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The Lingering Dream of an East African Federation

The Lingering Dream of an East African Federation

The East African Community (EAC) – a regional bloc comprising six nations (Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and South Sudan) – may soon be forming a new sovereign state called the East African Federation (EAF). Last September, the presidents of each country directed a 12-person committee to begin drafting a new regional constitution to merge the six nations into a political union. The new EAF Constitution is expected to be completed by 2021 and will be reviewed for more than a year before being promulgated in 2023. Within this new framework, each country’s constitution would become subordinate to the EAF Constitution.If finalized, the six independent states will unite under one president, currency, and flag. To put this into perspective, the EAF would become the largest country in Africa and the tenth largest in the world. It would be the second most populous African nation behind Nigeria and the eighth largest in the world; for comparison, the EAF would be home to more people than Russia, Mexico or Japan while roughly comprising the size of Alaska. With a total gross domestic product (GDP) of roughly $472 billion, the EAF would instantly become the fifth largest African economy and the 43rd largest globally. However, these projections will fail to materialize if this push for unification results in the same outcome as past efforts.

In the past, whether politically or economically, East African nations have struggled to unite. During decolonization in the early 1960s, Uganda, Kenya, Zanzibar and Tanganyika (the latter two nations later formed to become Tanzania) began discussions to form a federation. However, those plans collapsed when Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first President, backed out of the plan because he believed it would stall negotiations for Kenyan independence from Britain. The three nations instead agreed to create the first EAC in 1967 to link their economies together through a common market, common customs tariff, and a range of joint public services. Just ten years later, however, this iteration of the EAC fell apart over political infighting between member states and divergent economic systems of socialism in Tanzania and capitalism in Kenya. As a result, East Africa would lose over two decades of economic cooperation and mutual benefit.  

When the EAC was revived in 2000, its main goal was to achieve balanced growth and development across East Africa by leveraging the benefits of economies of scale. After admitting Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan into the bloc, the region has quickly become more integrated over the last two decades. Together, all six countries relaunched a common market for goods, labor and capital in 2010 to attract investment, spur economic growth, and alleviate poverty. Since coming into effect, the common market has helped nearly double the rate of regional economic growth compared to the previous 15 years. One study by the International Growth Centre found that EAC establishment has “led to a 0.45% increase in real GDP in the region and a 12% decrease in the statistical risk of bilateral conflict between member states.” These closer economic ties have reignited calls for political unification. Amongst many proponents of further integration, including Charles Njoroge, the EAC’s Deputy Secretary-General handling political unity, ratifying a regional constitution to create the EAF represents the “fourth and last pillar of EAC integration.” 

The rapid integration of East African economies has astonished some observers and heeded warnings from others. In the wake of Brexit, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde cautioned EAC members to slow down their ambition to form a monetary union and federation until disputes over non-tariff barriers are resolved. She suggested that these fissures have led to the customs union being poorly implemented, corrupt, and ineffective. This, coupled with strong protectionist tendencies that stem from historical mistrust and an affinity for tax revenue, have inhibited the free movement of labor across EAC borders. For instance, while Kenya and Rwanda have worked together to eliminate bureaucracy and expand employment opportunities for their citizens, the same cannot be attributed to other EAC members. 

There also remains the issue of expansion. Like the European Union’s efforts to incorporate Eastern European states, the EAC will have to contend with greater economic and social issues if states with their own socio-economic problems, such as Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo,wind up applying to join the bloc. In the case of Somalia, despite recent economic overtures to its neighbors on the Horn of Africa and joining COMESA (the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa), another regional bloc like the EAC, itstill faces significant terrorist threats from Al Shabaab. If the potential federation were to include Somalia, it would face significant questions as to how it could effectively quell many of the internal plights the country is currently dealing with.

However, security and economic concerns are only one side of the equation. It’s hard to imagine six quasi-democratic states finding common ground on policy and the allocation of EAF resources when the EAC has repeatedly failed to take any significant action to curb human rights abuses, institutional hollowing, and democratic crackdown in Burundi. EAC members have largely failed to hold President Pierre Nkurunziza accountable for the systematic eradication of Burundian civil society. Elsewhere in the region, the EAC has been notably absent on resolving the six-year long civil conflict in South Sudan that caused a third of the country’s population to flee the country. Even now with peace talks underway in Ethiopia, the EAC leadership remains silent. If other regional states are unwilling to use the EAC as a platform to come together and work to resolve this brutal civil conflict, then how can any EAC member trust one another to form a joint federal government? The EAC may be deluding itself into thinking that it can unite simply off the premise of greater economic prosperity.

Therefore, the forthcoming EAF Constitution will be scrutinized for how it attempts to share power between the six EAC members, and, more importantly, for the ways in which it holds individual member states accountable for their authoritarian tendencies. The effort to open up the East African region economically cannot be the only catalyst for EAF integration; rather, it should be coupled with greater political accountability and transparency by all EAC member governments. The stained human rights records of each government must not be an impediment to embracing civil and political freedoms. At the moment, it seems as if no country is willing to openly push one another on democratic reforms and a stronger rule of law for fear that their own human rights record will be exposed. This lack of individual accountability – and tendency to instead point fingers at one another rather than cooperating – could prove problematic during future EAF negotiations. 

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