East Africa has been blessed, at least for the past decade, with a level of political stability rarely found on the African continent. Amid this period of relative calm, the East African Community (EAC) has enjoyed unbridled growth and rapid progress toward fulfilling its mission to merge its members — Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and, most recently, South Sudan — into a single, federated state. But despite its successes, the bloc may have a hard time turning its aspirations into reality. The common market that the EAC established on paper has been rendered feckless in practice by its members’ unwillingness to play by the rules. Some EAC states have more to gain from deeper integration than others, and with the region’s history of colonial rule, few East African countries are eager to cede their hard-won sovereignty. These concerns, along with long-standing political differences, will stand in the way of the bloc’s ambitious effort to erase the borders that lie between its members.
The physical and human landscapes blanketing Africa’s Great Lakes region are powerful forces that pull the surrounding states closer to one another. The ethnic and tribal groups that settled around Lake Victoria, many of which speak similar languages, overlap and intermingle in spite of the national boundaries that separate them. That many of the region’s political borders were drawn arbitrarily — often the result of grand bargains between imperial European powers — has only reinforced the Great Lakes states’ need to work together to transcend them.
Because Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi are landlocked, they have an added incentive to cooperate with their coastal neighbors to gain access to the sea. This has ensured that, despite a strong desire for individual sovereignty, the region’s governments depend on one another to maintain the health of their economies, regardless of the state of their diplomatic relations. Kenya, East Africa’s coastal economic powerhouse, has also been a longtime proponent of deeper integration, giving a boost to efforts to knit the region closer together. This is not to say those efforts have been resisted, though. Given the acute infrastructure deficit in East African countries, promoting themselves to foreign investors and producers as a combined market of more than 146 million people, rather than as relatively small states, is well worth their time.
A Legacy of Cooperation
With so many factors driving the Great Lakes states together, it should be no surprise that attempts to create a more formal union came fairly early. In the 1880s, Germany and Belgium signed the Congo Basin treaties, imposing a free trade area on the region. A few decades later, Britain — the prevailing European power in East Africa — established a customs union between Uganda and Kenya that Tanganyika, the precursor to modern-day Tanzania, eventually joined. As with other corners of their vast empire, the British hoped the customs union would someday meld its members into a political federation before they became independent states.
But it was not to be. Ten years after attempting to create the first iteration of the EAC in 1967, the newly independent Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda parted ways, citing irreconcilable economic and political differences. (The latter even sparked a war between Tanzania and Uganda in 1978.) One of the biggest sources of contention was Kenya’s dominance of the bloc, which from Uganda and Tanzania’s perspective benefitted Nairobi at their expense. Though the EAC tried redistributing the bloc’s wealth to placate its smaller members, no state was pleased with the results: Kenyan officials saw the program as an undue burden, while their Ugandan and Tanzanian counterparts felt it did not go far enough. Tanzania, meanwhile, had begun to experiment with socialism, which often alienated it from the EAC’s other market-oriented economies. Political incompatibilities soon arose as well, especially between Tanzania and Uganda when it was discovered that Dodoma was harboring rebels bent on toppling the government in Kampala. By 1977, the EAC had collapsed.
But the EAC did not stay shuttered. Its original members signed a new treaty in 2000 that reopened the organization, headquartered in Arusha, Tanzania, and touted a bold new agenda: to implement a free trade agreement, customs union, common market, monetary union and, in time, a political federation. Seven years later, Rwanda and Burundi became the EAC’s fourth and fifth members, and in September 2016, South Sudan was inducted into the bloc.
Standing in the Way of Success
The EAC has already achieved several of its goals. In addition to establishing a free trade agreement and customs union, the bloc launched a common market in 2010. Its implementation has been rocky, however, largely because of the competing visions for the EAC’s future held by its two largest economies: Kenya and Tanzania.
Kenya, with a gross domestic product of $63 billion last year, is significantly bigger and more economically diverse than the bloc’s four other members, an advantage that it has not hesitated to use over the years to push for deeper integration. As a critical export hub — Mombasa is home to the largest port in East Africa — Kenya has also had the unwavering support of its landlocked neighbor, Uganda, which has few other avenues to international markets. The two countries’ most important population centers lie next to each other as well, giving them even more reason to act in unison in matters of economics and politics.
Tanzania, however, is set apart from Kenya and Uganda both geographically and politically. With a GDP of $44 billion, Tanzania has the EAC’s second-largest economy, but the bulk of its population is centered on the coastal city of Dar es Salaam, far from the Great Lakes region. As a result, the government in Dodoma has had to divide its attention between the EAC to the north and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to the south, a bloc with which Tanzania has also committed to connect more deeply. Because it is not as reliant on the EAC as Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi are, Tanzania is frequently the member least eager to pursue certain aspects of integration.
But the divergence between Kenya and Uganda on one hand and Tanzania on the other is not the only thing standing in the way of the bloc’s success. Regardless of EAC states’ theoretical support for integration, powerful domestic interests have stymied its actual implementation. For example, the common market, which is still in the process of being enacted six years after its creation, has been watered down by exceptions for individual members. According to the EAC Secretariat, there are more than 63 measures that are “inconsistent with commitments by members to liberalize their trade services,” as well as more than 170 exemptions to the bloc’s common external tariff and severe restrictions on the movement of capital.
Still, the EAC has been far more willing to forge ahead with its economic goals than delve into the realm of defense, as economic unions elsewhere have. The bloc has been largely reticent to take on a role in regional security, preferring instead to leave such issues to other multilateral organizations such as the United Nations and the African Union. Meanwhile, its members remain committed to the eventual goal of becoming a political federation, even if the likelihood of it coming to fruition is low.
Out of Reach
Though there are many reasons EAC members would want to create a political federation, including greater efficiency and economic benefits, there are plenty more reason they might not. For one, independence is a treasured part of each country’s national identity, made all the more precious by the region’s loss of sovereignty under colonialism. No EAC government would give up a share of its power lightly. Moreover, the political realities within each state often prevent deeper integration. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, for example, frequently directs his government to harass members of the opposition; his inability to share authority within his own country often translates into an unwillingness to cede power to international institutions as well. His firm leadership style is not atypical of other EAC members either: Rwandan President Paul Kagame also rules his nation with an iron fist. Most important, though, some of the factors responsible for the EAC’s 1977 collapse still exist. Kenya, still East Africa’s heavyweight, has not taken kindly to Tanzania’s recent attempts to snag important infrastructure deals in the region, and their rivalry might yet destabilize the bloc.
The addition of South Sudan to the bloc could complicate things as well. South Sudan’s oil reserves and its desire to wean itself off Sudan’s export infrastructure initially made its inclusion in the organization appealing to other EAC states, but its profound weaknesses and persistent instability may mean its membership is more trouble than it is worth. Now that South Sudan has joined the EAC, it could upset the delicate process of political alignment and cooperation the bloc has worked so hard to advance.
Nevertheless, these obstacles will not stop the EAC’s members from pursuing the benefits of a fully developed economic union, even if a political federation remains out of reach. The ideals of the EAC are still popular throughout East Africa, and it is possible, if unlikely, that a monetary union may yet be established. After all, the region has managed to build customs and monetary unions before, and the EAC has vowed to set up its monetary union by 2023. The details of what that union would look like are still in flux, and it is unclear how much a common currency would benefit EAC members other than Kenya and Uganda. But regardless of its difficulties, the bloc has already achieved far more than most of the economic unions throughout the African continent, if not the world.