Last week, the East African Heads of State held an extraordinary summit in Arusha, Tanzania, in which President Paul Kagame assumed the chairpersonship of the bloc taking over from his Ugandan counterpart Yoweri Museveni.
The New Times’ Jean d’Amour Mbonyinshuti and Emmy Ntamanga caught up with Olivier Nduhungirehe, Rwanda’s State Minister for Foreign Affairs who shed light on the challenges the bloc faces and how Rwanda’s chairpersonship can possibly add new impetus to the integration process.
Below are excerpts;
There are reports that Burundi wanted to block Rwanda’s bid for the chairmanship. How accurate is this?
That was the 20th ordinary EAC summit that was supposed to take place in November last year, but as you may recall Burundi boycotted the summit and it did not take place because in our treaty a summit needs the attendance of all the partner states to take place.
So, (when) the summit took place (on February 1, 2019) and one of the items on the agenda was the chairmanship. The treaty says that the chairmanship of the community is for one year and on a rotational basis. The consultations concluded that Rwanda will effectively be the chair of the Community, the decision was easy to take and I think it took less than a minute. All the Heads of State agreed on the decision. This was a straight forward decision and Burundi agreed with it immediately.
What are the main tasks that await President Kagame as EAC chair?
There are several issues; mainly the integration process. You know that EAC has four pillars of the integration process; the Customs Union, Common Market, the Monetary Union, and Political Federation.
With the two pillars being implemented (Customs Union and Common Market), we still face challenges. For example, the Customs Union is very important because it has reduced the time and money for business people to import goods from abroad, especially for landlocked countries like Rwanda where we depend on the ports of Mombasa and Dar es Salaam.
But we still have difficulties, under the single customs territory; we have One Stop Border Posts (OSBP), which also helps in the free movement of people, most of them are working but there are others which are not working as they should.
There are other challenges regarding Non-Tariff Barriers (NTBs) which are obstacles to trade and on free movement good which are not based on tariffs.
Under the single customs territory, we removed internal NTBs for all goods coming from the other partner states, usually they should be coming freely but some states have created obstacles for those goods.
We still have most of those NTBs between countries. Usually, this is from Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Some were resolved but others are recurring while some of them are being discussed. So, the issue of NTBs is still on the table.
There are also other issues that we discussed that will still be there during Rwanda’s chairmanship. They include security in the region, especially the (political) situation in Burundi. The facilitator of peace negotiations in Burundi, former (Tanzanian) President Benjamin Mkapa ended his term (before the problem was resolved) and the summit decided to ask the Heads of State to continue consultation with Burundi on the inter-Burundian dialogue.
There are many other issues that were discussed. But, most importantly, we must implement the decisions we took on the Customs Union and the Common Market protocols.
Some observers suggest that the EAC is disintegrating and that it is Rwanda’s chance to revive it. What do you plan on doing differently?
The East African Community is not dead. It is really one of the regional communities in Africa which have an ambitious agenda. Of course we have been experiencing challenges for the past few years, including the political climate, bilateral relations of countries and non-compliance to the protocols we have signed under the Common Market and the Customs Union.
What we have to do is to get every partner state on board to, first and foremost, implement what we have agreed on and by removing all barriers because it will be difficult for the EAC to achieve the Monetary Union and Political Federation if we don’t first implement, in good faith, what we have agreed on.
There has been slow implementation of protocols, don’t you think there is lack of political will amongst partner states?
Of course, the slowdown we have been witnessing in the last years is not about the protocols or the decisions that were taken, it is about, as you said, the political will to implement those decisions because when we meet in different summits, we always find that we have several decisions that were not implemented.
So that’s the most difficult challenge we face as East Africans, meaning implementing the decisions we have taken and one of them is related to contribution of remittances to the budget of the Community, where there is obligation of each country to contribute $8.3 million every year.
But we have countries that are not paying at all. That is the true example of the commitment of the states to implementing the decisions that we take.
So what do you think should be done to address lack of political will?
We need to continue engaging all partner states to discuss our common interest in implementing what we agreed on. There is no other way other than continuing to engage the partner states on the need to fulfil their obligations.
The issue of fulfilling financial commitments by member countries has been long-standing and affects the work of the secretariat. What is the current situation and what is the way forward?
It is uneven. We have countries that are contributing and others that are not. For instance, this financial year Kenya has contributed 80 per cent, Rwanda 75 per cent, Tanzania 63 per cent, Uganda 53 per cent, Burundi and South Sudan zero per cent as they are still paying arrears. It is important to continue mobilising all countries to remit their contributions so that institutions continue to work properly.
How does Rwanda help turn this around during its tenure?
No, we can’t leave without success. We are chairing it and it is our duty to ensure that institutions are working properly and to make sure countries are honouring their commitments on time.
It was one of the decisions of the summit, to make sure that all the countries pay their remittances and on time.
But there is also the idea of having an alternative funding mechanism on the model that was proposed to have levies on eligible imports so that we don’t depend on the goodwill of countries but also take at the source on the imports some of the levies for the functioning of the Community but this is still under discussion.
There have been tension among some EAC member states such as Uganda and Rwanda.
Some Rwandans have been detained and harassed in Uganda. There are also problems with Burundi. Such tensions can be a barrier to integration. What are partner states doing to have a common ground and move forward?
We all know the situation in Uganda; Rwandans are arrested, tortured, harassed and dumped on the border. There are 40 people who were arrested on the borders of Uganda and Tanzania while going to RNC training camps (in DR Congo). We had FDLR spokesperson La Forge Bazeyi who was arrested coming from Uganda, so there is no way that Rwanda causes any offence.
It is the same situation with Burundi where they wanted to divert attention from their internal problems to Rwanda. Rwanda is a peaceful country, we are developing ourselves, and we want integration and good neighbourliness.
But there are countries in the region who don’t feel the same. You have to read UN Report of Experts in December which specifically said that there is a network of recruitment of P5 directly from Bujumbura and that Kayumba Nyamwasa regularly travels to DR Congo. This is not Rwanda saying that, it is a UN report….. So those questions should go to those countries, not Rwanda.
One of the recommendations of the summit was to promote the motor vehicle assembling plant within the region to reduce the importation of used cars. How will the EAC handle this and how will it be done?
I think we didn’t take any decision on it, but we have requested to finalise the report because there is progress report on it and we didn’t take a decision about this.
The summit backed development of a strong and competitive leather and textile sector that gives customers better choice, how is the region intending to go about this?
There was also a progress report on this but the idea is to promote textiles in the Community and promote local industry by ensuring that our citizens consume our products without relying on used leather and textiles from outside the Community.
In 2018 a committee was formed to begin the process of drafting a regional constitution for EAC federation, how far do you think this will have gone by the time Rwanda’s term ends?
The summit took note of that and tasked President Yoweri Museveni to be the political supervisor, as six states have appointed constitutional experts to draft the constitution on political confederation.
The confederation is expected in 2024 and the draft of the constitution is expected in 2022 and then in 2023 there will be wide consultations with the Community to have the views of citizens based on best practices to make sure that the people own that idea of political confederation. So this is what will be done for the next years to come.
Do you have anything to add as we wind up?
Rwanda is honoured to be chair of EAC and we intend to work with other partner states to fast-track the integration agenda.