Is the East African Community ready to be a federation?
There has been a lot of talk recently about the possibility of establishing an East African federation. Given the current membership of the East African Community (EAC), an East African federation would be a system of government that has a single national authority and five state authorities – Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda. But democracy in East African countries has not yet matured enoughto allow for the formation of a viable and sustainable East African federation any time in the near future.
Aspirations for an East African federation are neither new nor unrealistic. However, true democracy is a pre-requisite for a viable federation. True democracy provides a vitally important environment for an honest and open debate and a meaningful referendum on a federation. Members of the EAC need to work first on developing their democratic systems.
Kenya: The post-election violence in Kenya in 2008 that killed more than 1,000 people was a painful reminder of thesevere deficiencies in the political system and also a bold demonstration of the quest for free and fair elections. To its credit, Kenya has been able to pass a new constitution which put more effective checks and balances into place for the governance of the country. If the spirit and the letter of the new constitution are fully implemented, one can argue that Kenya is in a positive trajectory in its governance. But Kenya needs to gain experience with its new constitution before it propels itself into a federation.
Tanzania: It has been ruled by the same political apparatus since its independence in 1961. Tanzania is currently debating a new constitution which might distribute power much better between the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch. Tanzania will need to implement and experience such a new constitution for a few cycles of elections before it commits to a federation.
Uganda: President Museveni has been in power for almost 28 consecutive years – 40 percent of his lifetime! Given the country’s very young population, 75 percent of Ugandans have only had one president all their life. When asked if he would run again in 2016, Museveni’s response was, “[o]ne of the real points for me politically is the East African federation. I cannot leave this issue if I think there is a possibility of advancing it. This is something I have been working for all my time in politics and is one of the reasons why I continue to be in power.” This is the classic case of a leader thinking that he is indispensable, a very dangerous mindset for democracy. In 2011, when President Museveni was asked how he would react if Ugandans contested election results with demonstrations, Museveni responded that “[w]e just lock them up . . . bundle them into jail and [bring them] to the courts.” There you have it – a theoretical model for democracy!
Rwanda: Almost all economic indicators suggest that it is doing quite well. President Kagame deserves credit. However, he seems to be following President Museveni’s footsteps in thinking he is indispensable.
Burundi: Many analysts consider it a failed state.
What is perplexing about African politics is that in the last 20 years it has been the autocratic leaders who have been major lobbyists for the political unification of Africa. In the lead was President Gaddafi. In fact, the precursor to the establishment of the AU was a special OAU summit of African heads of state initiated and hosted by Gaddafi in Sirte, Libya, in 1999, at which point it was declared (in the Sirte Declaration) that steps towards integration must be accelerated. Often times, dictators and autocratic leaders seek to divert attention from discontent at home by engaging in grandiose international initiatives. There might be some element of that phenomenon going on in East Africa.
Nonetheless, an East African federation cannot be an “arranged marriage” brought about by overzealous politicians who think they are indispensable or entitled to power because of what they believe they have accomplished. Such a union will, sooner or later, break. What is needed at this point is for the East African countries to continue to solidify their economic integration, implement policies that increase the standard of living for all people, improve domestic governance with checks and balances, and develop genuine democracies at home. A federation might come later. Speed is not always a virtue. Some people argue that there has been enough talk about forming a federation and that it is now time to act. However, how long people have talked about forming a federation is almost irrelevant if the economic and political pre-requisites are not yet in place.
Richard E. Mshomba, Ph. D.
(Posted in November, 2013)