Dr Chrispas Nyombi, Associate Professor, school of Law, University of Derby
The idea behind an East African Federation (EAF) dates back to the early 1960s, around the time Kenya, Tanganyika, Uganda and Zanzibar were gaining independence from Britain. The political leaders of the four nations had become interested in forming an EAF. Julius Nyerere even offered in 1960 to delay the imminent independence of Tanganyika in order for all of the East African territories to achieve independence together as a federation. Consequently, the East African Community (EAC) is the only Regional Economic Community (REC) in Africa whose treaty explicitly states that it aspires to establish a political federation. Article 2 of the Treaty for the Establishment of the East African Community (EAC Treaty) establishes a Customs Union and a Common Market as transitional stages towards political federation. Once realised, it would be the most populous nation in Africa with around 283 million people and 4th in the world’s population, greater than that of Russia, Japan, Mexico and Indonesia, behind only China, India and the United States. While the official language will be English, Swahili was proposed as an official lingua franca, spoken by around 200 million people in Africa, predominantly in East Africa. However, the initial stages of integration have faced many implementation challenges thereby casting a shadow of uncertainty over the proposed federation.
This blog does not seek to interrogate specific policies and theories on federalism but rather, to explain the foundations of the EAF and the prevailing bottlenecks to achieving Nyerere’s vision. Therefore, this blog aims to contribute to the discourse on measures to accelerate the creation of a Political Federation in the EAC.
- The foundations of the East Africa Federation
In June 1963, Kenyan Prime Minister, Jomo Kenyatta, met with Tanganyika’s President, Julius Nyerere, and Ugandan Prime Minister, Milton Obote, in Nairobi; the three discussed the possibility of merging their three nations. But the project seemed to stall, largely due to political differences, but not in vain, as Tanganyika and Zanzibar formed a union in April of 1964, consequently forming the United Republic of Tanzania. A few years later, with a vision of creating a United States of East Africa, the leaders of these newly independent countries set their differences aside and created the EAC in 1967, which at the time used the East African shilling as its currency. It was later dissolved in 1977 and the unfortunate dissolution occurred following political disputes between the Partner States regarding legislative seats and the lack of political will for nations to cooperate. There was also some grumbling within Partner States particularly Tanzania, that the integration would benefit Kenya the most as it was the most developed country out of all the Partner States.
Two decades later, following six years of negotiations, the leaders of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania signed the re-formed EAC Treaty. It came with a four-step plan; first a Customs Union, second a Common Market, third a Monetary Union and fourth, a Political Federation. The end goal was to create a union of the Partner States of the EAC, currently, the Republic of Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Republic of Kenya, the Republic of Rwanda, the Republic of South Sudan, the Republic of Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania, into a single federated State. This means, for all intents and purposes, the whole area was to become one sovereign state or country.
- The building blocks of the East Africa Federation
The idea of establishing an EAF gained momentum in 2005 following the creation of a Customs Union with the objective of removing tariffs on imports and exports among Partner States thereby setting up the groundwork for national integration. This is reflected in subsequent EAC Development Strategies. The Fourth EAC Development Strategy (2011/2012-2015/2016) sought to consolidate the benefits of a fully-fledged Customs Union, including enhancing market access and trade competitiveness. Similarly, the Fifth EAC Development Strategy (2016/17 – 2020/21) had the overall goal of consolidating the Single Customs Territory (SCT) as envisaged under the Common Market and Monetary Union Protocols. The latest, Sixth EAC Development Strategy (2021/22- 2025/2026), seeks further consolidation through the enhancement of regional industrial development and institutional transformation. Therefore, there is sustained effort, reflected in the EAC Development Strategies, to streamline and iron-out prevailing challenges to the efficient operation of the EAC Customs Union. However, many problems still persist including Non-Tariff Barriers (NTBs) and varying customs valuation procedures resulting in different computed values for taxation.
In addition, since 2005, the EAC Partner States have been working towards the creation of a single market. The EAC Common Market Protocol provides for the progressive implementation of the free movement of goods, the free movement of persons, the free movement of labour, the right of establishment, the right of residence, the free movement of services and the free movement of capital. In implementing the Common Market Protocol, the EAC made efforts to identify and reduce NTBs linked to the introduction of the Common External Tariff (CET) and free trade arrangements concerning goods coming from EAC Partner States. As a result, Partner States have resolved some of the NTBs which were identified as barriers to regional integration in the first Common Market Scorecard (2014). However, a number of unresolved NTBs persist, including:
- Restrictive business practices in various forms including harassment by county and city by-laws, multiple levies which raise cost of doing business and restrictions against traders from certain localities.
- Failure to implement agreed laws regarding the single air space in the EAC region to allow regional airlines to operate as domestic airlines.
- Weak harmonisation/convergence of policies and strategies among EAC Partner States to support the growth of cross border trade and investment.
In response, the EAC Secretariat has initiated mechanisms such as National Monitoring Committees to work with the Partner States to eliminate NTBs. To strengthen them, the EAC should consider having a legally binding NTB elimination mechanism that provides for sanctions that can be imposed by an independent body.
Furthermore, the EAC Partner States have begun the process of harmonizing critical policies and putting in place the requisite institutions to attain a single currency for the region by 2024 as outlined in Part H of the Protocol on the Established of the East African Community Monetary Union. The federation’s proposed common currency, inspired by the European Union’s switch to the Euro in 1999, would be the East African shilling, which was the sterling unit of account in British controlled areas of East Africa from 1921 until 1969 following the collapse of British rule. As a result, in 2013, the EAC Partner States, apart from South Sudan, agreed to progressively converge their currencies by harmonising fiscal and monetary policies. Kenya Uganda Tanzania and Rwanda now present their budgets simultaneously every June. However, progress has been slow and there is still a long way to go. A currency union still looks difficult for two reasons; the first being that each country still has its own unique currency and the second is that each currency has experienced wildly different exchange rate fluctuation which means convergence would be somewhat difficult.
While a Political Federation was originally supposed to be last in the phases of implementation, it has been fast-tracked so that it can be implemented alongside the Monetary Union. In 2018, a committee of experts was set up to process the drafting of a constitution and in January 2020, the committee announced that it would have a draft constitution ready by the end of 2021, with ratification expected by the end of 2023. However, the committee has struggled with delays fuelled by political tensions between Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda. For instance, Rwanda boycotted a consultation meeting on drafting the constitution and accused both Burundi and Uganda of supporting opposition political movements in Rwanda. As a result, the deadline is expected to be missed.
Having examined the progress made towards realising the EAC’s four-stage plan with the ultimate goal of forming Political Federation, it is evident that a number of strategic bottlenecks remain and if not resolved, would continue to impede the integration process. Four bottlenecks are examined here. First, there is the fear that Partner States will lose power and independence of decision-making. Uncertainty remains on how the political federation will modify the sovereignty of the Partner States and the kind of sovereignty that will emerge out of the political federation. In particular, since federation results in the birth of a new international entity, Partner States are still grappling with the idea of ceding sovereignty. As a way forward, it is important that the East African people are sensitised to appreciate that political federation involves ceding some sovereignty. The EAC should also implement fully the stages of integration preceding the political federation before launching it so that its citizens can see the tangible benefits thereby building the necessary support and confidence in eventual federation.
Second, the EAC Treaty indicates that political federation is the ultimate objective of the Community (Article 5 (2)) but does not provide any guidance to the process on the establishment of the EAC political federation or specify the nature of the desired federation. This leaves only the principles provided for in the treaty including that of equitable distribution of benefits, subsidiarity, complementarity, variable geometry and asymmetry as a guide. It is therefore suggested that Partner States negotiate a new arrangement for the establishment of a Political Federation on the basis of concrete principles with a clear appreciation of the model of political federation desired.
Third, there is a general fear that poor governance practices including human rights abuse and failure to observe constitutionalism and the rule of law may spill over to Partner States with better governance records. Thus, a federation risks undoing progress made at national level, for example, in fighting corruption. As a way forward, the EAC Partner States concluded a Protocol on Good Governance and they should build on this by establishing strong implementation mechanisms and empower the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) to be a strong defender of regional standards on good governance including extending its jurisdiction to cover human rights.
Last, differences in the levels of social-economic development between nations and even within nations could endanger the integration efforts. So how do variably-developed economies move into a Single Market without disadvantaging some Partner States? It is the author’s suggestion that the Partner States should develop new policies to improve the operationality of the EAC Development Fund and agree a deadline for Partner States to streamline their national laws and policies to conform with the Common Market Protocol.
In conclusion, for the EAC to realise the desired vision, a systematic mind-set change on the way integration is approached should be considered. In order to realise this, action is needed to operationalise Articles 8 (4) and (5) of the EAC Treaty to “…confer precedence of Community organs, institution and laws over similar national ones…” and diagnose the inherent problems associated with forfeiture of individual sovereign status of Partner States. Also, Partner States should first realise earlier stages of integration envisaged in Article 5 of the EAC Treaty, that is; Customs Union, Common Market, strengthened by a Monetary Union. Overlapping entry into different stages of integration is partly to blame for the delays, institutional shocks and resistance. To avoid this, the EAC should develop a rational roadmap towards a political federation with milestones and benchmarks. It is also critically important that leaders of the seven Partner States send a clear signal of strong political will and commitment to the political federation through their actions. Overall, despite the enormous strides that have already been taken towards achieving the integration targets, without political will and commitment coupled with the right integration strategies and policies, the EAC citizens and other stakeholders would remain ever more sceptical about the political federation and the imperatives of such union.