What you need to know:
- The East African Community (EAC) finds itself bordered by volatility to the west, east and the north.
- Volatility in the region poses grave challenges to the community as it pursues an economic growth agenda driven by integration and increased cross-border trade.
- The events in Juba over the past three weeks and hostility experienced in Somalia and the DRC will certainly hold back regional companies hoping to expand into new markets within eastern Africa.
Hours after giving his 50th anniversary celebration speech on December 12 last year, President Uhuru Kenyatta witnessed the signing of a peace pact between the Democratic Republic of Congo and March 23 rebels, calming a fire that had been burning on the edge of East African Community’s western border since April 2012.
Fourteen days later, President Kenyatta would spend Boxing Day in Juba, South Sudan, trying to quell another conflict that had flared in yet another neighbour state of the region.
The East African Community (EAC) finds itself bordered by volatility to the west, east and the north.
In the early days of 2014, security experts have already begun questioning whether the détente between President Joseph Kabila’s government and the March 23 (M23) will last. This is after Kinshasa came under fresh attacks on New Year’s Eve.
In Addis Ababa, South Sudan peace talks progressed slowly last week but it remains to be seen how far the civil unrest in Juba runs. Despite a relative lull in Somalia, reprisal attacks targeted at Kenya by the al-Shabaab are evidence that the terror threat is far from neutralised.
Volatility in the region poses grave challenges to the community as it pursues an economic growth agenda driven by integration and increased cross-border trade.
For one, conflict flare-ups in the region potentially stunt the EAC’s expansionary ambitions to extend membership to other countries. Hostilities in neighbouring countries have limited cross-border expansion of companies born within the community.
“There have always been plans for the EAC to expand and bring in new markets for our businesses. I am not sure how feasible this is in the near future, with the instability in the region,” said Dr Phillip Kasaija of the Institute of Security Studies.
Fresh members could provide the trading bloc with an expanded market for its goods and services. The promise of vast mineral resources under the ground in South Sudan and the DRC is also more than tantalising for the community’s member states.
In addition, the countries could provide gateways to the rest of the continent.
South Sudan is seen as the link between the EAC and North Africa while closer economic ties with the DRC could open up Central and West Africa, boosting the Africa-wide vision of increasing intra-regional trade and establishing a continental economic bloc.
However, the events in Juba over the past three weeks and hostility experienced in Somalia and the DRC will certainly hold back regional companies hoping to expand into new markets within eastern Africa.
EASTERN AFRICAN TRADE JEOPARDISED
Kenyan companies are already counting losses accruing from disruption of operations in the now war-torn South Sudan, with firms like Kenya Airways having suspended flights to Juba for a whole week.
Government infrastructure projects linking Kenya, Uganda and South Sudan remain in limbo.
Beyond missed economic opportunities, the threat that these conflicts may spill over into the EAC remains very much alive. After all, eastern DRC has been turned into a perpetual warzone over the past two decades, partly by the residual impact of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
“As long as there is conflict in one country, it destabilises the rest of the region,” said international relations scholar, Prof Macharia Munene.
HUB FOR ILLICIT TRADE
Further, renewed conflicts in some of these volatile spots could raise East Africa’s profile as a hub for illicit trade. The United Nations already notes that the region is proliferated with small and light weapons.
It has also been postulated that proceeds from poaching, which is on the rise in the region, are being used to fund conflict.
The combination of a thriving black market and insecurity has the potential to harm East Africa’s attractiveness to investors. In September, credit rating firm Moody’s predicted that Kenya’s economic growth could be reduced by as much as 0.5 per cent as a repercussion of the Westgate terror attack.
On September 21, Terrorists claiming revenge on Kenya for its intervention in Somalia laid siege to the upmarket mall, leading to the deaths of at least 67 people in the ensuing days.
Statistics released by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics seemed to agree with this prediction, with growth having slowed down in the third quarter of 2013 in comparison with a similar period in 2012.
COUNTRIES WANT IN
South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia have over the past few years separately expressed interest in joining the EAC fold but their instability has delayed the process.
Somalia submitted its application to join the EAC in February 2012. A verification team from the bloc is set to be sent to the country but instability could make it difficult for Somalia to meet the EAC’s membership requirements.
South Sudan had advanced the most in its efforts to join the group, with negotiations having been scheduled for next week — January 13–22. However, as Juba continues to look for a resolution to the conflict, it remains unclear whether the talks will continue.
Despite already holding membership in the South African Development Community (SADC), the Democratic Republic of Congo has in the past not been shy about its intentions to become an EAC member.
However, lukewarm relations with some EAC partner states have been a stumbling block in the journey to full membership status.
SOLUTIONS CAUSING PROBLEMS
Driven by the now in vogue mantra of “African solutions for African problems”, and also realising the threat posed by conflict flare-ups in the region, EAC partner states have not taken a back seat.
They have made interventions both as individual states and as a community.
However, intervention, in some cases, has posed a threat of its own to unity within the community. Last year, Tanzania jumped into the fray of the conflict between the M23 rebels and Kinshasa by leading a United Nations peace enforcement mission against the rebel group.
This was within the context of accusations against another East African Community partner state, Rwanda, of backing the M23 in an effort to gain influence over the resource-rich eastern DRC.
Rwanda was also accused of fighting a proxy war with another rebel group, the FDRL, by backing the M23.
In May 2013, after Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete suggested that Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame engage the FDRL in dialogue, relations between the two countries cooled to historical lows.
Tension was further stoked after Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya grouped themselves under the Coalition of the Willing to pursue integration goals while excluding Tanzania and Burundi.
Dr Kasaija raised concerns that constant fire-fighting by EAC partner states in conflicts outside their borders could detract them from the economic agenda of integration.
He called for acceleration in the effecting of the East African Standby Force which would be mandated with intervening in conflict zones in the region.
CLOUD PEACE MISSIONS
“I am critical of the direct involvement of some EAC partner states in some of these conflicts. In some situations, national interests may begin to cloud the peace building mission,” he said.
The East African Standby force would be part of the larger Africa Standby Force.
African Union member states in 2003 begun establishing the force, which is intended to include civilian, military and police elements.
However, a 2010 deadline for its operationalisation has since been pushed to 2015.
Nevertheless, research indicates that the cohesive forces of economic integration do have a significant positive effect on peace building in East Africa.
A February 2013 paper published by the Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies at the University of Nairobi concludes that the establishment of the East African Community has had a significant impact on peace building and conflict resolution in the region.