The East African Community (EAC) member states are joined at the hip, and desperately need each other to survive the Covid-19 pandemic. Divisions and lone-ranger responses to the deadly virus will only weaken the trading bloc and make regional recovery long and painful. That is the view of the current EAC chair, Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
In a wide-ranging interview with Washington Gikunju and Bernadette Namata, President Kagame delves deep into the issues that have been making headlines across East Africa and gives an honest assessment of the emerging divisions within the EAC.
He admits that things could fall apart for the trading bloc unless urgent measures are taken to repair emerging cracks. His take is that Burundi and South Sudan must pay their annual contributions if they want to continue being members of the trading bloc, but leaves it to each country to decide on whether to go into elections in the middle of the pandemic or wait for it to subside.
The Covid-19 pandemic has come at a time when you are chair of the EAC. How have you used your position to help the region handle the pandemic?
As chair of the East African Community, I have tried to rally the leaders of the partner states so that we can work together and benefit the region as a whole.
In May, we had a meeting with a number of Heads of State of the bloc, the highlight of which was looking at what we can do better together to benefit not only individual partner states but the region as a whole.
There’s only so much people can do. This pandemic has hit the whole world, it has affected people’s lives, the economies. It has had a devastating effect on the lives of people in many ways. For Rwanda, we have been learning from public health experts, scientists, anyone who has something to say that is worth listening to we have done and mobilised our people so that they fully understand what the problem is and don’t complain but rather try to participate and contribute.
The pandemic has exposed EAC’s inadequate health infrastructure. Can something be done at the regional level to address this?
The pandemic has exposed a lot of weaknesses, both in the East African Community and the continent. In fact, the whole world has been found wanting. The most important thing for us East Africans is not to waste the opportunity of learning lessons from such a pandemic.
There is need for better co-ordination and together build country infrastructure generally, and specifically the public health infrastructure. It is not going to be uniform as some will benefit from these processes of learning more than others.
You have publicly accused some EAC member States of not being co-operative in the efforts for a common response to the pandemic. Has the situation improved?
There are many things you have to work on and that is why the communication was not as fast or as good as it should have been. That includes the fact that maybe the (communication) networks were not as efficient as we have today but there has been improvement.
I think talking always brings progress. We have been talking sometimes individually or in virtual summits like that one of May. Also, our various officials have been talking more. The ministers and the permanent secretaries and other officials have had more discussions of what needs to be done and I think that has improved things.
Do you worry that different responses, including full economic reopening in some member countries, could complicate regional containment of the virus?
We stand a better chance, a very good chance of survival, and we’ll be back to good health, good economies, and normal life if we work together. Going it alone will not work for anyone because you may have some advantage, some of it accidentally (like having a seaport by virtue of your location) but there may be something else you won’t that somebody else has.
The pandemic has reminded us that there is always going to be a need for co-operation. Some of us have been reminded even more than others that we carry a bigger weight than others.
For example, when it comes to being landlocked, Kenya is lucky to border the Indian Ocean. Tanzania the same. Rwanda is far from the ocean and yet we need to communicate with the rest of the world.
We are not going to have a perfect situation, but we will get the best of everything working together. We must allow for flexibility but also remember we are dealing with people’s lives. We struggle with things we have to do to rein in the virus but must also be mindful of people’s lives.
It is complicated, but that is where we find ourselves.
Did the protracted standoff at the borders most of April and May — as hinterland countries accused Kenyan and Tanzanian drivers of spreading infections in the region — point to a deeper problem of distrust within the Community?
People may see the problem differently. Some are more efficient than others in handling things, but even before the pandemic, we had been grappling with ensuring free flow of traffic and goods and people through the region.
But at the same time, you will find more roadblocks in one country than the other or that the way of handling things in one place is faster.
This had nothing to do with the pandemic. They are to do with efficiency or lack of it and this trickles down into other aspects of life. The pandemic just exacerbated the problem.
You may analyse the pandemic politically when all it needs is more scientific or health data to rely on. However, juggling between these involves a lot of politics and people handle these differently.
Some EAC member countries and others on the continent are going into elections and political campaigns. Do you feel like the elections should wait?
Countries have to decide for themselves. If what they are going to do for the campaigns and the election processes fits in with the measures they have taken or intend to take to deal with the pandemic, then it is up to them to decide whether this works well for them. I cannot give prescription for anyone. Everything is out there… there is nothing we don’t know or don’t see so people will have to make a decision.
The EAC is yet to hold a Heads of State summit for nearly two years now. It is one month since the end of the 2019/20 financial year for the EAC, with no budget yet tabled at the East African Legislative Assembly. Employees of the EAC are having to go without pay. Is the trading bloc falling apart?
I guess it means we have difficulties we need to address and that they are complicated further by the pandemic so we need to always find ways of not allowing things to fall apart.
It is not expected to be plain sailing every time or everywhere. Partner states can only address these difficulties by finding ways of talking to each other. Our officials are getting together and hammering out whatever differences exist.
Do you support the recent resolution by EALA to suspend Burundi and South Sudan for non-payment of member contributions?
I support that we all get up to date in terms of payment. We cannot run an organisation that brings us together without having to pay the bills, that’s for sure. We have had situations before where partners had some difficulties.
I remember one time when the region came together and we all chipped in for Burundi, because at some point they were in a difficult situation and could not pay. You can do it once or so, but you cannot have a situation where some countries permanently carry the burden of others.
I do not know fully the reasons or circumstances for non-payment that informed why Burundi and South Sudan would be suspended.
It was like saying maybe we tried to chip in for you but now we think you’re in a position to play your part so that you become fully engaged in the organisation and benefit fully as well as you contribute fully like the rest of us.
You have been a vocal advocate of debt relief for poor countries, but at the same time, we have seen East African countries borrow billions of dollars in the wake of the pandemic. Is this likely to push the region into a debt trap? Are the lenders listening to your pleas?
These discussions are ongoing as the world economy has been hit in different ways.
Countries have debt that they incurred during normal times but now there is the pandemic. We need resources to deal with the pandemic or to fill the (revenue) gaps that have been created by the pandemic as much as we can. We have been arguing for creation of fiscal space. There’s the debt as we had it before.
Maybe let’s get resources to deal with the problems that are being created by this pandemic and at the same time, let us slow down or standstill on the debt repayment. In other words, bear with us for the debt we had contracted before. Instead of this money coming to pay the debt, we use it as part of the resources we need to deal with the pandemic.
Every time we will need people to act reasonably. People need to enter into (debt) thinking about what they were going to use it reasonably, its productivity, and how you pay back.
But some may borrow more than they needed and things go wrong and they find themselves in the difficulty of carrying two heavy debt burdens.
If you mismanage you’re not resolving any problem you’re just complicating the situation.
I talk about Rwanda, where we have debt but we’re chewing what we can swallow.
Debt relief? Absolutely. Which type or how things stand as well as what people are discussing. Plus, we have already benefited from some kind of relief ourselves like many other countries. However, at the back of our minds, we are careful how we borrow. Others are doing the same, I’m sure.
Rwanda recently donated $1 million to the AU to support the Covid-19 response. What kind of assistance has Rwanda received from the continental body in return? Do other countries need to do more to support the AU?
A number of countries had already done that even before we thought about doing it. We were prompted by that gesture of working together as a continent.
With the Chairman of the AU President (Cyril) Ramaphosa of South Africa and other leaders, we came up with a number of envoys through whom the chair and the Bureau will speak to the rest of the world highlighting the problem as it affects Africa.
For example, in terms of personal protective equipment to be purchased, you may find the whole world is grabbing masks, test kits and all kinds of things when Africa has to line up. By the time these equipment arrive maybe the pandemic will have taken so many lives —unnecessarily so.
There is a process for bulk purchase of things that are needed on our continent instead of each country lining up for what they need. We tried to aggregate that and make the demand with partner regions or countries.
The contribution we made of $1 million was so that we enable the Centre for Diseases Control and leave nobody behind.
For example, when the vaccines are found, we will need billions of doses. It is likely that if we do not work together as a continent we might soon find that the continent has been forgotten while the rest of the world is getting access to the vaccine.
If every small country has to queue on its own, each of the 55 or countries queuing on their own, we may really not get anywhere. But if we keep working as a bloc then we stand a chance of having the vaccines availed in bulk and distribution to individual countries, including small ones, is made easier.
How much of a setback is the postponement of the launch of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area protocol due to Covid-19?
The pandemic has forced more people to look inward. trying to deal with the immediate things around them before thinking about going across the border.
Things may not move as well and as fast as they should because somebody who should have allowed that to happen maybe grappling with domestic and internal problems but that is why there is a need for better and more co-operation so that we can handle these things together at once and allow the region to survive.
There were efforts to mend relations between Rwanda and Uganda before the pandemic. How is the situation now?
Let me summarise it by saying it has not gotten worse. It is where it was at that time or it has got better. I think in a situation where there is not so much good news I think that is good news, that nothing got worse. We can only expect better.
How do you see Rwanda relating to the new Burundi government?
I would like to see the two governments start addressing the underlying issues. We are looking forward to improving things but that implies many things. I think things can improve. I am always optimistic.
Saturday is a big day for Rwanda as you reopen your skies to international flights.
We will have a cautious approach of re-opening so that we do not get caught up in a mess. We will really want to test it, measuring where we are and how things go. We want to be careful with that even as we open up.