Burundi’s flirtation with SADC exposes East Africa’s political skeletons

Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza. (Photo: Reuters)

Burundi’s attempt to join the Southern African Development Community (SADC) is not necessarily a blow to the East African Community but it is a reminder of the tensions that remain in the regional grouping, especially over politics and governance arrangements.

On the face of it, there is nothing exceptional about Burundi’s application to SADC; Tanzania, a key founding member of the EAC is also a member of the southern bloc, as is its neighbour to the west, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Beneath the surface, however, Burundi’s move represents a hedging of geopolitical bets by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s government against what it sees as hostility from some EAC members, in particular Rwanda. Relations between the two countries have been sour since Bujumbura accused Kigali of supporting some of the groups that emerged to oppose President Nkurunziza after he stood for a third term of office in 2015 in what critics said was a violation of the Arusha Agreements that ended the country’s civil war.

Rwanda has denied any involvement in the political instability that has ensued in Burundi but President Paul Kagame has publicly criticised his counterpart’s regime and accused it of massacres.

While the public rhetoric between the two countries has since died down, the political tensions continue. Five of Burundi’s representatives to the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) have promised to boycott the fifth plenary session due next week in Kigali because of the tensions between the two countries.

In addition, an EAC mediation process to end the fighting in Burundi led by former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa has all but collapsed. The government side is opposed to the participation of some civil society groups it says were involved in the political instability in the country; opposition groups on the other side of the table say Mr Mkapa is biased and should be replaced.

The Burundi Question is a relatively small matter but it says a lot about the way the EAC has evolved and how it is likely to look like in future. To understand this we need to examine the community’s integration efforts in the commercial, legal and political fields.

Most of the progress in the EAC has come in breaking down trade barriers. Major border crossings across the region are now open around the clock and taxes on imports are paid once, at the first point of entry into the region. Tax authorities operate on the same integrated platforms and, just last week an electronic system was launched allowing for the online tracking of cargo trucks as they make their way through the EAC.

Teething problems

Many hurdles remain. Internal transport costs remain high and red tape, while significantly reduced, still increases the cost of doing business. The biggest disagreement, arguably, is over the Economic Partnerships Agreement with the European Union. Kenya, which desperately needs the tax-free access to the EU market for its vegetable and flower exports that the deal guarantees, has signed, as has Rwanda. Tanzania is opposed to the deal and has refused to sign, as has Uganda but this disagreement is being dealt with at the highest levels in each of the countries in order to find common ground.

In any case, the dispute over the EPA shows institutional growth in the EAC after Tanzania took its case to the East African Court of Justice, an increasingly important arbiter of regional disputes.

In fact courts continue to give legal clarity to many of the teething problems of integration. A Bill before EALA seeks to remove restrictions on the export of professional services across the region, such as those provided by lawyers and engineers who currently require recertification to work in partner states.

Courts are also cementing regional integration into domestic jurisprudence. The High Court in Kenya recently reversed a decision by the Kenya School of Law barring Ugandan, South Sudanese, Tanzanian, Rwandan and Burundian students from enrolling into the Advocates Training Programme required for one to practice law in the country.

It is on the political front that the EAC is struggling to adopt or implement common standards, or resolve internal disputes. The treaty that re-established the EAC in 1999 spells out the criteria for admission of members into the community including “adherence to universally acceptable principles of good governance, democracy, the rule of law, observance of human rights and social justice.”

In addition, the fundamental principles of the EAC include “good governance” and “adherence to the principles of democracy, the rule of law, accountability, transparency, social justice, equal opportunities, gender equality, as well as the recognition, promotion and protection of human and people’s rights in accordance with the provisions of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.”

None of the EAC member states meet these high standards. Freedom House, a New York-based civil society organisation that measures political rights and civil liberties, ranks Kenya and Tanzania as “partly free” while the other member states are considered “not free.”

Admission to economic blocs can be used as a carrot to improve governance in candidate countries, as the European Union has done in its expansion east into former Soviet republics, which have to carry out reforms, from clamping down on corruption to eliminating the death penalty, before they can be admitted. Once inside the bloc the common values are expected to keep new entrants from regressing into bad governance.

By the time of its admission in 2007 Burundi was relatively stable, with a delicate power-sharing agreement between its Hutu majority and Tutsi minority communities.

On the other hand, by the time South Sudan was admitted into the EAC in 2016 it was already in the throes of its violent armed conflict between rival factions of the ruling party each backed by different ethnic clusters.

Both countries have proven the carrot theory wrong. Burundi regressed into political instability and armed violence six years after joining, while being part of the EAC has done nothing to bring peace or order to South Sudan. If anything, the two political crises have exposed the EAC’s unwillingness or inability to cultivate a political culture or enforce good governance extraterritorially.

The problem is double faceted. First, the absence of common political values mentioned earlier, even among the three original member states, puts the EAC in a position where it is attempting to give what it does not have. After changing their constitutions to remove or amend term limits Uganda and Rwanda are not exactly in position to preach to Burundi about respecting the two-term limit envisaged by the Arusha Agreements.

Similarly, after the post-election violence of 2007/8 and the perennial political violence in Zanzibar neither Kenya nor Tanzania can preach to Uganda, for instance, about political violence against dissident views without drawing accusations of hypocrisy. You can’t give what you do not have.

Secondly, even where the need to intervene outweighs any concerns about double standards, the EAC lacks the tools to intervene. The treaty, and its criteria for admission, is one such tool but, as noted, the bar was lowered so low in order to let in South Sudan, for one, that it has been defanged.

In any case, the fundamental principles of “sovereign equality” as well as “peaceful co-existence and good neighbourliness” in the EAC Treaty impose an unwritten obligation of non-interference in the internal matters of a member state.


These contradictions are likely to colour the long-term outlook and nature of the EAC. On the plus side, the low bar of admission on governance mean that it would be difficult, and even short-sighted given the obvious benefits, to turn down applications for admission from say Ethiopia or the Democratic Republic of Congo – two countries that have their own governance challenges but are geographically contiguous to the EAC.

On the negative side, the contradictions mean that the EAC is unlikely to be a vehicle that uses the benefits of open borders and free trade to encourage political reforms and democratic practice in its member states.

This is not an entirely bad thing. As long as the political contradictions do not spill over across borders, lead to war or interrupt trade, it is possible that they could encourage regional leaders to focus instead on the relatively easier but similarly important areas of encourage free trade and the free movement of goods, labour, capital and services across the region.

In the long run, and with more enlightened leadership across the member states it is possible that economic growth and the emergence of economic classes with vested interests can act as catalysts for political reforms within the member states and across the region.

In the short term, however, these contradictions show that plans to accelerate the evolution of the EAC into a political federation are not likely to go anywhere; it is hard to externally unite countries that are internally divided.