The East African Community (EAC) is widely hailed as a pocket of excellence surrounded by a sea of poorly implemented partnership pacts and faltering trade agreements.
But to paraphrase a line from Hamlet – all’s not well between the states of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, leading members of the continent’s most potent economic bloc.
In March matters started simmering after Kenya banned maize imports from Tanzania and Uganda, adding to long-standing accusations that the country’s neighbours to the immediate west and east were violating free-trade principles enshrined in the EAC’s Common Market Protocol.
The ban, which in itself flouted the EAC’s primary objective of keeping regional borders open for enhanced trade flows, came after the Kenya Bureau of Standards and the Agriculture and Food Authority found that maize imports from Tanzania and Uganda had exceeded levels of aflatoxin, a life-threatening contaminant.
Around the same time Tanzanian President, Samia Sululu, made a beeline up north over nagging Kenyan gripes about imports involving animals, animal products, confectionery, juices, and cement.
Kenya also vented with Uganda over trade hindrances, but it later emerged that the bitterness stemmed from limitations placed on sugar imports based on accusations that Uganda imports sugar from Brazil which it repackages before selling it to Kenya.
In this manner, Kenya claims, Uganda is trying to get around an embargo limiting sugar imports to 18 923 tonnes.
Uganda in turn bemoaned an earlier agreement, clinched in April, that its sugar traders would be able to send 90 000 tonnes of product to Kenya.
That the whole tête-à-tête was exposed through social media, when the two countries’ agriculture ministers had a go at one another on Twitter, didn’t help much either.
Now, with trade tension reaching boiling point, criss-cross accusations of traders breaking the rules of cross-border commerce have led to EAC officials stepping into the breach.
Writing for The East African, Constant Munda quotes common market executive Adan Mohamed as saying that the tension has largely been because of “non-conformity with controls and standards governing trade”.
The EAC cabinet secretary for regional development said: “Whilst the rules are very clear, there are some private business entities that abuse those rules. And the abuse of those rules is what normally leads to some of these disputes.”
His views serve to reiterate the remonstrations of his immediate superior, EAC secretary general Peter Mathuki, who in May blamed the unending trade spats on the non-enforcement of an act against non-tariff barriers (NTBs).
These barriers, Munda writes, have slowed growth in the EAC, with intra-trade flows in the region only making up 15% of total volumes.
If the NTBs to which Mathuki refers are removed, trade flows between EAC member states could double to 30%, with estimated growth levels of 50% in coming years.
Yet Africa’s most powerful economic bloc, with the only statutory body of its kind on the continent, based in Arusha, is ripping into itself because of allegations of exploitative behaviour.
Heavy lies the head that wears the crown.