Regional bodies pose danger to democratic processes

Sunday March 6 2016

President Uhuru Kenyatta joins other Heads of State from the East African Community for the 17th Ordinary EAC Summit Arusha Tanzania on March 2, 2016. PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

President Uhuru Kenyatta joins other Heads of State from the East African Community for the 17th Ordinary EAC Summit Arusha Tanzania on March 2, 2016. PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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A week after Uganda’s controversial elections in which the incumbent, Yoweri Museveni – already in power for 30 years – was declared president for another five-year term, the East African Community admitted South Sudan as the sixth member of the Community.

South Sudan now joins Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi which were already members of the Community.

South Sudan applied for Community membership soon after independence in 2011 but the application has been pending consideration and was finally approved last week. The EAC previously rejected Sudan’s application for membership of the EAC because of concerns that the country did not possess a good democratic record, that it lacked religious freedom, and allowed gender discrimination.

South Sudan has been admitted to membership of the EAC while still facing a major civil war since December 2013 which has killed more than 50,000 people, displaced another 2 million and pushed the country to the brink of famine, leaving many people dependent on UN food aid.

The fact that the EAC has admitted South Sudan which still faces a war that has defied a peace agreement is seen as a lowering of standards for admission to the EAC. Further, the EAC has conferred on itself the additional responsibility of stabilising its new fragile member state, at a time when the body’s resources are stretched by pre-existing responsibilities, including in relation to Burundi.

Other than South Sudan which brings to the EAC an unresolved internal conflict, another member state, Burundi, whose elections failed last year after incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza insisted on running for a controversial third term in office, has engaged the attention of the Community.

The EAC summit appointed former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa as the facilitator of the Burundi peace process where he replaced President Museveni who had insisted on continuing to hoard this role while distracted by the demands of the just-ended elections in his country. It is to be hoped that the Burundi peace process can now resume since it will now have new leadership.

It is noteworthy that the EAC, together with the African Union and IGAD, described the openly troubled elections in Uganda as “free and fair” with the IGAD mission reported to have taken the trouble “to commend the electoral commission in the manner in which it has handled this heavy task.”


Other international observers, mainly the European Union and the Commonwealth, have had different views about the same elections, describing them as lacking independence, transparency and the trust of stakeholders.

The EAC now has two presidents, Uganda’s Museveni and Burundi’s Nkurunziza, who have just won additional terms in office through the use of strong arm tactics. A third president, Paul Kagame, has just rallied his country to approve a change to its constitution which will open up the presidential term limits, ground that both Museveni and Nkurunziza had already covered. President Salvar Kiir evokes many descriptions, one of them as an incompetent and lazy dictator.

With their clear imperfections, Kenya and Tanzania remain the only countries in this club that have held relatively respectable presidential elections.

The fact that both Museveni and Nkurunziza have got away so lightly with sham presidential elections in own countries is a strain on the internal processes in Kenya and Tanzania. Museveni and Nkurunziza are an example of a new normalcy being created around patently false practices that are championed as democratic elections.

The fact that President Uhuru Kenyatta was so quick to congratulate his Ugandan counterpart for winning a controversial election is an indication that Kenya’s president admires how Museveni manages to so freely give himself another term in office and may be an indication of the difficulties that lie ahead in Kenya’s own elections next year.

When negotiations towards the new EAC treaty began in the 1990s, President Moi, then the longest serving leader in the region, showed great reluctance in taking Kenya into the new treaty. These concerns were based partly on the view that the EAC would impose an additional layer of accountability which the Kenyan president was not keen on embracing.


While on paper “good governance including adherence to the principles of democracy, the rule of law, accountability, transparency” remains part of its fundamental principles, the rush to embrace the results of Uganda’s questionable presidential election and the admission of South Sudan into the Community are two new developments that question the genuineness of this commitment.

Previously, both the EAC and IGAD have played an important support role to the African Union in protecting the Kenyan suspects before the International Criminal Court. IGAD, in particular, has maintained its own reactionary stance towards the ICC and has complimented the hostile role that the AU has taken towards the court.

In an age of declining civil liberties, a phenomenon that has been called closing of civic space, it is clear that these sub-regional multilateral institutions, far from playing the role of a regional watchdog for the people, have become an additional layer of comfort for the many despots that have emerged around the region.

The assumption that the people would find a greater voice through these new mechanisms has been proved wrong. Instead, it is the rulers who are using these institutions to establish mutually-reinforcing relationships that offer them regional protection against failures of accountability at home.

While national struggles against oppressive and despotic rulers must continue, the people of East Africa must now also recognise the danger posed by these regional bodies to national democratic processes and must start looking for ways to liberate these bodies as well.