Tanzania’s president said on Thursday that Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda risked weakening the East African Community by seeking closer unity without the agreement of all five members, weighing in on a row that has exposed rivalries in the economic bloc.
The region has moved faster than other parts of Africa to deepen trade ties which are widely seen as important to sustaining the continent’s long term growth, but relations within the community can be testy.
Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda have agreed on several joint projects, such as a new railway to link them but not Tanzania, and have also announced moves for a single customs area during meetings that excluded Tanzania.
Kenya has been bidding to create a new trade corridor and port in its northern territory and Kenyan officials say joint projects with other nations are not aimed at sidelining Tanzania, which sits on Kenya’s southern border.
But the latest spat has exposed historic rivalries between the two heavyweights in the bloc.
There are also plans for an oil pipeline between Kenya and Uganda that aspiring member South Sudan could use. The EAC’s fifth member is Burundi, to the southwest of the bloc.
“We will do whatever we can to ensure that the community is not weakened or forced to collapse,” Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete said in an address to parliament.
“We don’t want what happened in 1977 to repeat itself,” he said, a reference to the date when an earlier bid to build a grouping broke apart because of political and economic disagreements between then members Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
Kenya, east Africa’s biggest economy and one of its most liberal, and Tanzania, which still imposes fairly tight capital controls and ranked No. 2, have long tussled for influence.
The EAC, in its current form, was set up in the 1990s.
Regional analysts say Tanzania, which is also a member of the 15-member Southern African Development Community, has dragged its feet over moves towards deeper economic integration including the free movement of workers and trade.
Hinting at Tanzania’s concerns, Kikwete said: “Tanzania is not a stumbling block to regional integration ... but we will not skip key stages of the integration process and rush towards a fast-tracked political federation.”
There have been other strains in the group.
Tanzania’s recent call for nations in the Great Lakes region to talk to rebels to help end Congo’s conflict riled Rwanda, which saw this as meddling and an attempt to prod it into negotiations with a group it blames for the 1994 genocide. (Reuters)