The East African Community is not at ease. Tanzania and Kenya are having a tiff. Uganda and Rwanda are scuffling. Rwanda and Burundi have had a stand-off over the crisis in the latter for the last two years.
And Kenya and Uganda are again squabbling over fish around that mystical tiny island of Migingo in Lake Victoria.
Of these, the clearest to understand is the rift between Tanzania and Kenya. It has been on and off for the last 45 years, when in a famous mid-1970s verbal ideological fight, Ujaama (socialist) Tanzania said “capitalist” Kenya was a predatory “man eat man society”. Nairobi replied that then much poorer Tanzania, was a “man eat nothing society”.
Today, it is over milk, beef, and chicken. Recently, Tanzania burnt 6,400 chicks imported from Kenya, allegedly for fear of bird flu. It also auctioned 1,300 head of cattle belonging to Kenyan herders after they were confiscated for grazing in Tanzania.
Tanzania has seized about 6,600 heads of cattle from Uganda too.
Of all these regional feuds, which some now say threaten the East African Community, the most frustrating to understand is the one between Uganda and Rwanda, because it involves even obscure family and personality conflicts.
This happens, ironically, for very good reason – the connections between the people of the two countries are deep. Because of old historical dynamics, and the fact that thousands of Rwandans lived in Uganda for nearly half a century as refugees before many (not all), returned to Rwanda after the Rwanda Patriotic Front’s (RPF) victory in 1994, many Rwandan families integrated in Ugandan society, and many families in Uganda became partly Rwandese.
So our quarrels can come across as nauseating petty. The reception that former Ugandan and Rwandan war hero Fred Rwigyema’s wife receives at Entebbe becomes a big diplomatic incident. The arrest of a police officer in Kampala thought to be friendly to some people in Rwanda becomes a big deal. It is a classic case of familiarity breeding contempt.
Still, after the rapprochement between Kigali and Kampala that started in 2011, following their disastrous fallout in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2000, it was always clear that it would be tested again.
For the Museveni State House, the pivotal event seems to have been what Paul Kagame would do when his second term ended. For Kenya, it was clear that the two-term presidential limit would hold, so Mwai Kibaki would step down after his two terms. The same was certain about Jakaya Kikwete in Tanzania.
It didn’t matter what happened in Burundi or South Sudan, as Kampala sees itself in competition primarily with Kenya, Rwanda, and Tanzania, the “rivalry” with Kigali being the most emotional one. As this column noted in 2016, if Kagame had left office in August, Museveni would have been left as the “political leper” in the region, the last president for life standing.
The constitution amendment in Rwanda, which allowed Kagame to run for a third seven-year term, and for two five-year terms in 2024, should he so wish, dramatically altered the political ground – favourably - for Museveni.
He was no longer lonely in his long-rulers East African club, and no longer felt the burden of moral deficit, allowing him to launch the current bid to scrap the age limit for president in the Constitution with greater ease as there would be no embarrassing contrasts with events across the western border.
With Kagame’s re-election, Rwanda had served its political purpose, and it was time to move on. Kampala is now focused on other fronts, with Museveni offering to beef up UPDF’s presence in AMISOM by 5,000 when the appetite for the African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia is waning.
Museveni is very good at those kinds of moves, as we saw in 2007 when UPDF became the first contingent to put its neck on the line in Mogadishu, at a time when everyone thought it was an insane enterprise.
The good thing is that these sparring matches between East African palaces really don’t affect the fundamental relations between the region’s people in the long-term.
Recently, I was having a conversation with someone who tracks East African regional trade. He said western Kenya rarely suffers from food shortages and hunger, even at the worst of times.
It is not because it does not have vulnerabilities, or that it is a rich region (it is not), but “because it is integrated with Uganda as a single food market”, he said.
He then went on to describe the remarkable range of food products that Kenyan trucks to Uganda return with, and how they are distributed in Eldoret, Nakuru, and other towns.
You really can never stop the fish business over Lake Victoria, or the movement of chicken, cows, matooke, or milk across East Africa’s borders.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. Twitter@cobbo3