The crux of the matter is what Nkurunziza claims to be aggression against Burundi by their northern neighbors Rwanda – also an EAC member state.
Nkurunziza accuses Rwanda of being behind a coup d’état attempt that he survived in 2015. He still believes that Rwanda continues support the coup perpetrators as they continue with their efforts to oust him.
On December 4, Nkurunziza wrote to Museveni, asking him to convene an emergency summit of EAC heads of states to discuss the matter in detail. Nkurunziza’s letter came only a few days after his country skipped a similar heads of state summit meeting in Arusha. Because of the non-attendance, the meeting was called off.
In his response to Nkurunziza’s letter, Museveni urged the Burundi leader to attend the next EAC heads of states summit so that his concerns could be heard and discussed. It is amazing that Burundi decided to skip the first meeting where such a nagging problem could have been presented, discussed, and a possible solution charted jointly.
This is just one of many indications of increasing mistrust among EAC member states. There are a number of internal problems which some members have been struggling to address; issues in South Sudan, which is facing security and peace issues; in Rwanda, where then government is struggling with opposition politicians. Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania also have their internal issues.
The EAC has decided to remain on the sidelines of many of these issues on the4 pretext that it doesn’t want to interfere with the internal affairs of member states. Meanwhile, politicians are so preoccupied with these issues that they don’t have the time to address bloc-related problems such as tariff barriers. Stories of spats between and among EAC member states over trade misunderstandings are common.
It is these issues, sometimes deemed to be internal, which to a great extent impede progress in entrenching EAC to the people. And the private sector - the envisaged vehicle to carry the integration agenda forward - cannot function effectively under such circumstances.
Since its reintroduction in 1999, the EAC has become a club of blame games among its member states. The membership expansion from three to six members has not helped to normalize things. Traders from the private sector can still hardly access markets and capital available in other parts of the region. For instance, though they are neighbours, traders between Rwanda and Burundi cannot freely cross their common border and do business on the other side. And similar situations do abide between other EAC member states.
This should end now if we want to build a thriving community which benefits its common people.
The existence of these problems is a manifestation of, among other things, shortfalls in conflict resolution mechanisms in the region. For if these mechanisms were functioning well, then obviously these problems would not be recurring.
There is a need to try another mechanism. Mistrust and indifference among member states as well as lack of commitment has reached a point where some activities of the regional body are shelved because there is no money to conduct them, and that in turn is simply because member states have not been honouring their obligations to pay membership fees.
Now it may be between Burundi and Rwanda, but before that Uganda also had sour relations with Rwanda. At one time, Tanzania and Rwanda were not seeing eye to eye. Spats between Tanzania and Kenya, on business issues, are now so common as to hardly be news any more. Let us try another approach in solving these problems.
We could engage elderly statesmen in addressing these issues. The region is blessed with several retired presidents who have deep insights over regional integration. Ali Hassan Mwinyi, Benjamin Mkapa, Jakaya Kikwete, Daniel arap Moi, Mwai Kibaki, and Amani Abeid Karume, to name but a few, can help in areas which our current leaders may regard as untouchable.
Some of these ex-leaders helped in reshaping the regional grouping. Some of them helped to nurture it at its infancy stage. Therefore, they have a lot of knowledge and insight on how things can be worked out in the region.
Mkapa is helping to resolve the political problems in Burundi. Though no tangible progress has been made, it is good approach to resolving misunderstandings. But if we fail to engage these elderly statesmen, we can go back to the people who make up this regional grouping. Let us consult East Africans and ask them what they think of their regional integration.
Leaders might disregard this approach thinking that they know it all, but the fact of the matter is that the common wananchi know more than what their leaders know, because they are the ones living the regional integration. Since they know where the shoe pinches, obviously they will know what should be done to remove that pinch.
It would not hurt to go back to the drawing table and chart a new route if that is what it takes to make the regional integration thing work for these people.