the progress of the African Continental Free Trade Area.
As a result powerful member states like Kenya have decided to pursue unilateral trade talks with the EU, UK and the United States.
In December last year Kenya and the UK signed the Economic Partnership Agreement and has been provisionally applied since January 1, pending the completion of full ratification. Analysts say the trade agreement will have disruptive political and economic impacts on the EAC.
Consequently, the UK parliament had resolved to delay ratification of the agreement – initially scheduled for February 10 – for another three weeks to allow for a deeper scrutiny. Multiple Kenyan lawmakers are against the trade deal, saying the agreement is ‘illegal’ under Kenyan law, while a collective of Kenyan farmers have gone to court, demanding that quotes and tariffs are not lifted for British exporters into Kenya as it would lead to unfair competition and market disruption.
Further, Kenya and the US on July 8, 2020 formally launched negotiations for a bilateral trade pact.
The pace of the negotiations for the new trade pact was, however, slowed down by the coronavirus pandemic.
A change of guard at the White House also raised uncertainty over the FTA deal, with Mr Biden embarking on the reversal of numerous policies that had been rolled out by his predecessor.
Also a U.S.-Kenya deal could undermine attempts to build a region-wide economic bloc, the African Continental Free Trade Area.
Further; as EAC chairman, Kagame surprisingly ignored the worsening trade disputes between Uganda and Kenya. The two neighbouring states have wrangled over various consumer goods including milk, chicken, beef, sugar and pharmaceuticals for the past three years.
Uganda lost at least Ush1.7trillion as a result of Kenya’s blockade on the former’s milk exports. Kenya has also banned Uganda’s maize.
It is until recently that the two under a bilateral arrangement have agreed to put an end to the persistent trade dispute in sugar, fruit juices and pharmaceuticals. The deal also increases the amount of Uganda’s sugar exports to Kenya beyond the 11,000 metric tonnes per annum as per the Comesa quota.
Kenya committed to lift the ban on exports of poultry products to Uganda that was imposed on February 14, 2019 and lift the long-standing ban on export of beef and beef products to Uganda. The two countries also agreed that Kenya imposes 16 percent VAT to control influx of Ugandan milk into the Kenyan market and protect local dairy farmers.
Meanwhile, Tanzania locked out Ugandan timber, sugar and maize.
Because of deficiency in leadership at EAC, non-tariff barriers have intensified as member countries become competitors amid regional protocols that eliminate taxes on goods originating from within the economic bloc as conceived under the EAC Treaty.
As Kagame continued quarrelling with his childhood friend in Uganda he also maintained enmity with the Burundian leadership.
Relations between the two countries soured since 2015, when conflict broke out in Burundi and the late President Pierre Nkurunziza accused Rwanda of backing the dissidents, a claim denied by Kigali.
Burundi was thrown into turmoil when Mr Nkurunziza decided to seek a controversial third term in 2015. Thousands of Burundians took to the streets in protest and government there responded with a brutal crackdown that killed at least 1,200 people and forced some 400,000 to flee to neighboring countries. The vast majority of them wound up in Tanzania, but more than 70,000 sought refuge in Rwanda.
The conflict between Burundi and Rwanda resulted in the closure of the border between them with Nkurunziza accusing Kagame of sponsoring an armed rebellion against him.
Burundi, throughout Kagame’s chairmanship of the EAC, remained an inactive and a disinterested member state.
However, election of Evariste Ndayishimiye as the new Burundian president and the untimely death of Nkurunziza have rekindled talks between Rwanda and Burundi.
Intelligence chiefs and foreign affairs ministers of both countries have met and agreed to restore warm relations.
Burundian refugees in Rwanda have also started returning home.
Keen observers however suggest that warm relations between the two neighbouring countries may not be sustained if their armies don’t get out of the DRC.
Recently, an Italian ambassador, Luca Attanasio, was killed after a World Food Programme convoy was ambushed in a dangerous part of eastern DRC.
Rwandan Hutu rebels on Tuesday denied accusations they were behind the killing of the to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and instead blamed the armies of the DRC and Rwanda.
The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR)” — a Rwandan Hutu rebel group said the ambassador’s convoy was attacked near the Rwandan border, “not far from a position of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) “.
Kagame says his security forces are in DRC to provide intelligence assistance to the Congolese army.
But Kigali has been promoting contacts between the Congolese government and the M23. A roadmap was signed by the two parties in October 2019 for the repatriation of the latter, but its implementation is lagging behind.
Mr Kagame’s failure to canvass for a common regional approach to counter the Covid 19 pandemic that ravaged economies of all the member states, has exposed the Rwandan leader as a none team player, which skill is crucial in bring Africa togther.
For instance, Mr Kagame looked on as Uganda and Kenya disagreed on how to effect covid 19 standard operating procedures without disrupting intra trade. A shortage of the Covid-19 testing reagent at the Malaba and Busia borders affected movement of goods between Kenya and Uganda, with lorry traffic stretching more than 30 kilometres from the crossing point as drivers awaited testing at the peak of the pandemic.
Uganda insisted that truck drivers from neighbouring Kenya and Tanzania take coronavirus tests before they were allowed to enter. Tests were also carried out on the Tanzania-Kenya border. But delays in returning results forced truckers to wait for up seven days.
Paralysis at the Uganda-Kenya border had more than doubled the time for goods to move from Mombasa to the Ugandan capital Kampala and raised costs by up to 40 percent.
Air travel in the region was also affected. For instance, Nairobi directed that passengers from Tanzania had to quarantine for 14 days on arrival in Kenya. Tanzania retaliated by banning Kenya national carrier Kenya Airways. Later Tanzanian authorities also nullified the approval granted to three other Kenyan airlines; Fly 540, Air Kenya Express and Safarilink Aviation that operate daily flights to the tourist destinations of Dar, Kilimanjaro and Zanzibar.
Further, the Tanzania-based Air Precision cancelled planned resumption of flights to Nairobi just days after the government said it would not deny them traffic rights amid the ongoing standoff between the two countries.
These disputes could not have happened if EAC acted as one.
In addition, member states pursued different containment measures yet they could have been more efficient if they had developed a similar model. Whereas Uganda and Rwanda took proactive actions ranging from lockdown to swift public health measures and Kenya turning the public health crisis into a “law and order” issue, Burundi and Tanzania opted for an open Covid 19 control strategy alongside questioning or downplaying the World Health Organization’s Covid 19 guidelines.
These disjointed strategies in dealing with the pandemic resulted largely on poor leadership of the EAC as a bloc. And it was an indictment on President Kagame.
As Kenya takes over the EAC chairmanship it is unlikely that the situation will change much since Kenyans are preparing for general elections.
Kenya’s Peter Mathuki, is also taking over as the next Secretary-General of the regional bloc. He takes over from Burundi’s Liberat Mfumukeko.
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