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While much of the focus of much of the media was on the main agenda of the Extraordinary Summit of the AU held on 12 October, the most productive event was the meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and East African Community (EAC) countries on the margins of that summit. The meeting, hosted by the Chairperson of the Executive Council of the AU Ethiopian Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Tedros Adhanom, deliberated on a wide range of issues affecting the countries of the two regional blocks.

Perhaps, the most important item from the decisions of the ministers worthy of making a unique headline was the decision on regional integration. Under paragraph 4 sub-paragraph 3 of the communique they adopted, http://www.mfa.gov.et/PressMore.php?pg=54, adopted at the end of the meeting, the countries from the two regional blocks tasked their ministers ‘to explore the possibility of merging these two Regional Economic Communities with a view to establish a bigger economic bloc to expedite the integration process and ensure greater economic development and prosperity to the peoples of the Eastern Africa region.’ Additionally, in apparent effort to speed up the process, the ministers ‘agreed to have a concept note to be drawn by a team of technical experts before the 1st of November, and to be tabled to the Heads of States meeting in Kigali, Rwanda on a date to be determined shortly; and develop a road map subject to approval by the Heads of States.’

Eastern Africa is one of the regions with multiplicity of regional groupings with countries of the region compartmentalized between IGAD and EAC. The resultant lack of a unified platform has limited regional integration efforts. Due to this compartmentalization of the region, the East African Standby Force, one of the five regional forces constituting the African Standby Force, is anchored on neither IGAD nor EAC. Understandably, it has also stratified regional integration processes as IGAD and EAC operate on the basis of separate legal and institutional frameworks.

IGAD was created in 1996 to supersede the Intergovernmental Authority on Drought and Development (IGADD) which was founded in 1986. With seven countries in Eastern Africa as its members, IGAD covers an area of 5.2 Million sq. km and have an estimated population of about 200 Million. The EAC, another Eastern Africa regional block, was established in 1999 following the adoption of the Treaty Establishing it by the three founding members of the regional block. With Rwanda and Burundi acceding  to the EAC Treaty in 2007, the EAC has now five member states.

With ten member states and a population size of about 270 million, the merger between IGAD and EAC would result in the emergence of one of the largest regional economic blocks in Africa. Envisaged to take place within the framework of the AU and the Abuja Treaty establishing the African Economic Community, this merger will add further impetus for the integration process of the continent, which is one of the priority areas of the AU.

The merger of IGAD and EAC promises to address one of the impediments for fast regional economic integration in Africa, multiplicity of regional integration processes, http://static.guim.co.uk/ni/1369323557527/Question-of-african-unity.pdf. A 2006 study by the UN Economic Commission for Africa, http://foresightfordevelopment.org/sobipro/55/148-assessing-regional-integration-in-africa-ii-rationalizing-regional-economic-communities, observed that ‘overlapping mandates and objectives, duplicated integration policies, and the multiple memberships by African countries appear to be slowing integration, reducing the regional economic communities’ effectiveness, and stretching thin limited financial resources.’ The merger of the two blocks would thus afford the countries of the region to avoid duplication and pull their efforts in the same direction and nurture a larger economic zone and market.

The meeting that adopted what promises to be a historical decision for merger of IGAD and EAC was attended by Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Uganda and Burundi.

While the decision towards the merger of the two regional blocks and the apparent sense of urgency is a welcome development, no doubt that the process would not be an easy one and may not be achieved in the short term. The unexplained lack of representation of one of the founding members of the EAC, Tanzania, may reflect that there is no equal measure of enthusiasm for the project among all members of the countries of the region. Significantly,  separate historical developments of the two regional blocks, divergent institutional developments and integration levels as well as vested interests in the two organizations would also present further challenges to the process for merging the two organizations.

Although we don’t know when it would be concluded, the march towards the Economic Community of Eastern Africa is on!

As we await keenly with anticipation to see the successful end of it, all that is left for me to say for now is Kudos to those who dared to dream the big dream of a more integrated Africa and more so for those who work towards its fulfillment.