The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed further fault lines in the workings of the East African Community (EAC), often perceived as a beacon of regional integration on the continent

There have been some gestures of regional solidarity. For example, the Secretariat dispatched mobile testing laboratories across the region. But the overall response of the partner states – Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda – has been fragmented.

The EAC was re-established in 2000 between Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, following its earlier collapse in 1977. Its revival was underpinned by both economic and political concerns. Regionalism was viewed as an avenue to respond to the growing pressures of globalisation and rekindle the region’s shared history of integration and cooperation.

Since 2000, the EAC has achieved several milestones and its membership has expanded to include Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan. Yet, behind the veneer of these achievements, the picture is a bit more complicated. Several regional agreements have been implemented in an inconsistent manner and relations between the EAC states have been far from harmonious, particularly in recent years. 

The pandemic has further exposed and exacerbated these tensions. But it has simultaneously shown the enduring appeal of the EAC’s ideals, particularly among civil society and the business community.

Points of tension

The key flash point in the region has concerned the movement of goods between member states. Four of the six EAC states are landlocked. They depend heavily on the Mombasa port in Kenya and Dar es Salaam port in Tanzania to ensure access to vital overseas imports. Getting these goods to their final destination depends on an army of truck drivers crossing borders. 

Initially, the member countries responded to the pandemic by imposing border checks and restrictions to reduce the spread of the virus. Despite their economic interdependencies, the border restrictions were imposed unilaterally. 

Some of the border restrictions were eventually eased through ad hoc bilateral dialogue. But, as the pandemic began to deepen, what was notably missing was a collective response. 

An initial meeting of the EAC’s heads of state scheduled for April 15 was cancelled at the last minute at the request of South Sudan. The meeting was rescheduled, taking place on May 12. But the presidents of Burundi and Tanzania were not present. 

This follows a growing trend over recent years, where heads of state summits – which are meant to be held twice a year – have been cancelled or postponed.

The closure of borders and the obvious tensions between the region’s leaders have led some commentators to draw parallels with the 1970s

The first incarnation of the East African Community was established in 1967 to promote regional economic integration in the years following independence from British rule. But it didn’t last more than a decade. It collapsed in 1977 following hostilities between Uganda and Tanzania after Idi Amin’s coup, and trade disputes between Kenya and Tanzania. 

For close observers of the current EAC, the fragmented response of the member states to the pandemic is not surprising. The current crisis has simply exposed pre-existing tensions between governments in the region. 

In 2019, Rwanda and Uganda’s relationship nearly hit rock bottom, with both governments engaging in economic and political brinkmanship. For its part, Burundi’s engagement with its regional partners has been quite muted since an attempted coup against recently deceased President Pierre Nkurunziza in 2015. 

Similarly, political instability in South Sudan has meant that its government has not been able to engage effectively with EAC affairs. And trade tensions between Kenya and Tanzania have been known to flare up intermittently.

The glue

There are reasons not to be too fatalistic about the prospects for regional integration and cooperation in East Africa.

While regional leaders have appeared unable to formulate a united approach to the pandemic, the East African Community is more than just the sum of its leaders. As one former Secretariat official noted, when re-established in 2000, the EAC was designed to devolve decision-making to ministers and bureaucrats. This was done to “settle the problem of overbearing heads of state”. 

Regional institutions continue to function – even during periods where relations between national leaders are frayed. For instance, a recent meeting between the group’s ministers of health and transport agreed to the implementation of a joint digital surveillance mechanism for tracking the movement of truck drivers across the region’s borders.

There are tentative signs that a joint regional response is beginning to emerge. This perhaps tells us that economic realities are beginning to hit home for national policy makers about mutual dependencies in the region.

At a deeper level, the fact that regional institutions have endured this crisis, and various other disputes, is telling of how embedded the idea of the EAC is across the region. This is reflected in the everyday practices of government in the region, with the EAC flag often sitting alongside national flags at official functions and addresses. 

More tellingly, calls by the private sector and civil society networks in the region for a collective response to the pandemic suggest that the ideals of regional cooperation exist beyond official summits and directives. 

Indeed, the East African Business Council has boosted its profile during the current crisis. It has donated tens of thousands of face masks to communities living and working at border crossing points in the region. It has also praised truck drivers as heroes.

COVID-19 has presented unique challenges and exposed real weaknesses in the workings of regional integration in East Africa – as has also been true of regional organisations elsewhere in the world. Regional institutions are not indestructible, as East Africa’s experience since the 1960s shows us. 

Yet, the enduring appeal of regionalism in East Africa is equally striking: the energy recently directed towards facilitating the movement of goods in the region is recognition of the continued significance of regional integration for the economic stability of nation-states in the region.

Peter O’Reilly and Chris Vaughan, The Conversation

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