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Why EAC secretary general job has become a hot seat

Recalled East African Community (EAC) Secretary General Dr Peter Mathuki. PHOTO | THE CITIZEN | NMG

The position of the secretary general has become a hot potato in the East African Community in the past decade as the current holder Peter Mathuki exits from office.

A close scrutiny of the activities and affairs of the office of the secretary general by the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) and the responsibilities that come with an expanded regional bloc have exposed the governance structure weaknesses at the EAC Secretariat.

The tenures of the outgoing Secretary General Dr Mathuki (Kenya) and his predecessor Liberat Mfumukeko (Burundi) contrast with those of Francis Muthaura (Kenya), the EAC first chief executive, and his successors Juma Mwapachu (Tanzania), Amanya Mushega (Uganda), and Dr Richard Sezibera (Rwanda).

Dr Mathuki and Mfumukeko have heavily come under scrutiny by a section of partner states, the private sector and the EAC’s own legislative organ, the EALA.

A lot of the criticism is based on the slow pace of the EAC integration process, a poor funding structure by partner states, divergent interests by each member, and even their leadership styles.

Legal experts believe there is a need to review the governance structure at the EAC with the need to create a more vibrant administrative wing that takes care of the expanded and interests of the expanded Community.

“When the EAC was still just three countries, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, we did not experience a lot of challenges in terms of governance. But today the Community has expanded to 8 members, each with her own interests. It cannot be run the same way it did 20 years ago,” said Boniface Masinde, an advocate of the High Court of Kenya.

“In a situation where each partner state is jostling for her own interests, there is need to review the weak structures of administration at the EAC secretariat in the wake of an expanded EAC.”

The first leaders privileged to occupy the EAC’s most senior civilian post of secretary general have enjoyed a fairly easy ride over the years.

Their stints at the Arusha-based secretariat mostly coincided with maintaining an integration agenda based on only a few members.

Yet with the 2020s likely to represent one of the most challenging periods in the EAC’s history, the successor to the outgoing SG Dr Mathuki faces a serious task in leading an alliance of 8 countries and the collective needs of over 350 million people.

“There is need for the incoming secretary general to understand what regional integration is all about. One needs to have the insight, the skill to manage programmes with multi-cultural with different expectations, and different interests,” said Kenneth Bagamuhunda, the former Customs and Trade director general at the EAC.

Political tensions between EAC partner states have put enormous pressure on the office of the EAC secretary general, a move that ends up putting them at the centre of the conflict even when it’s not entirely their fault.

Mfumukeko’s tenure was characterised by political tensions between his own country and Rwanda, Uganda and Rwanda and other trade spats between states, with each closing their borders.

Cohesion among the bloc’s partner states, even for regional infrastructure projects, was hard to come by as Tanzania and Burundi delayed implementation of initiatives such as the One Network Area, use of national ID’s as travel documents between member states and Standard Gauge Railway projects through bureaucracy.

But Mfumukeko’s took the job, despite the hostility between states, especially his own country’s posture to the rest of the region, which saw Burundi apply to join the Southern African Development Community, a clear signal that it had little affinity with the EAC where it had just seconded its national as chief executive.

The trickle-down effect from these tensions fed into operations of the Secretariat, whose budget became hard to pass at some point, while donor funds were also reducing, and member states also fell behind on meeting their annual contribution arrears.

“Along the way he got lost into this and failed to balance the local politics vis-à-vis the office of Secretary General he was holding,” says Fred Mukasa Mbidde, former EALA representative from Uganda, who says the bigger bloc should not be seen as the cause of the Secretary General’s unappealing performance.

“Integration is a sine qua non. Expansion of EAC has nothing to do with cohesion; it has everything to do with market access. What the region needs to do is find a way to ameliorate expansion challenges with a process of financing that ensures smooth operation,” says Mr Mbidde.

Mfumukeko faced audit queries for procurement and award of group life insurance contract for EAC staff to companies that came third in the bidding process, as well as loss of funds from the general reserve, which he was eventually cleared of.

Mathuki also endured a storm in his three years at the Secretariat helm, which experts attribute to “incongruous understanding” between EALA and the Secretariat that saw the regional Parliament accuse the SG of misappropriation of $6 million peace fund last month.

“This money was not appropriated by Parliament, but he spent it,” says James Kakooza, Uganda’s EALA representative. “By EAC rules, all grant funds must be put in one basket. You cannot get any money out of this basket and spend it before Parliament appropriates.”

“For us we have so many complaints against him (Mathuki) in terms of how he has been running the community. He has not been transparent,” said Paul Musamali, Eala member (Uganda).

“As the Assembly who are mandated to oversight the activities and funds of the Community, we are going to carry our mandate by investigating his financial activities to the very end.”

Under Mathuki, EAC has admitted the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia but experts say some of these new members came into the bloc with interests and expectations that are diverse to those of the regional economic community.

With a raging war in eastern DRC between Congolese forces and the M23 rebels, DRC’s interest are less trade and more at peace seeking, an issue the EAC secretariat is ill equipped to pursue.

Regional integration experts argue that as more countries join the EAC, there are winners at different levels: traders who get market access, the donors who are keen on bigger blocs, and technocrats who cash in to facilitate the process new members acceding to the Treaty.