By Martin Luther Munu,

The close of 2018 saw an escalation in the conflict between Rwanda and Burundi—the two members who joined the East African Community (EAC) in 2007. This escalation is likely to shape the direction of EAC for the year 2019 and beyond. The region would have to contend with members who are not collaborating with each other and could potentially lead to armed conflict—undermining regional integration or resolve a deep rooted conflict which has far reaching consequences for the EAC if not quickly resolved.

Rwanda and Burundi have not been having the best of relations to say the least since 2015 with both accusing each other of provocative actions to destabilize their respective governments. Burundi accuses Rwanda of training refugees to oust President Pierre Nkurunziza’s government while President Paul Kagame of Rwanda accuses Burundi of hosting an ethnic Hutu rebel group Known as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and blamed by Kigali for committing the 1994 genocide.

These relations took the worst of turn when in November 2018, Burundi refused to send delegates for the EAC meetings, blocking the scheduled EAC Heads of States Summit. On December 4th, 2018, Burundi President Nkurunziza said he no longer consider Rwanda a partner, but simply an enemy, further heightening tensions. The rescheduled date of December 27, 2018 for the Summit in Arusha, was also opposed by Burundi hence forcing members to push the Summit to the first quarter of 2019. This is unprecedented and it possess a threat to the future of EAC as the biggest decision making body of the Community cannot meet without quorum, which in this case means the participation of all members.

The disagreement has seen both countries denying entry of citizens of the other country into their territories, including the EAC officials as seen during the inter-parliamentary games in early December in Burundi. The effect of such disagreements undermines not only regional cooperation but intra EAC trade which is likely to spill over to other members. Burundi for instance banned food exports to Rwanda and blocked passenger vehicles from Rwanda to cross into their territory. These actions violate the EAC Common Market protocol which provides for free movement of EAC citizens across the region.

The treaty which established the EAC provides for cooperation of all members as partners for their mutual benefit in a wide range of areas. These include; political, economic, social, and cultural affairs, research and biotechnology, defense, security, and legal and judicial affairs. Article 123 of the EAC treaty provides for the establishment of a common foreign and security policies, peaceful resolution of disputes and conflicts between and within the Partner States. The means the EAC has the necessary legal provisions to address this conflict and it resonates with President Pierre Nkurunziza’s call for the EAC to urgently convene an extraordinary summit to address the differences between Burundi and Rwanda. This however brings the community to an unchartered waters as such a scenario has never happened and members seem not prepared to tackle this challenge head on.

The year 2019 therefore presents the EAC with a major situation which is likely to shape the future of the Community itself. Should the disagreements between Rwanda and Burundi escalate, it could lead to an all-out military confrontation which would ultimately destabilize the entire region. The EAC in that case would be dragged into a situation where two partner states are at war with each other, another unprecedented scenario which diplomats in Arusha are simply not empowered to resolve, let alone the Summit as it cannot happen under such circumstances.

The attention therefore turns to Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta and Tanzania’s John Pombe Magufuli to meet outside of the EAC structures to try and resolve the matter as South Sudan is incapacitated due to on-going internal conflict. Unfortunately, the three founding members of the EAC themselves are now occupied with own political uncertainties brought about by nearing election periods. Political tensions are therefore rising in the entire EAC which is likely to keep each member more occupied with national politics than regional issues.

Addressing the Rwanda-Burundi conflict through the EAC summit therefore presents the quickest mechanism for resolving the disagreement between the two countries. This needs a well-crafted diplomatic effort to avoid a military confrontation so that members can continue to enjoy the benefits of regional integration. Political will from the two countries in question however remains paramount for any regional effort to succeed. More importantly, the EAC needs to institute a stronger culture of cooperation and regionalism among citizens, even in times of such misunderstandings between the respective governments in order to maintain the gains of integration.

Martin Luther Munu, is a Research Analyst, Trade & Regional Integration, Economic Policy Research Centre (EPRC)