Originally published on 2012/02/06
A typically overlooked consequence of the EU’s fall from global grace due to its financial crisis is the debate it has precipitated at the highest political levels of East Africa. Since its most recent inception in 1996, the East African Community (EAC)-an envisioned political and fiscal union of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi- has looked to the European Union as a role model for regional integration, the embodiment of all it aspires to achieve. However, with the recent Euro Zone crisis and political fracturing within the EU, discontent has begun to circulate amongst the East African countries involved; should they heed the warning of the European Union and abandon their endeavour before it’s too late?
Political union- fast track to prosperity?
Some proponents of the EAC claim a single regional currency can work once they avoid the major pitfall that is currently creating a headache in Europe- the creation of a single currency without unified integration of fiscal policy and legislation. While this undoubtedly was a major contributing factor to the Euro debt crisis, it is disingenuous in the extreme to claim this is the only obstacle the EAC needs to overcome. The reality in East Africa couldn’t be more different from life in Europe; East Africa is an underdeveloped region with a largely uneducated population. The region is prone to sporadic outbursts of conflict and political violence and its leaders have decidedly autocratic tendencies – Museveni of Uganda and Kagame of Rwanda in particular. The governments in question claim that integration will boost all their economies. But in reality, their respective economies would be better served by political stability, improved infrastructure and universal education.
What’s in it for Europe?
So why is the EU assisting in this half-hearted endeavour? Because of economics, oil and terrorism. As undeveloped as it may be, there is no doubt that the region is experiencing growth, with countries in East Africa reporting a 5.4% growth rate per annum (Africa Report) in the last ten years. The region is also rich in natural resources, with minerals abundant and oil recently found in Uganda; coincidentally, a British company holds the rights for oil exploration and extraction in the country.
The main motivation in the EU backing the creation of the EAC is most likely fear of terrorism. The Horn and East Africa are the latest, most dangerous flashpoints for Islamic extremism and other forms of terrorism. Sudan was hosting Islamic fundamentalist terrorists as far back as the ‘80s when Osama Bin Laden and his cohorts enjoyed the hospitality of Khartoum; Somalia, devastated by decades of famine and war, has long been a breeding ground for terrorists with the hard-line Islamic group Al-Shabaab gaining massive ground in recent years, becoming so bold as to launch military incursions into neighbouring countries such as Kenya and kidnapping westerners. Old-fashioned piracy is also widespread in the region. The West does not want to intervene militarily, following the disastrous US peacekeeping mission in Somalia in ’92, but are quite happy to support proxy wars; Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia all have troops fighting in Somalia, trained and equipped by the US, Germany and other EU countries. The EU would hope that an inter-country alliance in the region, strong or otherwise, would provide some buffer to the rapid growth of terrorism.
Is the EU in a position to be giving advice?
The EU has been advising and assisting EAC leaders on the process of forming a union, although noticeably less so since the financial crisis took hold. Despite the serious reservations of many, the EAC is pressing ahead with its first step, a monetary union. A fact- finding mission was sent to Brussels earlier this month to examine how best to emulate the common currency. Political insiders claim that the EAC is not solely influenced by the EU but has also been encouraged in their endeavour from witnessing the economic growth of the fourteen West and Central African nations which share a common currency. The EAC does wish to create a more integrated community however, including customs and legal uniformity and for this it is still looking to the European example.
Reality sets in
The possibility of such a political union remains a distant reality however, especially following the disingenuous remarks made recently by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni about the inclusion of South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo in the EAC. Newly independent South Sudan has yet to prove it can function as a state and the DRC is one of the ultimate examples of a ‘failed state’; if Museveni was hoping to silence critics with his remark, he simply provided them with another reason as to why the EAC won’t work.
However, the threat of terrorism and the promise of new, resource rich economies are prompting the EU to provide encouragement and support. It is clear that East African leaders intend to pursue this project and will continue to watch events in the EU closely, following the example, and heeding the warnings of Europe.
Tag Words: European Union; East African Community; Horn of Africa; development; terrorism.