The East African Community’s First Constitution

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SEATTLE, Washington — In late January, representatives of the East African Community’s six constituent nations met in Burundi for consultations on drafting its first formal constitution. This is a major milestone in the organization’s long push for regional integration. The process looks to answer questions such as what form the new government will take as well as how much sovereignty member nations are expected to relinquish, which has been a major source of tension in recent years. The draft should be completed by the end of 2021. Here is more information about the East African Community’s first constitution.

The East African Community’s First Constitution

Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda were the first to ratify the East African Community (EAC) at the end of 1999. Since then, Rwanda, South Sudan and Burundi have joined the organization. Its goal is the formation of a fully integrated regional federation. With 2023 as the official target date to implement the new constitution, the world could soon be welcoming a new nation: The East African Confederation.

Though the official start of the East African Community’s project lay at the beginning of the new millennium, the roots of the drive for East African unity actually extend much farther back. It began at the signing of the treaty of East African Cooperation in 1967, following the end of the British colonial period. While the treaty was abandoned a mere decade later due to faltering political will and disparate levels of development between the three nations, the idea would remain a powerful one. In fact, it was powerful enough for regional governments to revisit the possibility after the end of the Cold War.

The EU and the EAC

The comparisons to the European Union are obvious. Both are regional unions composed of sovereign member states. Each has its own governments and priorities. Both boast of a customs union and common market that facilitate the free movement of peoples, goods and services, which also serve to promote peaceful relations among neighbors historically at odds with one another. Where the East African Community differs most strongly, however, is in its ambitions.

Because the East African Community is fully committed to the goal of political integration, it is able to game plan for a united polity in a way that the European Union cannot. East Africans have crafted a four-step road-map to integration: Customs Union, Common Market, Monetary Union and Political Federation. The first two are already completed, and the latter two are in progress. Having the European Union as a working reference also gives East Africans a chance to study what works and what doesn’t for a project of this scale. This has helped policymakers in designing and implementing the necessary institutions to bring about the changes it wants to see. However, caution has, at times, caused delays in the timeline estimates for particular goals.

Stronger Together

Thus far, increasing political integration has led to tangible benefits for the East African Community’s population of 177 million as well as a sharply growing economy. Recent reports show that the region’s economy grew by an average of 5 percent in 2019. This allowed East Africa to maintain its lead as the continent’s fastest-growing region. In fact, Rwanda and Tanzania, both member states of the East African Community, are among the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies.

Experts argue that much of this success lies in the East African Community’s lowering of trade barriers for regional businesses, which has encouraged investment and promoted stability in a region once convulsing with war. This has had the effect of lowering both production costs and consumer prices, which then contributes to rising demand and an increase in employment as a consequence. In a region where the average youth unemployment rate is as high as 48.2 percent, more opportunities can make the difference for millions. Indeed, while income inequality remains a serious problem, optimistic estimates indicate that East Africa could lower its rate of extreme poverty to 6.7 percent by 2030 from 30.2 percent in 2018.

Challenges Ahead

While the East African Community’s progress has been striking, there is still much work to be done if the project’s goals are to be accomplished. In 2011, the East African Legislative Assembly identified several key challenges that must be overcome on the road to integration. Among them are national governments fearing a loss of sovereignty, asymmetrical transfers of business and workers and a dependence on external aid in many regions. The latter could potentially leave the eventual federal government without a means of raising additional funding. Progress toward the monetary union and single currency, the East African Shilling, has likewise been slower than anticipated. The move to a single currency has been pushed back to 2024.

However, the East African Community remains confident that it will be able to meet the challenges that lie before it. For now, that means building stronger institutions, improving infrastructure and increasing trade, which will go a long way toward smoothing out the long, often-bumpy process of regional integration. Now, more than ever, East Africa is building its future.

James Roark
Photo: Flickr

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