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The East African Community: Past Experiences and Lessons for the Future

Introduction

The East Africa Community (EAC) is one of the oldest regional economic blocs in the world.[1] Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, as members of EAC, had a customs union as early as 1927.[2] While this regional bloc collapsed in 1977, it was re-established in 2000 and grew from three to eight countries, including Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC and Somalia.[3]

Without trivializing the gains made since the re-establishment of the EAC, this regional bloc has registered slow progress toward further economic and political integration certainly due to the complexity of the integration process within this region. This post explores the issues that inform East Africa’s regional integration with the purpose of drawing out lessons.

The political interests and ideology of the East African Community member states

The EAC, established in the early 20th century, collapsed due to variance in national interests and political ideology for partner states, among other reasons. Consider the political disputes between Presidents Idi Amin of Uganda and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, which resulted in the Uganda – Tanzania War of 1978.[4] Similar incidences continue to influence how partner states relate to each other since the re-establishment of the EAC, and such must be taken seriously. The high-level political disputes between Uganda and Rwanda in 2019, for example, resulted in border closures limiting the flow of people and goods.[5] Political tensions between Rwanda and Burundi in 2015 also resulted in border closure.[6] While the borders were reopened in 2022, they were again closed in January 2024.[7] The DRC also closed its border with Rwanda in 2023 due to diverging political positions.[8]

The political tensions highlighted threaten the future of an integrated EAC, which can only thrive when there are peaceful and stable relations between partner states. Admittedly, having the same political ideology or policy agenda may not be possible, but there should always be efficient mechanisms for resolving such disagreements. For example, when Kenya banned the importation of sugar from Uganda in July 2020[9] and then the importation of chicken, meat, and eggs in 2021,[10] the Kenyan president, William Ruto, and President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda signed a memorandum in May 2024, which has reportedly solved the long-standing impasse.[11]

Unequal benefits from integration as illustrated by the example of student exchange flows

Unequal benefits from the EAC, whereby Kenya was the largest beneficially at the expense of Uganda and Tanzania, was another cause of the disintegration of the EAC in 1977.[12] The inequality related to benefits is still being witnessed. For example, East African countries declared the East African Common Higher Education Area (EACHEA) in 2017[13] to facilitate student flows within the region. However, student flows within East Africa are highly unequal, with Uganda and Kenya being the primary beneficiaries. [14] Associated with the EACHEA is the East African Students’ Mobility Scholarship scheme. While 63 East African students were awarded these scholarships in 2022/2023, Rwanda and Burundi could only send students to other countries but hosted no students from the other East African countries under this program;[15]  this certainly presents unequal benefits between Rwanda or Burundi and the other East African countries.

At the same time, Ugandan universities – especially private universities – are known to aggressively recruit many international students from other East African countries without sending comparable students to those countries[16]. Thus, Ugandan universities make higher economic gains in tuition and other educational costs than the sister East African countries, considering that international students pay higher fees than national students. The EAC needs to re-evaluate this inequality associated with student mobility within the region to avoid repeating past experiences. The inequality above is just one of the different cases showing how regional integration in East Africa unequally benefits partner states. Of course, ensuring equal benefits for all partner states may be challenging, but there should be binding terms for compensation for the unequal distribution of the benefits.

Operational relations between partner states

Flimsy relations between the partner states, with some seeking prominence at the expense of others, coupled with differences in economic systems, particularly between Kenya and Tanzania, contributed to the collapse of the EAC in 1977.[17] The challenging operational relations have been replicated in the re-established EAC. For example, the Kenyan government banned maize from Uganda in 2021, which affected Ugandan traders. The Kenya Dairy Board also exhibited similar actions by declining to issue milk export permits to several milk producers in Uganda in 2023.[18] Such inconsistent trading relations challenge the integration spirit and must be addressed.

Additionally, the EAC partner states have yet to commit to integration fully; they often don’t pay their membership fees promptly. By November 2023, for example, South Sudan’s contribution to the EAC was in arrears of $36 million, which forced the bloc to wave off more than half of this amount.[19] Other EAC member states were equally indebted at varying levels: the DRC had not paid for membership since joining the EAC and had a debt of about $14.7 million; Burundi had a debt of $15.5 million; Rwanda owed $7.3 million; Uganda $6.1 million; Tanzania $123,694; and Kenya owed only $20.[20] Delayed remittance of the annual contributions limits the bloc’s operations and, hence, overreliance on donor funding.[21]

Conclusion

It is clear from the preceding discussion that the problems that have slowed the pace of integration in East Africa have existed in this region for years and may lead to renewed disintegration if not fully addressed. Capitalizing on the gains of integration achieved for further integration while minimizing nationalist tendencies seems necessary. Otherwise, regional actors will likely redirect their efforts towards disintegration and reverse the trend. Monitoring and establishing mechanisms to build healthy operational relationships can yield excellent results. However, any integration’s success depends on the actors’ political will to integrate. Without this will, all efforts at integration will be thwarted.


[1] Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE), Bainomugisha A and Rwengabo S, “The Promise and Efficacy of the East African Community,” vol No. 41 (ACODE 2016) <https://www.acode-u.org/uploadedFiles/PBP41.pdf> accessed 18 June 2024.

[2]  “African Continental Integration: Lessons from East Africa” (The Growth Lab, October 6, 2022) <https://growthlab.hks.harvard.edu/blog/african-continental-integration-lessons-east-africa#:~:text=The%20EAC%20is%20one%20of,1927%20under%20British%20colonial%20rule.> accessed 15 June 2024.

[3] “EAC Partner States” <https://www.eac.int/eac-partner-states> accessed 10 June 2024.

[4]  See 2.

[5] Social Science in Humanitarian Action Platform, “Key Considerations: Cross-Border Dynamics between Uganda and Rwanda in the Context of the Outbreak of Ebola, 2022 – Social Science in Humanitarian Action Platform” (Social Science in Humanitarian Action Platform, December 15, 2022) <https://www.socialscienceinaction.org/resources/key-considerations-cross-border-dynamics-between-uganda-and-rwanda-in-the-context-of-the-outbreak-of-ebola-2022/#Socio-Political_Context_in_Northern_Rwanda> accessed 18 June 2024.

[6] Ndikumagenge BP, “Burundi Shuts Borders with ‘bad Neighbour’ Rwanda” (January 11, 2024) <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-67940063> accessed 10 June 2024.

[7] Kaneza EW, “Burundi Closes Its Border with Rwanda and Deports Rwandans, Accusing the Country of Backing Rebels | AP News” (AP News, January 11, 2024) <https://apnews.com/article/burundi-rwanda-border-rebels-faf424ae62a47f5519f21fd846978bca> accessed 18 June 2024.

[8] Urn, “DRC Closes Border with Rwanda over ‘Security Concerns'” (The Observer – Uganda, December 21, 2023) <https://www.observer.ug/news/headlines/80110-drc-closes-border-with-rwanda-over-security-concerns> accessed 15 June 2024.

[9]Anami L, “Cautious Optimism as Kenya, Uganda Trade in Sugar, Milk Resumes” The East African (May 25, 2024) <https://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/tea/business/cautious-optimism-as-kenya-uganda-trade-resumes-4635390> accessed 14 June 2024.

[10] See 9.

[11] See 9.

[12] See 2.

[13]Waruru M, “East African Community Takes Decisive Steps towards Harmonising HE” (The PIE News, May 20, 2024) <https://thepienews.com/east-african-community-harmonising-higher-education/> accessed 18 January 2024.

[14] Amutuhaire T, “Regionalization and Higher Education Student Mobility in East Africa: Examination of Opportunities and Challenges from the Ugandan Context” (2023) 14 Journal of International Students <https://doi.org/10.32674/jis.v14i4.5976> accessed 8 May 2024.

[15] “63 Students Benefit from the EAC Scholarship for Academic Year 2022/2023” (March 3, 2022) <https://www.eac.int/press-releases/138-education,-science-technology-news/2386-63-students-benefit-from-the-eac-scholarship-for-academic-year-2022-2023> accessed 5 May 2023.

[16] “Recruiting in East Africa” (ICEF Monitor – Market Intelligence for International Student Recruitment, January 25, 2022) <https://monitor.icef.com/2017/01/from-the-field-recruiting-in-east-africa/> accessed 29 June 2024.

[17] globalEDGE, “EAC: Introduction >> globalEDGE: Your Source for Global Business Knowledge” (globalEDGE) <https://globaledge.msu.edu/trade-blocs/eac> accessed 17 June 2024.

[18] “East African Community’s Shaky Trade Relations Negatively Affecting Several Businesses in Uganda” (allAfrica.com, July 20, 2023) <https://allafrica.com/stories/202307200090.html> accessed 18 June 2024.

[19] Owino V, “South Sudan Assumes EAC Leadership, Clears $15m EAC Debt” The East African (November 25, 2023) <https://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/tea/news/east-africa/south-sudan-clears-15m-eac-debt-vows-timely-payments-4444776> accessed 30 June 2024.

[20] See 19.

[21] East African community and East African legislative assembly, “report of the committee on accounts on the audited accounts of the East African community for the year ended 30th June, 2018” (2020) report <https://www.eala.org/uploads/Accounts_Report_2018_Final_draft.pdf> accessed 30 June 2024.

Author

  • Tibelius Amutuhaire

    Tibelius Amutuhaire is a PhD candidate at Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies (BIGSAS), University of Bayreuth. He is a member of the African Network for Internationalization of Education. He conducts research in the field of higher education, focusing on internationalization and regionalization. He is now working on PhD research thesis about intra-Africa student mobility.

By Tibelius Amutuhaire

Tibelius Amutuhaire is a PhD candidate at Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies (BIGSAS), University of Bayreuth. He is a member of the African Network for Internationalization of Education. He conducts research in the field of higher education, focusing on internationalization and regionalization. He is now working on PhD research thesis about intra-Africa student mobility.

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