A constitution for East Africa: Is the time right?

15Oct 2017
Isaac Mwangi
The Guardian
A constitution for East Africa: Is the time right?

UNKNOWN to most people in the region, a small group of experts has been tasked with writing a constitution for a proposed confederation of the East African Community.

It is a task that they have been carrying out quietly, the latest event being a video conference that was scheduled for October 13, this year.

One can imagine the herculean, unenviable task that faces this team. They must get to know intimately the political history and realities of all the countries in the region. 

They must recognize the many currents of political opinion, protest, internal contests, and other factors at play in all six partner states, and then seek to reconcile these to a common ideal that is acceptable to all.

And there is not a single country without its own internal struggles and contradictions. Tanzania, which is perhaps the most cohesive country in East Africa, still has to deal with the secessionist sentiments of many Zanzibaris, who feel that the union is not working for them and that elections are usually rigged in favour of pro-union candidates. 

While it has peacefully undergone several political transitions since the advent of multiparty politics in the country, there are still currents of disaffection with the way the country is governed and dictatorial tendencies.

Uganda has long had problems between the national government and the kingdoms, especially Buganda. There is also the long-running conflict that for a long time engulfed the north of the country. 

The politics of the country revolves around the incumbent leader, President Yoweri Museveni, including constant changes to the country’s constitution so as to perpetuate his stay in power.

Rwanda has undergone a painful past of conflict between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority, culminating in the bloodbath that was the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the rise to power of the Rwandan Patriotic Front. 

While President Paul Kagame has won accolades for his able steering of the country’s economy, the country’s politics can hardly be said to be competitive nor its culture truly free and democratic.

Burundi’s problems are well known, and it is a miracle that the country has held together despite the conflict and agitation of the past couple of years. It is not a democracy by any stretch of the imagination, and numerous human rights violations have been reported in recent times.

South Sudan, of course, is a textbook case in the art of civil war. The two major ethnic groups – the Dinka and the Nuer – do not see eye-to-eye and are perpetual rivals. Their conflict has taken a huge toll on the young country, once again claiming thousands of lives and sending refugees across the country’s borders.

Kenya, the region’s biggest economy, now also appears to be moving from one constitutional crisis to another. There is no knowing where all this will end, with reactionary establishment forces keen  to undermine its progressive 2010 constitution and the opposition held by Raila Odinga holding its ground. The country is badly divided on ethnic lines, and there is talk of secession by some opposition zones.How, then, can anyone even start dreaming of coming up with an East African constitution for a possible confederation that will bring together all these disparate interests? 

Yet, that is what the noble integration process aims to do. And while there have been notable successes over the years, the project has become increasingly slow and frustrating as it moves from simple collaboration in business to the more concrete stages of a proposed Monetary Union as well as a political confederation.

In fact, we are stuck at the second stage of establishing a Common Market, without which a Monetary Union will be an impossibility. It is only after establishing a single currency regime that the region can think of coming together in a political arrangement of some sort.Going by the political myopia and shenanigans going on in each of the partner states, political federation – now downgraded to confederation – may perhaps be far-fetched. 

Of course, none of the ruling elites in these countries will be willing to cede political control to any significant extent. If agreeing on less controversial matters such as non-tariff barriers is a near-impossibility, what about ceding political control?

Moreover, drafting a constitution before consulting the ordinary people in each of these countries is perhaps putting the cart before the horse. Will this constitution, drafted from hotel rooms by the so-called experts on our behalf and without public input, one day see the light of day? Only time will tell.East African News agency