Who’ll become East Africa’s first leader–Museveni or Kagame?

Wednesday January 22 2020


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

There was a story in the regional paper The East African this week that most readers probably dismissed, as they do with most things about regional integration.

The story said constitutional experts and legislative draftspersons nominated by each of the East African Community (EAC) member states were due to start consultation meetings on drafting the
“EAC political confederation constitution that kicked off in Ngozi province in Burundi last week.”

Given how troubled the EAC has been, with feuds between members, and many of them shamelessly in arrears in their contributions, one is entitled to laugh at the idea that the bloc can move to a confederation. I wouldn’t bet against it, though.

One reason is that there has been a significant change in the structure being sought. Leaders like President Yoweri Museveni and other East Africanists always championed an East African “federation”, which would be a serious transnational government with power.

Indeed, when in August 2004 EAC presidents appointed a Committee on Fast Tracking East African Integration chaired by then Kenyan Attorney-General, Amos Wako, and in which people like Uganda’s Eriya Kategaya were members, they were specifically directed by the presidents to “expedite the process of integration so that the ultimate goal of a POLITICAL FEDERATION is achieved through a fast track mechanism.”

Now, federation has dropped out of the language, and instead we have a confederation –it must be said, however, in the early 1990s Museveni was arguing for a confederation, although an East and Central African one. Anyhow, unlike a federation, a confederation is voluntary, and exercises little political, military, and diplomatic power, if at all. That, unlike a federation, is actually easier to achieve.


The story said; “According to the chairperson of the committee, Benjamin Odoki, a draft constitution is expected in two years, in time for the proposed implementation of the confederation model by 2023.”

The year is important, because from 2022 there will be a series of developments that could surprise us all and create conditions for a confederation – or something akin to it.

In the days when there was a lot of big talk about an East African federation, the suspicion in the region was that it was driven primary by Museveni, because he wanted to be its first president. This little thing in Uganda, the story went, wasn’t enough to satisfy his quest to exercise big power.

Next year Uganda goes to the polls, and given that Museveni never organises elections he doesn’t win, he will “win” it. But serving his eighth term, and generally long in the tooth, he will be the least attractive leader for a confederation. And, besides, he wouldn’t be half way into his term.

This year, Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza, has said he won’t pursue his presidency for life further, and will stand down. It waits to be seen if he will deliver on the promise.

Secondly, unless Kenya’s politics is upended, President Uhuru Kenyatta will have stepped down in August 2022.

In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame, who was granted more terms by the 2015 constitution amendment and could run until 2034, has suggested he will get off the seat when his term ends in 2024.

In Tanzania, President John Magufuli, will be barely through his second term if he wins (the ruling CCM candidates always “wins”) the election later this year. Hopefully, after 2025 we will get a less mercurial leader from Tz.

South Sudan, we don’t know…
The important thing is that from 2022, East Africa will begin to take on new leaders who don’t have a towering legacy either from their role in the struggle, or family political history. They might have smaller egos.

They will be more regular guys, in an extremely youthful region, where most of the young people have had East African experiences and are more desirous of closer cooperation.

People like President Kenyatta also come from a family with vast business interests in finance and farming in the region, and would likely be more inclined to have some structure that secures the regional region.

His present controversial alliance with erstwhile rival Raila Odinga, could likely also deliver a more pan-Africanist element into Kenyan politics from the 2022 election.

I, therefore, wouldn’t be surprised if Kenyatta has some leadership role in the confederation. And if, as is likely, it comes to fruition after 2024, with the growing appeal among young East Africans of the “Kigali model”, which they think delivers results, the lot could then fall to Kagame to lead the confederation.

Though he wouldn’t be the optimal leader for it, I can see Museveni supporting a confederation as a legacy project as he will surely be on his last lap next term.
Still, don’t take anything here to the bank yet.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site Roguechiefs.com.