The East African Legislative Assembly in session recently. PHOTOS | FILE, COURTESY


21 years later, EALA struggles to endear itself to the common man

What you need to know:

  • As politicians gear for elections that will see them take positions at the fifth East African Legislative Assembly (Eala) later this year, Derrick Kiyonga writes that relevancy of the East African Community to the common person is still being questioned.

Political parties are presenting candidates who will be voted to represent Uganda at the East African Legislative Assembly (Eala).

Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) has presented Harold Kaija and Democratic Party has presented Gerald Siranda while the National Resistance Movement (NRM), National Unity Platform (NUP), Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC), Justice Forum (Jeema), and People’s Progressive Party (PPP) are yet to present their candidates.  

In the fourth assembly, whose terms ends in December, Uganda has been represented by Rose Akol Okullu (NRM), James Kakooza (NRM), Paul Musamali (NRM), George Stephen Odongo (NRM), Mary Mugyenyi (NRM), Dennis Namara (NRM), Chris Opoka (UPC), Fred Mukasa Mbidde (DP), and Suzan Nakawuki (Independent).

As politicians flex to take positions in Eala, there are question marks hovering over the relevancy of this assembly based in Arusha, Tanzania. 

The mission of the assembly is to legislate, do oversight and represent the people of East Africa in a bid to foster economic, social, cultural and political integration, but even those who are vying to enter it admit that it’s disconnected from the common man.

“The East African assembly should have been marketed to the people of Uganda, but today between me and you if we go and get a public opinion many Ugandans don’t understand what is it all about,” Kaija, who is the deputy secretary general of FDC, says. “They can’t even give you three names of the people who are representing Uganda in the community. That’s disastrous.”  

Siranda, who is the secretary general of DP, agrees as much. “There is a gap between the people and the assembly,” he says. “People don’t understand what they are doing.”   

Eala, as we know it, was inaugurated on November 30, 2001, after the revival of the East African Community (EAC) which had collapsed in 1977 when Kenya demanded more seats than Uganda and Tanzania in decision-making organs.

L-R: Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, former Tanzanian president John Magufuli (RIP) and their Rwandan colleague Paul Kagame during the 17th Summit of the East African Community in Arusha, Tanzania, in 2016.

Matters were not helped when then Uganda president Idi Amin demanded that Tanzania should not provide sanctuary to forces fighting to topple his government.  

Ideological differences

There were also ideological differences between Kenya which favoured the capitalist approach, and Tanzania, under Julius Nyerere, who favoured socialism.    

When Eala was formed, Dan Wandera Ogalo, who was one of Uganda’s representatives in the first and second assemblies, said the vision was to make the federal parliament of the envisaged East African Community.

“You have to look at it within the context of the final outcomes of the community. The final outcome of the community is the political federation. The treaty says you begin with the customs union, you go to the common market, then you go to the monitory union, then you ultimately go to the federation,” Ogalo says. “The essence of the assembly was that it was building bloc to eventually become a federal parliament of East Africa.” 

Mbidde admits that the assembly has lots of weaknesses, including being detached from the population and its members largely taking positions of their home governments out of fear. 

“We have not participated in the harmonisation of relations between Uganda and Rwanda. We kept quiet because governments have threatened us. In fact, only me, I had been raising the true cause because Uganda was harbouring dissidents of the Rwanda National Congress. The day Muhoozi [Kainerugaba] raised it the borders are opened. So, the assembly is so weak and members should style up. [They] should stop fearing for their jobs and become braver for integration,” Mbidde says.

Kaija says Eala should be playing a pivotal role when crises come, just like the European Union does in Europe.  

“The issue of the Uganda-Rwanda border has been around for three years but it wasn’t an issue in the community. You would hear countries like Angola coming [to mediate], but even before Ukraine was hit, the European Union was at the centre stage and even up to now they are still addressing the issue. We need a community that addresses such issues that people come to appreciate its presence,” he says.

One of the key weaknesses in the East African Community, according to Ogalo, is expanding too quickly without first concretising what so far has been achieved.  

The East African Community was founded by Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania before they added Burundi, Rwanda, South Sudan, and now the Democratic Republic of Congo will soon join after getting greenlight from the East African Community Council of Ministers. 

“We are expanding too fast before we solidify something. Let’s say you have solidified a common market such that when others are joining they are joining something that has already been established. As it is now, we are expanding but we have not yet consolidated anything,” Ogalo says.

No implementation

To show why Eala and the East African Community as a whole are of little relevancy, Ogalo alludes to the customs union which was signed in 2004, and in theory, it allows East Africa to operate as a free trade area where partner states have reduced or eliminated taxes on goods originating from within the community and have the common tariff on goods imported from other countries, but its implementation hasn’t taken place.  

The bloc was expected to achieve implementation of the customs union in 2010 but has postponed the deadline indefinitely as issues such as coordination of the internal and joint collection of taxes are yet to be handled. 

With the Custom Union remaining on paper, Uganda and Kenya have been embroiled in a trade war with Kenya banning the importation of Ugandan milk, particularly the Lato brand, as they double down with a ban on Ugandan sugar, which was contrary to an earlier pact to increase Uganda’s sugar exports to Kenya.

“You keep on seeing these fights between Uganda and Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania over these trade issues and yet the essence of the customs union was really not to have trade fights so the fact we are still having trade fights shows that we haven’t solidified the very first stage of the customs union,” Ogalo says. “So if we have not yet even solidified the first stage and you are bringing in South Sudan, you are bringing in Congo, aren’t you really causing yourself more trouble before you solve the customs union?”

The collapse of the East Africa Community in the 1970s went into motion after the Community’s highest body, the East African Authority, which consisted of the three presidents, did not meet after 1971 because of Nyerere’s refusal to meet with Amin.  

Left-right, front row: Former presidents Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Milton Obote of Uganda and their Kenyan counterpart Jomo Kenyatta.

Soon trade wars erupted and in 1972 exchange controls and import restrictions were imposed on intra-community trade which effectively diminished the effectiveness of the Common Market and led to the dissolution.    

“We don’t have a mechanism to solve trade disputes. If Uganda is having a dispute with Kenya it’s between those two countries, not the Community. If Uganda and Rwanda have a dispute, it’s between those two countries, not the Community. They become bilateral. We must have a trade tribunal of the Community. If somebody goes to the tribunal and gets a decision, it becomes a precedent which is used to determine future cases,” Kaija says.

There was no political will in the 1970s to resolve issues and Ogalo believes it’s still the same case to date.

“The political will is lacking and you see it in the budget of the Community. Who contributes to the budget?” Ogalo asks. “By the time I was leaving, we had donors contributing more to the budget of our Community. If your heart is in it, why wouldn’t you give it money?”   

He adds: “If your heart is in Arusha, why do you have to keep on begging donors yet this is your own thing? At the heart of this problem is one: political will.”

Indeed, finances have been at the heart of the issues Eala has grappled with and during last financial year’s budget, the Council of Ministers declined to increase the contribution of each partner state towards the 2020/2021 budget from $8.2 million to $ 8.9 million as suggested by the EAC Secretariat, representing an eight percent increase.

Eala, according to its members, has been passing several legislations that would have affected the common man but they have not been assented to by member states. 

“Majorly we have two issues: all partner states have to accede to documents that provide for, among others, the extended jurisdiction of the East African Court of Justice. Two, acceding to the protocol on African court on human and people’s rights, that’s still a challenge. I’m raising things that new members will have to do,” says Mbidde. “I have done it personally. I have gone to court. I have won cases and I have lost some. It takes effort by an individual member to achieve things. Members need to forget that they are sent by certain countries and pay allegiance to East Africa.”

Gaining traction

Eala gained traction in Uganda in 2014, albeit for the wrong reasons, when former Kampala Woman MP Margaret Nantongo Zziwa was ousted on December 17 as it’s speaker by a 36-to-2 vote. 

Zziwa was impeached on grounds that she had issued a decree to the assembly’s clerk not to pay Eala legislators their full allowances.

Kenya’s Peter Mathuki and Uganda’s Dorah Byamukama, then Eala members, led the way in impeaching Zziwa but Mbidde believes this episode popularised the court. 

“Few people knew the court in Uganda, but with all those issues during our first term people started paying attention,” Mbidde says of the standoff that prompted Zziwa to dash to The East African Court of Justice which has since ruled that her ouster was a violation of the treaty for the establishment of the East African Community, awarding her Shs649m.  

“There was a time when FDC and NRM were just sharing positions but my case changed everything,” he adds.

Though few Ugandans understand the purpose of Eala, the elections have normally come with drama.  

In 2012, for instance, Opoka’s UPC and DP’s Mbidde managed to find their way to Eala when their respective parties struck an understanding with the ruling NRM, locking out FDC, which at the time was the biggest Opposition party in Parliament. The same arrangement was replicated in 2017 when the duo got a second term.

The rules that will govern this year’s elections are not yet out, leaving some Opposition candidates who are not willing to strike deals with the NRM suspicious. 

“It should be that all Opposition parties that have MPs all get a slot but now it seems you have to first beg NRM since they have the majority,” Kaija says.

And by the look of things, it seems the DP-UPC- NRM alliance is still holding and this was apparent when on Friday Thomas Tayebwa, the Government Chief Whip, twitted how he had a meeting with Siranda. 

“My brother Gerald Siranda thank you for checking on me last evening. Congratulations on being chosen as the DP candidate for Eala,” Tayebwa said.

In response, Norbert Mao, DP’s president general, said: “That’s the spirit. One Uganda. One people. Let’s send a committed leader representative of the generation born in the 80s and 90s.”

For NUP, which leads the Opposition in Parliament, it’s not yet clear whether they will participate in the elections.  

“We are yet to make a decision on that matter but we shall communicate once we arrive at one,” David Lewis Rubongoya, the party’s secretary general, says.