World Politics & Affairs

Will the East African Community Achieve a Political Federation?

Articles 123-125 of the Treaty for the Establishment of the East African Community (EAC) provides for cooperation in political affairs as a pre-requisite to the formation of a political federation, which is the fourth and final step to achieving complete regional integration amongst the EAC member states– namely Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. The Treaty envisions a four-step integration process beginning with the establishment of a Customs Union, a Common Market, a Monetary Union and concluding with the establishment of a political federation. The principles underpinning the EAC political integration include harmonization and coordination of regional policy frameworks with regard to good governance, democracy, peace and security, defence, human rights and social justice. Unfortunately, the EAC has yet to realize its objective of becoming a political federation, and it does not seem probable that it will for many years to come, considering the slow pace of actualizing the integration process. The customs union and the common market are already in place, despite several challenges in implementation. With respect to the monetary union, the Protocol on the EAC Monetary Union was adopted in 2013 but it provides for a 10 year implementation duration which the EAC member States will progressively take measures towards adopting a single currency.


Nonetheless, there have been significant steps taken by the EAC member states towards establishing a political federation. The EAC has established cardinal regional institutions linked to national frameworks, for example, the East African Court of Justice, and the East African Legislative Assembly. Furthermore, a number of protocols and legislative statutes have been adopted or at least drafted by the EAC, including the East African Community Human and Peoples’ Rights Act, the East African Community Conflict Management Act, the Draft EAC Protocol on Prevention and Combating of Corruption, the Protocol on Peace and Security, the Protocol on Cooperation in Defence Affairs and the Protocol on Foreign Policy Coordination.

Despite the progress made, many obstacles hinder the realization of a political federation in the EAC. At the outset, the Treaty does not define what it means by a political federation, thereby making it a vaguely understood concept amongst the member states. The members have not decided on the integration model they intend to pursue, whether it be the European Union model, the United States model, a Confederate model or whatever other model they deem fit. The EAC member states seem to have adopted a “wait and see” approach towards integration in which it is assumed that the already established economic integration would have a spill-over effect that would exert pressure towards the eventual formation of a political federation. Noting the stumbling blocks outlined below, the EAC can only achieve a political federation by adopting deliberate calculated measures to actualize this objective.

The East African Legislative Assembly in session, photo courtesy of

A further challenge stems from the fact that there is no comprehensive plan outlining sequentially the activities to be undertaken in order for the political federation to be achieved, and the timelines involved. The vagueness of the Treaty gives leeway for complacency in establishing a political federation especially considering that it sets out a four-step integration process in which the political federation is the final step that ideally can be pursued only after the other three pillars set out above have been established. Efforts to fast-track the integration process on the recommendation of the Wako Committee, which was appointed by the EAC in August 2004, have had moderate success.

Another obstacle to political integration pertains to the structural differences amongst the EAC member states. For example, as a capitalist state, Kenya has a different idea of the model of a political federation it desires to achieve from the one envisioned by Tanzania, which is largely a socialist state. With respect to legal systems, unlike the rest of the member states that have common law systems, Burundi has a civil law system, while Rwanda has a hybrid system incorporating both common law and civil law systems. With respect to governance, Kenya has a two-tier devolution system, unlike the rest, who have a three-tier decentralized form of governance. Evidently, the disparities across the board will pose a significant challenge in aligning the political systems to give leeway for a level of uniformity that is conducive for the sustenance of a political federation.

Tense relations amongst some member states may become another hindrance to the establishment of the political federation. Rwanda and Burundi have uneasy relations due to ethnic friction between the Hutus and the Tutsis that culminated into the Rwanda Genocide. Similarly, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda have tense relations arising over their involvement in the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Kenya and Rwanda have also had tough times due to suspicions that Kenya is housing Rwandese national Kabuga, a wanted war criminal who perpetrated the Rwanda genocide. Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya have historically had tense relations riddled with suspicion and mistrust which eventually culminated in the collapse of the initial EAC as it then was in 1977. The causes of friction were never addressed and resolved even upon the reconstitution of the EAC as is currently. Holistically, there is a real apprehension that difficult relations amongst the member states may thwart efforts to create a political federation and instead result in the second collapse of the EAC.

Left to Right: Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Ugandan President Yoweri Muesevini, and Tanzanian President John Magufili

Another significant challenge emanates from the fact that the EAC member states belong to several groupings or sub-groupings whose missions sometimes compete, conflict or overlap with the objectives of the EAC. In addition to EAC membership, Tanzania is a member of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) bloc. Rwanda had applied to join SADC but later withdrew the application “in order to avoid overlapping roles with other blocs”. Burundi recently applied to join SADC and the decision to admit it is still pending. Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda are also members of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA). In many ways, the policies of these regional blocs conflict with the obligations of the member states to the EAC and ultimately to continental groupings like the African Union. Deliberate steps must be taken by EAC member states to rationalize or, where necessary, eliminate these multiple memberships to ensure the goal to establish a political federation remains a priority.

Finally, a key impediment to the formation of a political federation is political instability in some of the EAC member states. South Sudan is currently facing a ravaging civil war. Burundi has been in turmoil since 1993 when the first popularly elected Hutu president was brutally assassinated by the Tutsi dominated Burundi army. Despite relative tranquility, ethnic tensions remain heightened in Rwanda between the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis. In Uganda, an internal rebellion of the dissident Joseph Kony and his ilk of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has been waging a war in Northern Uganda since 1986. Kenya is a fragile democracy, that continues to face threats of ethnic violence as was evidenced following the 2007 election and ethno-targeted police killings following the 2017 general election. Tanzania is the only state in the EAC experiencing relative peace and stability. Noting that the Treaty recognizes that peace is a key pillar towards fostering the establishment of the political federation, the EAC member states must individually and collectively pursue measures that entrench political stability in the region.

Considering the foregoing, one can appreciate the widespread skepticism of the EAC’s ability and political will to establish a political federation. Indeed the road ahead will be bumpy and downright grueling. However, bearing in mind that the EAC is lauded as a role model for its commitment to get things done, it is not beyond expectation that with considerable effort, the political federation will eventually be established.



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