EAC Marks 23 Years of Revival, Challenges Persist

The East African Community-EAC marked the 23rd anniversary of its revival, when three countries Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania embarked on rebuilding the collapsed bloc. This was a realisation of the dream held by President Yoweri Museveni – recently referred to as Father of the Region by Kenya’s president William Ruto – backed by former presidents Benjamin Mkapa of Tanzania and Daniel Arap Moi of Kenya. 

The main idea behind the EAC revival was to create a stepping stone for increased trade within the region, building on four pillars, a Common Market, a Customs Union, and Monetary Union, and a Political Federation. By the time of the signing of the Treaty for the Establishment of the East African Community in Arusha on November 30, 1999, the population of the bloc was 90 million while the size of the economy (GDP) was 32.2 billion dollars. 

The number of people has since grown to about 300 million and the GDP to 305 billion at current market prices. Since 1999, intra-regional trade has increased to just over 6 billion dollars by 2020, up from 500 million. However, this being less than 15 percent of the regional total trade, is far low compared to how much other blocs around the world benefit from trading within the borders. 

One of the main reasons has been that the countries largely produce goods that are similar and therefore hardly tradable amongst the partner states. The lack of adequate infrastructure has also been an issue with cross-border trade relying largely on expensive road transport, after the railway network, particularly in Uganda collapsed in the 1980s. 

However, the main reason has been both tariff and non-tariff barriers, which have seen countries set duties, levies, and fees out of the scope provided for by the Common Market Protocols like the EAC Customs Management Act. This has been severally violated by most countries seeking to either protect their local products from completion or as a retaliation against a related act by a country. 

Uganda and Kenya, for example, have been embroiled in trade quarrels over the last four years. Nairobi has over time blocked milk, beef, sugar, and grain, among others, citing standard issues, among others. The most affected is milk and recently, the president of Kenya told the farmers there that there was no need of blocking Uganda’s milk but that Kenya must build value additional capacity for their milk to attract the wider African market. 

Kenya’s principal secretary for trade Johnson Weru said this was an issue of the agriculture ministry and trade, but said there were efforts to ensure the milk ban is lifted by the end of this year.  The issue of non-tariff barriers has also been abetted by political misunderstandings between countries which are a common on-and-off issue.

The latest of such was the closure of borders between Rwanda and Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, and Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. For Uganda, for instance, trade fell from about 200 million dollars to just more than 20 million by the time Rwanda announced it was reopening the border earlier this year. 

The countries, especially Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania have over the years reduced the number of roadblocks and checkpoints after complaints over corruption by officials manning them and the delays caused in the movement of goods. By more than 80 percent, though some impromptu ones keep coming up. 

Uganda’s Minister for Trade, Francis Mwebesa has called for the removal of all such checkpoints across the EAC highways to enhance trade facilitation. Kenya and Tanzania have also had their own wrangles with agricultural products. In 2017, Tanzania burnt thousands of day-old chicks from Kenya saying they had been imported illegally. 

Last Week, President Samia Suluhu Hassan said it was a wrong decision by the then government, saying that the issue could have been handled more humanely by her predecessors.  Last week, the bloc commenced implementation of the EAC Harmonised Framework that is aimed at facilitating cross-border trade of pre-packaged foods and cosmetic products. 

It is expected that this will be a step towards answering some of the conflicts that relate to or are blamed on quality shortcomings. “The framework promotes the use of one standard, one certification quality mark, and one conformity assessment procedure in the registration, approval, certification, and clearance of pre-packaged food products and cosmetics to promote intra-EAC trade,” says the Uganda National Bureau of Standards. 

The growth of trade is also being hampered by the difficulties moving across the borders, despite the bloc agreeing to lift travel restrictions. To date, in principle, travelers between Uganda, Kenya, and Rwanda are allowed to use their national identity cards, though some have encountered challenges as the officials demand passports. 

And between DR Congo and the rest of the countries, a travel visa is still required. 

The Media and Communications Expert at the EAC Secretary General’s Office, Lillian Kiarie says some of the issues will be overcome and the countries, particularly DR Congo get more integrated into the bloc. 

“Integration is a gradual process- some systems involving amendment of their own National laws have to be made for a country to be fully integrated into the community. This takes some time.” 

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