South Sudan and Burundi: From Arusha with a bitter taste in the mouth

In his popularly acclaimed novel titled the “Tale of Two Cities” Charles Dickens has a passage in which he describes a certain period in history. Dickens goes, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

It is the kind of ambivalence that greeted the news from the summit of Heads of State of the East African Community that was held in Arusha, Tanzania, last week.

Out of the three big stories, two gained media attention. They were about the formal entry of the sixth member of the community, South Sudan, and the revelation that the bloc will start issuing internationally recognised “e-passports” to citizens of member states this March.

However, there was also the news that didn’t quite get the requisite media coverage: Burundi took over the leadership of the EAC Secretariat. This is after the tenure of Ambassador Richard Sezibera, a man who brought much respect and dignity to the position of Secretary General, came to an end.

Now, it was inevitable that South Sudan would join the EAC. Beyond geographic proximity, there are strong historical, cultural, and economic reasons that explain why it was simply a matter of time.

Soon Ethiopia will join. Somali, too. And who knows, may be the DR Congo as well; otherwise, the political elite in Kinshasa may wake up one day only to realise that the (standard gauge) train has left the station, too late to hop on.

In all seriousness, the allure of the South African economy may prevent the DR Congo from joining, choosing the Southern African Development Community (SADC) over the EAC. Who’d blame them, even Tanzania has failed to resist it. Instead it has chosen to play footsie while still claiming to be fully committed to the EAC.

This political hanky-panky explains why the entry of South Sudan is important. It may not be a game-changer but it provides much needed insurance in case Tanzania decides to permanently go south – to SADC; it gives the EAC the political leverage, the cojones, to finally tell-off Tanzania to make up its mind once and for all about whom she wants to share the rest of her life with.

To be sure, it is in the interest of the EAC to have both Tanzania and South Sudan. However, the prospects for a lasting relationship are with South Sudan. That is because even prior to formal admission it had showed affinity towards the bloc. This is evidenced by its commitment to common development projects, what the regional media controversially termed the “Coalition of the Willing.”

Rightly or wrongly termed, the CoW moved fast: interstate railways and highways were commissioned; identity cards were enough for travel, no passports needed; a one-area mobile network for reduced calling rates; a single airspace for cheaper air travel agreed upon, etcetera.

Even a hard-line sceptic would agree that there are tangible benefits to membership in the community. And while it may be too soon to say, Tanzania’s new president, Dr. John Pombe Magufuli, comes off as being more enthusiastic of the EAC than his predecessor ever was.

Burundi takes secretariat leadership

In other words, thigs are looking up for the EAC community and its citizens. Right? Yes and no. Which leads to the third piece of news: Burundi takes over the leadership of the EAC Secretariat.

Under normal circumstances, this is as it should be. It was Burundi’s turn, part of a rotating agreement between member states. However, these are not ordinary times.

Once the leadership in Burundi chose to turn the country into a vampire state they also gave up on the privilege to lead anything. Shouldn’t this be clear to everyone?

Mr. Liberat Mfumukeko, the new Secretary General, is probably a decent man. But this isn’t about him. I wish him well. However, I’m saying that the decision to give the leadership of the Secretariat to Burundi smacks of contempt for the people of East Africa. 

Then again, a similar thing happened this January in Addis. The African Union elected Burundi to its 15-member Peace and Security Council. What does that say?

For one thing, it says that we have low expectations of ourselves. Which is why we set low standards that we can easily meet. That’s fine and dandy; however, the problem arises when you start expecting excellence where you have incessantly sowed mediocrity.

About the EAC, the diagnosis is ready. That foul taste in your mouth is due to one thing: That the EAC gave birth to a baby on the same day that another relative died– Life and Darkness.