A political union for east Africa?
AFRICA’S REGIONAL institutions do not lack ambition. The African Union’s master plan promises a rich, peaceful continent criss-crossed by high-speed trains. Eventually. Its target is 2063, a date well past the likely retirement date of all the bigwigs who signed the plan.
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The East African Community (EAC), by contrast, has no time to waste. It wants to form a single currency by 2024. At a recent summit, heads of state discussed drafting an east African constitution, with the ultimate goal of political federation. The EAC is the most successful of Africa’s regional blocs. Since its revival in 2000 it has established a customs union and the rudiments of a common market. But its leaders are getting ahead of themselves: deepening rifts have put the project in jeopardy.
Four of its six members (Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and South Sudan) are led by ex-rebels, some with competing interests in the Congolese borderlands to the west. The recent summit was postponed twice because Burundi, which has fallen out with Rwanda, refused to attend. That quarrel goes beyond mere words. In 2015 Pierre Nkurunziza, the Burundian president, fought off a coup. His government accuses Rwanda of backing it. In 2016 UN experts reported that Burundian refugees were being recruited to fight against their home government. In December the same experts said that arms and men were also flowing through Burundi to undermine Rwanda.
Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, is also on bad terms with Yoweri Museveni, his Ugandan counterpart. The rift is personal. Mr Museveni fought his way to power in the 1980s with the help of Rwandan refugees; Mr Kagame, who grew up in a Ugandan refugee camp, was his military intelligence chief. Later, as presidents, the former comrades launched two wars in Congo, then fell out over the loot. By 2000 their soldiers were firing at each other, 600km from home.
Relations are again dicey. Last year Mr Museveni sacked his police chief, who was later charged by an army court with aiding the kidnap of Rwandan exiles (among other things). The abductees, including one of Mr Kagame’s former guards, had been illegally sent back to Rwanda and imprisoned.
Rivalry between Kenya and Tanzania, the two largest members, is more straightforward. Together they account for three-fifths of the region’s population and three-quarters of its GDP. Yet commerce between them is hobbled by a trade war. Although both are meant to be in a common market, Tanzania has imposed tariffs on Kenyan sweets. Kenya has retaliated by taxing Tanzanian flour. Tanzania, which is sliding towards protectionism, also objects to a proposed trade deal between the EAC and the EU, which Kenya is keen on. As the only EAC countries with coastlines, both vie for investment in infrastructure: in 2016 Uganda decided to route an oil pipeline through Tanzania, to Kenya’s chagrin.
Some worry that the escalating tensions could cause history to repeat itself. The first East African Community collapsed in 1977. More likely, the region will continue to make faltering progress on trade, where the spread of cross-border business creates its own momentum. But political issues are trickier. Leaders who brook no dissent at home have little taste for compromise abroad. Each wants integration, as long as he is in charge.