East Africans were relieved last week when the East African Community (EAC) heads of state finally met in Arusha after failing to meet on two pre-arranged meetings at the end of last year due, in part, to differences.
As has been the case since the attempted coup in Burundi in 2015, President Pierre Nkurunziza didn’t show up and was represented by his Vice president while Presidents Museveni of Uganda, Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, John Pombe Magufuli of Tanzania attended with South Sudan’s foreign affairs minister representing President Salva Kiir.
Contrary to media reports that Rwanda would cede its right in the rotational criteria to chair the community to Kenya to avoid friction with Burundi, President Kagame was elected the chairperson in a unanimous vote.
After the summit and for the first time since May 2015 when political violence erupted stirred by Nkurunziza’s controversial third term, Burundian officials were speaking the same language as Rwanda’s officials!
Willy Nyamitwe, Senior advisor to Nkurunziza tweeted telling the world that: “The outcome of the 20th #EACSummit is good for all @jumuiya (EAC) partner states in general and very good for #Burundi in particular”
And Rwanda’s state minister for foreign affairs in charge of EAC Olivier Nduhungire said it was the “End of a successful 20th Ordinary Summit of the East African Community…”
So what happened behind closed doors that convinced Burundi’s officials to say that the outcome was “very good for Burundi” yet the chairmanship was assumed by an “enemy” country?
Remember, in a letter to President Museveni last December, Nkurunziza named Rwanda as an “enemy” state and has been calling for an “Extraordinary Summit” to address their differences beside opposing Rwanda chairing the Community.
Highly placed sources in the corridors of power within the EAC tell me that what most pleased Burundi officials was the fact that on the Burundi political crisis, “the Summit decided that heads of state will continue consultations without any framework and timeline, which is vague enough”!
In other words, to appease Nkurunziza, the leaders adopted the policy of “do nothing; wait and see” instead of pro-actively acting on Former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa’s recommendations contained in the report he handed to Museveni as the mediator to the conflict.
This gives us a glimpse into the thinking of EAC leaders with regard to how they have decided to handle the political crisis in Burundi.
To be sure, this seemed inevitable since leaders have no consensus on whether or not Nkurunziza’s third term was a power-grab or not and what to do.
Objectively, this is a postponed of the problem that will come back to haunt the region and Burundi.
The biggest losers in this seeming compromise are Burundians who deserve sustainable peace and the opposition that counted on EAC to resolve the problem.
Now that the Burundi problem is shelved, what are the main challenges President Kagame will face as the chairperson of our Community and what should he do to deal with them?
When local media outlets asked State Minister in charge of EAC Olivier Nduhungirehe about the main challenges that face his boss, he said that “There are several issues; mainly the integration process”; including dealing with customs union and Common market issues, the monetary union, political federation, non-tariff barriers, etc.
My view however is that while “integration issues” are important, the most critical problem facing the Community currently is security and reports of rebel groups operating in the region beside accusations and counter-accusations between leaders regarding who is supporting this or that rebel group to destabilize this or that country.
This is the immediate problem Kagame and all EAC leaders face and should deal with.
For without security and peace, there can’t be free movement of anything or common market nor federation regardless of how much we want them.
For while the Burundi crisis can be shelved, it isn’t the only security threat to the region.
There is the Rwanda-Uganda security test and claims of rebel groups like “P5” and the “revived” FDLR mentioned in the December UN Group of Expert report: Burundi-Rwanda logjam and reports of active rebel recruitment in the region, etc.
To move forward integration, these security threats MUST be addressed and resolve; for without security, the community can’t sustain even the achievements it has registered leave alone achieve political federation.
Building on sand
That’s why, I believe, chairing the EAC is the most difficult job in African right now!
For how will Kagame look Museveni in the eye and talk about “removing non-tariff” when he knows or suspects he is supporting RNC that “own” “P5” rebel group?
Alternatively, how will Nkurunziza receive Kagame and talk about “free movement of people” when he suspects that he is harboring individuals bent on destabilizing his government and the latter suspecting that the former is aiding RNC, “P5” and FDLR?
It’s my belief therefore that instead of acting like the ostrich that hides its head in the sand on sensing danger hoping it will go away, leaders must tell each other the truth and solve these security threats, for without solving them, they will be building on sand!