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The Difficulties of Creating an East African Federation

6 MINS READSep 13, 2013 | 14:44 GMT
Rwandan President Paul Kagame (L), Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni (C) and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta meet June 25 in Entebbe, Uganda.
(PETER BUSOMOKE/AFP/Getty Images)
Rwandan President Paul Kagame (L), Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni (C) and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta meet June 25 in Entebbe, Uganda.

The countries of the East African Community have historically been drawn together, and numerous initiatives have been launched in the past to further integrate them. But tensions between the countries have typically disrupted the formal relationships that they were trying to develop.

The current iteration of the East African Community has been the most successful. It has already seen the implementation of a common market and customs union — though with limited success so far — and is working on the adoption of a common currency. Economic integration, critical to the development of these countries as low-end manufacturing hubs, will continue. However, a political federation has been discussed since colonization and every attempt has been derailed by national interests.

Historical Cooperation

The Great Lakes region of Africa, stretching from the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Mount Kenya and south as far as Malawi, has always been a place of vibrant economic activity, albeit not on the same industrial level as that seen in a few other parts of the continent such as South Africa. The region is one of a handful of places in Africa where people are clustered over a significant area, and the arbitrariness of borders imposed by colonial powers means that families, ethnic groups and communities, as well as resources, straddle borders throughout the region. This will always ensure that the countries have a robust and dynamic informal relationship, even if a formal structure does not exist. These factors constantly draw the countries together, but historical grievances between various ethnic groups remain.

One of the first more formal attempts at integration was the adoption of the Congo Basin Treaties in the late 1880s. Berlin and Brussels engineered conferences intended to standardize trade policies between the colonies in the region. Both powers wanted to reach the Great Lakes region, and both were coming at it from different directions — Belgium from the Atlantic Ocean and Germany from the Indian Ocean. Both countries had numerous geographic obstacles between them and the Great Lakes. Cooperation to share infrastructure was their goal, not the creation of a common political jurisdiction.

Throughout colonization, trade, customs, currency and other agreements came and went before finally giving way to the East African High Commission, which oversaw common services such as the customs union or port management between Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika (which joined with Zanzibar in 1964 to form Tanzania) from 1948 to 1961, when Tanganyika became independent. In fact, as early as 1927, the British colonial governments were contemplating the idea of a federation.

After independence, those in power explored ways to continue the framework of the East African High Commission. For the first few years the countries had difficulty balancing their newfound political freedom while working with one another. In the first half of the 1960s, several agreements were made, such as a deal to distribute industrial development between the members and the creation of a common currency, before falling apart at the last minute. By mid-1965, each country had created its own central bank and currency, effectively breaking down the formal common market that had existed for nearly two decades. Having experienced sovereignty, each country was unwilling to give it up.

However, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda continued to try to find a solution. They established the first iteration of the East African Community in 1967, creating a regional legislative assembly and common market, among other things. The community collapsed a decade later for several reasons — some of which remain today, such as ideological differences and Kenya's perceived unfair advantages.

Current Efforts to Integrate

Attempts at integration resumed by the late 1980s and early 1990s. Some of the major problems that had undermined the previous community no longer existed. For instance, Tanzania had helped bring Yoweri Museveni to power in Uganda and was beginning to move its economy away from a socialist one and toward a more capitalist one, which was closer to the economic policies of Uganda and Kenya. By the end of the 1990s, they had signed a new treaty that established the new East African Community in 2000. Burundi and Rwanda applied for membership and were admitted.

The East African Community treaty has four goals: to establish a common market, a customs union, a monetary union and, eventually, a political union. The common market and customs union already exist, and the monetary union is being negotiated. But although the common market and customs union have been formally adopted, implementation has been problematic. For example, non-trade barriers are still prevalent, limiting the utility of the common market. Additionally, although the countries may sign the monetary union protocol by the end of 2013 — it was supposed to be completed by 2012 — it will likely take a decade to be implemented. Each of the countries has developed differently, and harmonizing the institutions, economies and regulatory systems will take years. Even if the countries agreed to a political federation, which is very unlikely considering their past, it will be even longer before it is completely implemented.

Over that time other roadblocks will probably emerge. This is already the case between Rwanda and Tanzania, which did not attend this week's summit. Relations between the two countries are tense due to Rwanda's alleged support of Congolese rebels who are fighting a U.N. intervention brigade, of which Tanzania is a key contributor. The Tanzanian government has gone so far as to kick 20,000 Rwandans living in Tanzania out of the country.

While such problems are unlikely to completely undo the East African Community, they highlight Tanzania's unique situation in the region. Kenya and Tanzania have long vied for dominance in East Africa and influence in Central Africa, but within this specific grouping Kenya has much more influence. Kenya is the dominant transport corridor for goods going to and from Uganda and after some infrastructure development will be a transport corridor into Central Africa. Tanzania's infrastructure, on the other hand, heads toward Rwanda, Burundi and especially Zambia. Tanzania is also torn between two blocs, since it is the only East African Community member that is also a member of the Southern African Development Community, a similar organization that exists within South Africa's sphere of influence.

Although the countries of East Africa are not nation-states in the European sense — borders were forced upon them and grouped several different "nations" within each state — the states themselves still have their own interests at heart. This does not mean the East African Community cannot serve a vital purpose. The community will continue to integrate economically, particularly in infrastructure, the removal of trade barriers and potentially through a common currency, all of which contribute to the economic success of the region. But as Tanzania's situation shows, there are several obstacles hindering the creation of the East African Federation. The federation has been debated in East African political circles for nearly a century, and there is very little reason to expect its success this time.

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