The outgoing East African Community (EAC) Deputy Secretary General in charge of Political Federation, Ms Beatrice Kiraso, last week completed her second and final three-year term serving the regional body.
In this interview granted to SUKHDEV CHHATBAR, the Ugandan economist-turned-diplomat explains her stay at the EAC, the challenges for a political federation and what she sees as a way forward in the regional integration process, among others. Some excerpts….
Q: In general terms, how have been the six years of pushing for political integration in EA. Are you satisfied that some progress is being made?
A: Oh yes, what we have so far taken might not look like big strides, but there is certainly a lot of progress. I am confident that the region will not backtrack on some of these important processes because we have defined the content and highlighted their centrality in the integration process.
Q: What are the issues that you once thought were too sensitive to discuss but are now freely talked about?
A: You know, a political federation is provided for in the Treaty as the ultimate goal of this integration process. The way it is put is like the item will drop, like manna, from above and then we will open our eyes to find ourselves in a political federation. The pain of the process has not been envisaged.
Therefore, I have had the unenviable duty to bring to the fore those key aspects of political governance that need to be harmonized, those that the partner states may have to discard, best practices that they will inevitably have to adopt and, more importantly, the fact that they will have to give up some of their sovereignty and pool it at the centre.
Q: There is a general perception that you have done very well in your mandate. Why do you describe your duty as unenviable?
A: Thank you for the compliment. I say unenviable maybe because I am looking at it through the lenses of my ambitions and what I think we have attained. Outsiders usually see changes better because they evaluate after a period. For us insiders we are used to getting small increments that are not quantifiable on a daily basis.
My office handles sectors that would otherwise be a protected preserve of the sovereign countries. As such, sometimes the feel I get when they the policy organs are discussing the reports of my office is not that motivating. I guess this is where the ‘unenviable’ comes from.
So what would motivate me? Since we intend to become one country called East Africa, I would like to see us systematically embarking on harmonization with a view to having East African standards on issues of democracy, constitutionalism, protection and promotion of human rights, curbing and preventing corruption, ensuring equitable administration of justice and upholding the rule of law while ensuring equal opportunities. If these are not addressed, even the economic integration will not yield positive results because their sustainability is not grounded on solid rock.
Q: What would you consider as your biggest strength in executing your mandate?
A: I do not want to take undue credit for work that we have done as a team. My biggest strength comes from the conviction about the overall benefits of integration and eventually the East African Federation. In executing the work related to this conviction, I had a lean but committed team .
In spite of increase in the work of my office, opening up so many activities in the areas of peace and security, foreign policy co-ordination and political integration issues, including those specific to the practical establishment of political federation processes, the Office of DSG (PF) remains small in terms of human and financial resources.
I am the only DSG who has no director while the rest have two each. So, the team has been a fabulous one and I shall forever cherish their support and stamina.
Q: Could you talk a little bit more about how you managed to promote this team work in your office?
A: First of all we have regular meetings - which help each one of us to know what is going on in each of the departments. They step in for each other on any issue and in any meeting.
Secondly, I take everyone as a colleague. I do not have this ‘boss-subordinate’ hang-over. It is in my personal trait to want people to feel at ease and free with me, to the extent that I can proudly say the staff under my office are my personal friends.
Q: How were you able to create this bond?
A: When I was appointed in 2006, I had no officers. The Office of DSG (PF) started with me, a secretary and a desk. Then we advertized the first few posts and I got officers. When people find you there, you have the opportunity to set for them the agenda, the pace and style of work. So I had this advantage.
I hope that the DSG who comes after me will take advantage of this bond that exists and use it to achieve even more than what I was able to during my tenure.
Q: What do you see as the targets to be achieved in the coming years?
A: Plenty. We have come too far to turn back now.
On the immediate agenda and near conclusion are protocols like the one on Peace and Security, the one on Good Governance, Combating and Prevention of Corruption, Staff Immunities and Privileges as well as the ratification of the protocol on Foreign Policy Co-ordination which was signed in November 2010.
Then there are some mechanisms like the Conflict Prevention Management Resolution (CPMR) and the Early Warning Mechanism (EWM) which are part of our Peace and Security Programme and Strategy.
Another important one provided for in the CPMR framework, as well as in the draft Good Governance Protocol, is the establishment of the EAC Panel of Eminent Persons. Directly specific to the establishment of the political federation, you know that the summit of Heads of State last November mandated the Secretariat to propose the model and structure of the Political Federation of East Africa and present it to them in November, this year. I have attempted to put down some ideas in a working document around which more ideas can be generated to carry out this assignment. I am very glad this decision finally came from the Summit.
A: Because we are talking about political federation in the abstract! We need to be clear on what kind of federation we are talking about so that some certainty can be allayed. Political federation will now cease to be looked at as a big monster that is coming to swallow us, but as a means to enhance sustainable socio-economic development, as a vehicle to push East Africa from a low-income to a middle income region. I wish we could put a timeframe to such an inspiration.
Q: Do you have fears that such an inspiration may not be attained?
A: I am not a pessimist, but I also have to be realistic from the way things are moving. My fear is that if some hard decisions are not taken we may continue moving in circles and fail to achieve these great aspirations.
Q: In light of the case before the East African Court of Justice challenging last November’s Summit decision on the way forward on political federation, do you envisage that the process will continue to be on course?
A: Absolutely. I was taken aback when I read the petition from a concerned citizen, if I may refer to him as such. Sometimes when you act out of emotion, you can make mistakes that have irreversible results. I shall not speak about the merits and demerits of the case as it is now subjudice.
However, I shall restate what I have already said, that hard decisions will have to be taken. From acts like this one, that moment seems to be coming sooner than politeness could ever have allowed.
Maybe it is time to get honest and go for variable geometry which was put in the Treaty for a reason—to avoid a forced marriage.
Q: You mentioned of hard decisions. What kind of hard decisions do you think the partner states should take to push forward the political integration process?
A: One is for the partner states’ governments to let go of their enormous powers over the integration process, allow some more authority of decision making at the centre. The other is to make the process indeed people-centred as is enshrined in the Treat.
But now we see resistance when we bring other stakeholders to be part of this decision-making process. It is engineered bureaucracy, tedious, time-wasting.
The notion of consensus also seems to have served its purpose as we were rebuilding the Community following a violent collapse. Time has come for that consensus to be defined so that it is not ‘veto power’ over those who want to move.
The East African Court of Justice interpreted that consensus does not mean unanimity. So, in my humble personal view, the notion of consensus is being misused, and if it remains undefined the pace of this integration process will be determined by the slowest partner. I don’t think this was the intention of those who made the Treaty.
The other decision will be to empower the other organs of the Community - the Court and the Assembly in particular - by giving them supremacy over national areas because finally they will form the nucleus as we move to political federation.
Other powerful and independent institutions will need to be established to oversee implementation of the customs union and common market. As for monetary union, the initial arrangement for its execution will need a lot of political will and commitment to minimize arbitrary actions by the partner states on macro-economic issues.
An equitability mechanism needs to be deliberated on so that some countries do not become mere markets for others. The benefits of integration need to be tangible for all. I also strongly feel there will be a need for strong monitoring and evaluation to ensure compliance with agreed upon standards.
Q: How do you feel when people refer to you as ‘Mama Federation’,’Mama Shirikisho’, ‘Mama Siasa’?
A: Well, I wish I had born a baby called federation so the name would be well deserved.
But some of the people who don’t like the federation have also associated me with it so much so that, as you remember, when we convened a meeting in one of the partner states to collect people’s views on the Good Governance Protocol, even before I spoke there was an uproar from some of the audience saying, ”Tumeshawambia hatutaki shirikisho”, meaning ‘’We have already said we don’t want political federation’’.
By the way, a scientific study carried out during the National Consultative Committees found that over 80 per cent of East Africans support the EA Political Federation. The variation of opinion was on the issue of fast-tracking it. Either way, I have had a nice time listening to these extreme views.
Q: Would you cite one incident that you found unreasonably amusing while executing your work?
A: Several, but one which stands out is when a professor went on a talk show and said I should be tried for treason for saying that a political federation will entail surrendering sovereignty. There was panic among some of the staff here at the office and they were surprised to see me laughing it off.
Q: Were you not scared?
A: Me? Why would I be scared? First of all, that is the truth and the earlier we all come to terms with it the better. Secondly, political federation was not my personal project, I was appointed by the heads of state of the EAC countries to actually fast-track the process... On a serious note, you cannot want to integrate and also want to keep 100 per cent independence and sovereignty.
For the bigger common good to be attained, something has to be given up. In this case, unfortunately, it is the sovereignty.
So we have a choice: to keep sovereignty over poverty, international inferiority and no voice even over our own destiny, or to integrate and become a bigger entity, economically more viable and politically relevant, but also a bigger voice in the international arena and have something to offer - a bigger market, larger investments and higher income.
Q: Is it not a contradiction: That all these potential benefits are not appreciated by some people?
A: A very big contradiction. As I said before, the process is long and painful but, like a bitter pill, we have to take it to overcome our sickness.
Q: Are you satisfied with your performance at the EAC?
A: I feel great! I am happy I was given this opportunity to serve at the regional level. I am confident I have made some contribution. Maybe I could have done better, but I am satisfied that I put in my all and tried my best. It was time well spent.
Q: Do you feel sad that you are now leaving?
A: Not at all. When I came, I knew I was serving for a specific period and I knew it would end now. It’s not like it was abrupt, unexpected or that my services were terminated. So, I don’t feel sad; but I will miss this work for which I have great passion and, of course, I will miss you guys. We were like a great happy family.
Q: Any idea what you will do after EAC?
A: (Laughs….) Probably try some farming?
Q. How about going back to politics?
A: No, no! Actually I’ll go back to my profession, which is economics.
Q: I don’t want to be too nosy, but where would we find you to continue getting your counsel?
A: Oh, we should always remain in touch, not only with the immediate office colleagues but the entire EAC family. I am joining the UN to head the Economic Commission for Africa Sub-Regional Office for Southern Africa. My office will be in Lusaka, Zambia, so I will still work with the EAC, especially on issues related to the EAC-COMESA-SADC Tripartite.
Q: What message do you have for EAC?
A: A simple one: keep the fire burning through the tunnel, don’t wait to find it at the end of the tunnel as I see no-one there who will put it on but yourselves. God bless you, God bless EAC, and God bless Africa.
Q: A last word: Any special acknowledgement(s)/appreciation you wish to make?
A: Thank you. Yes, I would like to record my appreciation to some people. First, my President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni and the government of Uganda for having entrusted me with this task and nominating me for appointment by the Summit. I also wish to thank the presidents of the EAC partner states.
Thirdly, the Council of Ministers who endorsed my nomination. Fourthly, the colleagues with whom I served on the executive but, more notably, Ambassador Juma Mwapachu, the former EAC secretary general, with whom I worked very closely for five years.
He gave the space and latitude that I needed to execute my mandate. Then, of course, the entire staff of EAC who accorded me respect in a measure I cannot define. Again, notably among them, are those in my office that absorbed the pressure and even at the worst times when we were overwhelmed with work, could afford a smile.
The Ugandan community in Arusha was great, holding me in high esteem and making me feel special whenever we had our functions.
Then there is my family back home who painfully accepted my schedule and instead of blaming me for long spells of absence, empathized with me because of the busy schedule and frequent travels.
I also would wish to thank the media, especially those that maintained special interest in the activities of political integration. I get amazed when they call me to say: “You are quiet, we want to know how the political federation is progressing?’’.
I also wish to take this opportunity to thank wholeheartedly those who could not be mentioned in this little space, but we associated or worked together in one way or the other.
If I may add, let me also say that, if in the course of my duty my actions injured the feelings, emotions or spirits of some, please understand that my interest was not in causing that injury.
There was a job to be done, with its imperatives, and I happen to have been the one entrusted with that job. And, as I leave, someone else is taking over the mantle. I pray for the understanding of all to support whoever is taking over from me.