A planned East African Community Heads of State summit in Arusha collapsed last week after Burundi was a no-show, in part due to its running dispute with Rwanda.
Relations between Kampala, which currently holds the rotational chairmanship of the regional bloc, and Kigali, have also seen better days. Did someone say crisis?
The political disputes between EAC countries are often emotive, personal and hard to resolve. Slights are deeply held, grievances nursed, everything seen through a prism of motives; nothing happens by accident.
While it is important to resolve these disputes – at least for the sake of having happy neighbours and peace in the region – may be it is time for us to stop sweating the small stuff, literally, and realign our geopolitical focus northwards and westwards.
Already, two important developments have occurred this year. First, President Museveni and Gen Omar al-Bashir blindsided everyone by putting together a peace deal in South Sudan with Kampala and Khartoum as guarantors. It is an imperfect deal but it reveals the pragmatism of both leaders, and their ability to put their differences aside and find common ground.
In less than two decades, Uganda and Sudan have gone from fighting directly and through proxies (LRA and SPLA), to potentially deploying their armies to keep the peace in what was, until recently, contested ground.
The problem, from a purely selfish nationalist position, is that while we paid a heavy price for the war, the peace dividend was shared out among many. There are home-grown weaknesses here, including the lack of domestic capital to play in the post-conflict theatre – but it would be foolish, with the prospect of a second peace, to repeat this mistake.
The second development was the signing of a free trade deal with the Democratic Republic of Congo. Here again, history is instructive. When Ugandan and Rwandan troops invaded Congo in the 90s, a UN panel of experts found that the war booty was gathered ‘institutionally’ in Kigali, while in Uganda, it went into the pockets of select military officials. We know them. They are here.
So instead of setting up factories and opening up roads into Congo – the kind of things that allow capitals to explore opportunities and create long-term value, we went around grabbing minerals here, timber there, and, when we disagreed, fought among ourselves.
We can approach Congo the way King Leopold did more than a century ago in pursuit of personal wealth and plunder, or we can show more class and enlightenment. Our crude oil deposits straddle the border and will have to be jointly extracted at some point. Our surplus electricity can light up towns in eastern DR Congo in the short term, then bring back cheap power when the Grand Inga Dam is finally built.
This kind of regional recalibration needs a fresh outlook to the region unencumbered by historical injustices or alliances, and aligned to national, rather than personal interest. Three quick questions come to mind:
One, why do we keep our troops in far-flung Somalia, where we have no commercial benefit instead of deploying them in South Sudan and DR Congo, which not only present a more immediate source of small arms and insecurity, but a lot more buck for every bang? In other words, whose war should we be fighting?
Two, we export almost $20 million of coffee to Sudan (mind-boggling, if you think about it from 20 years ago) and can export a lot more agro-products; where else should we be turning swords into ploughshares and making money, not war? What should determine the writing of this post-modern foreign policy? How far our fighter jets can fly with a full payload without refuelling, or where Mukwano’s trucks can go and what they can carry back?
Three, it would require us to rethink what infrastructure investments to make, and where. Would a road into DR Congo open it up to business? Can extending the national grid to West Nile create agro-processing opportunities in that corner and heart of the continent?
Can we get to a point, in our lifetime, where our foreign adventures keep a president in power not because they are doing the bidding of foreign powers unwilling to put their own troops on the ground, but because they help their own citizens grow richer and build meaningful trade and partnerships in the region? It is a dizzying thought – and I need my medicine – but crazy and bold are cousins in the ideas family.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter. [email protected]