EAC in 2017: A year of many strides and setbacks

East Africans said goodbye to 2017 and welcomed 2018 with merriment and prayer. But the year 2017 was of shocks and surprises within individual partner states, and the East African Community (EAC) level.
President Kenyatta flagging off the standard gauge railway train last year. (Net photo)
President Kenyatta flagging off the standard gauge railway train last year. (Net photo)

East Africans said goodbye to 2017 and welcomed 2018 with merriment and prayer.

But the year 2017 was of shocks and surprises within individual partner states, and the East African Community (EAC) level. Two presidential elections, a long-drawn-out scenario in Kenya and the tranquil poll in Rwanda, left a mark.

 Rwanda banned Shisha smoking and announced a new visa regime permitting travellers from across the world a 30-day visa upon arrival starting January 1.

During his inauguration for a second term in office, Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta announced that Africans visiting Kenya will be eligible to receive a visa on arrival, to boost integration and free movement.

Uganda scraped the presidential age limit.

Notable developments in Tanzania include a rather bold effort to claim a bigger slice of the pie when new laws were introduced with sweeping changes in exploitation of the country’s  vast natural resource wealth. Dar wants to benefit more by barring exportation of raw resources and encouraging establishment of valued addition facilities.

While Burundi still wobbles from the effects of the failed  coup in 2015, South Sudan, with a population weary of conflict, joined the EAC. A ceasefire by South Sudan’s warring sides – the latest attempt at peace and an effort to salvage a 2015 peace agreement – was signed last month giving a glimmer of hope that the country could, perhaps, avoid entering its fifth year of civil war.

While these separable stories undoubtedly influence – even though indirectly – developments in the region, there were others that directly impacted on the integration agenda.

Infrastructure boom

Last year could still be remarkable for the Community on some fronts. For one, there is news of the region’s infrastructure boom which is expected to continue into 2018. Questions abound as to whether Kenya will get value for money but, on May 31, President Uhuru Kenyatta flagged off the maiden Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), a $3.2 billion Nairobi-Mombasa rail line, cutting the journey time between the two cities to four-and-a-half hours,down from nine hours by bus or 12 hours on the previous railway.

The railway will continue to Naivasha, North West of Nairobi, as it moves towards opening the Kenya-Uganda-Rwanda hinterland, known as the Northern Corridor.  Tanzania is also working on the construction of the SGR, in phases, to link the central corridor. Improving the transport infrastructure of the region certainly benefits all citizens, one way or another.

EAC countries seemingly remained determined to promote the local textile industry by increasing import taxes on second hand clothing and shoes. However, Kenya reportedly felt the heat under US threat, and changed its mind. Uganda and Tanzania, favor an ad valorem tax, which is based on value of a transaction or of property rather than weights, and thus to a certain degree complicate prospects of the bloc’s solid, or united, stratagem.

While swearing in for his second term in office, Kenyatta also indicated that East Africans can freely move, work in Kenya, benefit from the local laws like  Kenyan citizens and enjoy the rights to residence. The move is bound to help operationalise the Common Market Protocol but it must, first, be fully implemented. The use of national identity cards in Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya as travel documents continued to help ease free movement and open opportunities to citizens of the three countries. But Dar remained reluctant on implementing the bloc’s Common Market Protocol in areas such as right to establishment and owning business.

South Sudan’s entry into EAC was considered positive for the region in terms of expansion – with the market expanding to 162 million people. Already, lawmakers from the new Partner State have joined the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) after being sworn in last month. However, the hostilities in South Sudan must be addressed to allow the citizens enjoy the benefits of integration agenda.

The Inter-Burundi Dialogue, an EAC-led process has not signaled any hope and there is work to do in 2018. Continued insecurity in DR Congo and Somalia will also likely impact on the region’s stability.

Furthermore, even as we await the second Africa Regional Integration Index (ARII) Report, a monitoring tool tracking progress of regional integration on the continent scheduled to be published in 2018, things were not that rosy this past year. The first report, in 2016, said EAC was the top performing regional economic community on integration in Africa.

The previously regular Northern Corridor Integration Projects Summits between Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, have conspicuously faded.

In addition, the regional Assembly, which generally made  strides in legislating for the region, had a long-drawn haul caused by prolonged presidential elections in Kenya which affected EALA’s work. 

Even after the fourth Assembly was eventually sworn in last month, and Rwanda’s Martin Ngoga elected as Speaker, there will be hurdles as he has to face the task of unifying the Assembly and especially bringing onboard members from Burundi and Tanzania who unsuccessfully boycotted his election.

Lawmakers have to quickly embark on the work backlog in terms of key pieces of legislation not completed by the third Assembly. The third EALA passed 30 pieces of legislation, more than 80 reports and 100 resolutions.

 Now, more than ever before, the region shall be looking at EALA to deliver, especially on legislation that will strengthen the pillars of integration.

Like last year, and earlier, funding issues continue to nag the Community.  As at December, partner states had remitted 31 per cent of their 2017/18 contributions. Countries are supposed to pay up by December 30 of every financial year. Obviously, with limited funding, some EAC projects or programmes cannot be realised. 

Last year, a good number of projects and programmes were halted due to financing constraints.

In June, last year, EALA approved budget estimates for the financial year 2017/2018 totaling $110,130,183.

Partner States pay $8.3 million per financial year, which is about 40 per cent of the bloc’s budget.  The rest raised by development partners whose support is continuously waning yet the matter of finding a sustainable funding mechanism has not been concluded by the Council of Ministers.

Besides these common concerns, several other issues between partner states could also have their impact felt in 2018 if not addressed.