East African governments and the regional unity that won’t be

Covid-19 screening at Rwanda bus stop

What you need to know:

  • All the East African Community (EAC) member states, like the rest of the continent, have experienced the double blow of the pandemic eating up the entire health budget, leaving the fight against the most daunting health crises that kill more Africans by far, such as Malaria and tuberculosis, with little attention. 
  • And then there is the destruction of the economies, especially the informal economies, which are actually the lifeline for the majority of Africans, all raising questions around whether or not the time is now to give meaning to the idea of working together to address challenges that are common to all. 

We are now all too familiar with the wreckage that Covid-19 has visited on lives and livelihoods in East Africa since the pandemic landed on the continent. Even though the death toll has not been as high as was feared since the beginning of the pandemic, the measures to combat it have been devastating.

All the East African Community (EAC) member states, like the rest of the continent, have experienced the double blow of the pandemic eating up the entire health budget, leaving the fight against the most daunting health crises that kill more Africans by far, such as Malaria and tuberculosis, with little attention.

And then there is the destruction of the economies, especially the informal economies, which are actually the lifeline for the majority of Africans, all raising questions around whether or not the time is now to give meaning to the idea of working together to address challenges that are common to all.

East Africa has also experienced a multiplication of the levels of poverty in communities that were already grossly excluded from public services to begin with.

Just as coronavirus has exposed the frailties in the health systems in most African countries, it has also deepened the gap between the poor and the rich, between those who actually work very hard in the informal sector, and the rich whose main source of wealth is theft of public resources.

PUBLIC WELFARE

In fact, Covid has increased the chances for such theft in some countries, as money earmarked to fight the disease was released without oversight mechanisms to ensure transparency in the use of these resources and a lot of the wicked and the weak hearted who roam the corridors of power helped themselves to the money that was meant to save lives. 

Kenyan social media spaces exploded over the last ten days with stories of how officials have diverted Covid money.

The pandemic has laid bare the weak underbelly of the public welfare system that can respond to the mass unemployment triggered by the lockdowns. Small businesses have collapsed, wages have disappeared, savings have dwindled, millions of East Africans have lost their basic livelihoods and there is nothing in the public system that can come to their rescue.

How can a continent that is said to be swimming in natural resources be so poor as to fail to care for its people in such dire circumstances as these? Surely, this can’t be about lack of capacity to prop the most impoverished among us!

To what extent can countries manage these impacts on their own? As Covid-19 continues to ravage the region, both in terms of taking attention and resources away from everything else that needs attention and in terms of economic damage the pandemic response measures have exacted, the EAC leaders have only had one virtual summit since the disease touched down in the region, supposedly to strategize and coordinate their governments’ approach to combating the pandemic.

They designated the ministries that would be in charge of the war on Covid-19 and instructed them to work together. But there has been woefully little by way of that coordination.

Instead, it seems all the countries have chosen to chart their own approach to combating the disease, none of them managing, neither the disease nor the economic damage, perhaps with the exception of Rwanda and Uganda, which have shown relative success in national emergency responses, though the verdict on these two is still out.

After all, they are also the two most controlled societies, where the governments are more heavy-handed, for only God knows what they are doing to their people under the cover of pandemic control measures.

COLLABORATION

For the region, the immediate reaction was for each country to try to fight the virus individually within its borders, mainly because of the initial thinking that restriction of movement, border closures and isolation were the strongest weapons against Covid-19, on top of personal hygiene recommendations.

That may well be the case. But it was not long before the leaders of each country recognized defeat by the virus, as these measures were not enough to curb the transmission of the virus across borders, given that trade had to continue, as life had to be sustained.

Countries began to contemplate collaboration between members of the EAC, but none of the governments took the initiative to push for a collaborative approach to the emergency.

And then we have the bizarre behaviors being exhibited at all levels of society in each country. Tanzania has already declared that it is in “post Coronavirus” era, after months of President John Pombe Magufuli urging his fellow citizens to pray hard and Coronavirus will not amount to anything.

In Kenya, test results take weeks to be available, sometimes coming after the patient is dead or has recovered. As anyone who knows Kenya could have foretold how the country’s legendary capacity to shamelessly pocket resources earmarked for public goods and services, Covid-19 was God sent and some people became very wealthy overnight on the backs of the pandemic and its victims.

The Burundian political leadership, through their defiance of public health recommendations, decided they were immune to the disease, leading to the tragic death of the outgoing president, Pierre Nkurunziza, and the quarantining of the in-coming leadership.

South Sudan has all but given up on testing when its lockdown measures became futile and its health system overwhelmed. In a country with no responsive government, citizens may well surrender their lives to the Almighty!

Despite the recognition that no EAC member state can successfully combat this pandemic by going it alone, coordination and collective strategies have not materialized.

The failure to achieve a region-wide plan against Covid-19 is born of a ridiculous, illogical and complex web of inter-state competition, rough personal relations between heads of state, negative stereotypes between citizens across the borders and suspicion that some countries would not pull their weight in such a collaboration, each thinking they have a better chance in focusing their resources on their own citizens first before the nationals of the other countries.

That thinking about the nationals of the other countries is inherently thinking about one’s own citizens has totally eluded our leaders.

PROMISES BROKEN

This has happened numerously before, where challenges that affect the whole region, not just in public health emergencies, but in matters of security, development, diplomacy, peace-building and control of firearms, have always been approached individualistically.

When citizens expected the governments to work in concert with each other so as to forge common positions in the region’s dealings with the rest of the world, the EAC leaders have always remained more likely to fight among themselves than to agree on coordinated solutions to common problems.

In other words, if the EAC has been all but useless in terms of living up to the promises for which it was set up, nothing has grounded that reality the way this global health crisis is doing today.

Talking to East African earlier this past week, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda underscored the existence of these cracks between bloc member states and the failure by some to recognize the urgent need to coordinate efforts to combat Covid, but he fell short of outlining a strategy that could prompt the others to see that their success is intrinsically linked to the success of the others in the region.

As things stand, officials in each country assume the others have little to offer. It is a fundamental failure of regional trade blocs the world over; but for East Africa, it is a sad case of diminution of the Pan African ideals, that we are all one people and a sign of that unwinnable race to the top that is fueled by the desire to perpetuate colonial era barriers between people who should otherwise see themselves as having a common destiny.

Failure to coordinate pandemic response measures confirms what many East African citizens have always known and have lamented over the years about the inability of the trade bloc to rally together even when collective action is recognized by the leaders as the only thing that can save lives. Nothing seems to call East Africans’ bluff, about their constant talk of the need to integrate more, than this Covid crisis has done.

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