The East Africa Community flag.

The East Africa Community flag.

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How the East African Community can resolve conflicts

East Africans should be a worried lot if the events at the recent 37th African Union Summit held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, are anything to go by.

There, leaders skirted around the glaring conflicts across the continent, dampening any hope the continental body would ride in to solve the problems. And those of us in the East African region may be forgiven for scratching our heads and posing the existential question: Is the East African Community (EAC) able to solve its conflicts?

Unless the bloc deals with issues of peace and security sooner, it will be near-impossible to make any headway on matters of economic and social development, which is what we are trying to accomplish through EAC and the African Union (AU).

Tired of a whack-a-mole conflict situation in the EAC region, there was enthusiasm 23 years after the dissolution of the original EAC; when a new Treaty for the establishment of a new EAC entered into force on July 7, 2000. Today there are eight members, up from the original three.

Yet that apparent integration risks being stillborn. A bombshell by Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the African Union Commission, on February 15, 2024, brought about a Kafkaesque feeling. He decried the phenomenal collapse of many of Africa’s institutions of regional and continental governance “affecting almost all regional economic communities (RECs).”

For beginners, the integration of Africa comprises eight RECs of which five are backed militarily by regional mechanisms (RMs), under the umbrella of the African Union. The EAC is one of the eight RECs. It was supported by one of the five RMs EAC Regional Force (EACRF), which is now defunct after its mandate in the Democratic Republic of Congo ended. The role of RMs, normally, is conflict intervention.

The EAC hasn’t been successful in resolving conflicts for three reasons. The first is the policy mismatch between the EAC and the AU, followed by insufficient political will. The third is funding.

The first is manifested in the principle of subsidiarity, which neither EAC nor AU has sufficiently defined, like the European Union has done. This has created a perception of intrusion and disruptive contradictions. 

For example, in his speech to the 37th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the AU, Mahamat said: “Subject to all unfortunate interpretations, subsidiarity has been overused. By a strange semantic shift, subsidiarity has come to sound like substitution.” 

On the other hand, on January 27, 2024, during the hand-over ceremony of the flag by the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF), following the refusal by DRC to extend their peacekeeping mission, EAC Secretary General Peter Mathuki said that the lessons learn from the deployment of EACRF “present opportunities for the Community to strengthen its role as the primary guarantor of peace and security in the region.”

Question then is, who between AU and EAC is the primary guarantor of peace and security in the region? In a study by Félicité Djilo and Paul-Simon Handy, published by Institute for Security Studies in 2021, they recommend that “African stakeholders must draw a clear distinction between the notions of ‘first responder’ (the region) and the ‘primary actor’ (the AU).

Regions should be the first to engage in the resolution of crises, but cannot be the main actor.” 

This clarity on subsidiarity should facilitate complementarity and proportionality between AU and EAC. In addition, each country has ambassadors seconded to the EAC and the AU and they should be able to harmonise policies.

The second reason is absence of real political goodwill from the African Heads of State. Mahamat laments that the frantic tendency to make decisions without real political will to implement them, has grown to such an extent that it has become devastating to our individual and collective credibility. “As an illustration, over the past three years (2021-23), 93 percent of decisions have not been implemented.”

Finally, the 2015 Kigali Decision to finance AU through the implementation of the 0.2 percent import levy, adopted in July 2016 has not picked momentum. As of the June 16, 2020, only 17 countries complied, out of 55, which were at various stages of domesticating the Kigali Decision. Within the EAC, only Kenya and Rwanda did.

So, in order for the EAC to have the ability to solve its conflicts, the AU and the EAC must first of all align their policies; and second, African leaders must demonstrate political goodwill; and finally, all the 55 member countries must implement the 0.2 percent import levy.

The author was the first Kenyan Ambassador to South Korea and is a specialist in Korean Peninsula Studies.