The East African Community already had its fair share of woes, way before the Covid-19 pandemic struck.
Burundi had, twice consecutively, frustrated convening of the 20th summit EAC of Heads of State. Rwanda and Uganda have been on each other’s necks for more than two years. Tanzania and Kenya, on the other hand, continue their protracted duel on trade barriers.
These woes even had some pundits already prophesizing a clear path towards disintegration of the EAC in the not so distant future.
But the manner in which the bloc has conducted itself, in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and rolling out mitigation measures, has been depressingly inadequate. It has revealed just how hollow and incompetent the institution remains.
To step back a bit, the EAC is established and buttressed on the idea of international cooperation, multilateralism and regional integration. By its own creed and stated objectives, one would expect that a regional, intergovernmental organization of its stature would step up to the challenge and live up to its bidding when most relevant. One would expect the EAC to facilitate cooperation and multilateral engagements among East African States and at least broker a functional joint framework to coordinate response to COVID-19 in the region.
Nonetheless, a look across East Africa reveals a mosaic of disparate, disjointed and uncoordinated efforts at State-level, some of which have undermined successes across borders or not been helpful at all in the least. Like States insisting on conduct tests at either side of a common border. Or others, like Tanzania and Burundi, continuing business as usual while the rest implement costly containment measures.
COVID-19 has heightened the need for states to work together in coordinating implementation of mechanisms to protect citizens from the virus, promoting research and science to provide sustainable solutions, safeguarding livelihoods, protecting jobs and facilitating businesses in these difficult times.
At the least, citizens of the region need confidence in capability of their governments to work together in addressing challenges brought about by the pandemic. They need assurance that States and their leaders understand the crucial need for cooperation in response. Now, more than ever, East Africans, who depend on free movement of people, goods and services need assurance that their governments understand interconnectedness of their businesses and lives, and are implementing policies and measures that make this possible.
However, the EAC appears to sit on its hands! Silent and ineffective when it is needed the most. On crucial issues, like mass testing, it would have been more effective establishing a multiagency, multi-country team or committee to oversee procurement of test kits and other medical paraphernalia, coordinating testing and certification of those tested to facilitate movement across borders, and a mechanism for information sharing to develop a comprehensive understanding of trends in infections, deaths and recoveries.
Likewise, on the issue of cross-border movement of goods and people, the EAC is better placed to coordinate a multilateral framework to facilitate harmonization of policies to lessen time spent and pain endured by businesses in moving much needed commodities across the region.
Notably, the EAC unveiled a 30-paged US$97 million Covid-19 response plan on 30th April 2020 that lists, among other things, plans to increase access to PICs, improve surveillance, regional capacity building for partner States and resource mobilization. The fact that this came four months after reports of the virus and its dangers were reported is in itself a problem. But the bigger challenge is the question of executing this plan. The EAC has a history of failed plans, unimplemented policies and dishonored protocols.
Essentially, in the absence of effective coordination and enforcement of plans, the region has had to contend with fear mongering, political grandstanding and panic fueled by misinformation and disjointed communication across States.
A lot of business capital has been lost unnecessarily due to the failure of East African States to work together and harmonize their response. Far too many lives have been lost due to failures of the states to work together in harmonizing standards and procedures for testing, contact tracing and handling of cases and COVID-19 related deaths. Previously harmonious communities of East Africans, especially those living in border areas, have been unnecessarily broken down in Namanga, Isebania, Busia, Lungalunga amongst others for lack of a coordinated approach that could have otherwise been brokered by the EAC.
It is perhaps in the area of macroeconomic policy that lack of coordination, or at least effective communication amongst EAC States, that most shall be lost to the pandemic. Every State has withdrawn to their dark corners making sub-optimal policy decisions like tax breaks, price controls, financial market policies whose real impacts shall be felt long after the world finds a sustainable solution to COVID-19. Also, across East Africa, States are absorbing huge amounts of public debt, to finance responses to Covid-19, despite an existing debt sustainability problem, Imagine the opportunities that have been lost for not working together on ‘debt-repayment moratoriums’ that could be better negotiated through EAC than separately by singular States.
Ultimately, at the border posts, at the EAC headquarters in Arusha, and at national capitals across East Africa, the voice of the bloc has been conspicuously faint. And in the media, the place of the EAC has been eclipsed by State operatives – ministers, politicians and administrators who have done the least to advocate for cooperation and coordination, which is crucially necessary. Shouts of nationalist sentiment –who is sending their virus to who, and who is failing to do what, and who understands COVID-19 more than the other – is deafening and depressing.
Be that as it may, some argue that Covid-19 has been an unprecedented challenge never imagined and that everyone is doing their best – muddling-through and hoping for the best. As such we should not be too hard on the EAC. Others point to similar lack of leadership and clever responses in other multilateral organisations like the EU, UN and the AU. There are also those who argue that the COVID-19 pandemic came at a point in time when the idea of international cooperation and multilateralism was already on its knees, beaten down by fascist and nationalistic sentiment like in the United States, Europe, United Kingdom among other parts of the world. They argue that appetite for international cooperation was already far too low as seen in issues like climate change action, international trade negotiations (with protracted trade wars between US and China, UK and EU, some African states among others), international security and the fight against terrorism and immigration. As such, it was less likely that the EAC would wrest the space and muster the voice to lead and coordinate effective response.
But I tend to differ.
There remains significant goodwill and political capital in East Africa for interstate cooperation and regional integration that can buoy the EAC to its full potential. Perhaps, we could begin with areas where we agree and with people who already speak the same language on some common things. What prevented largely agreeable States like Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda from trying a coordinated approach to COVID-19 response?
This article was first published on the Daily Nation on Tuesday 27th May 2020