When Heads of State of the East African Community held a virtual consultative meeting on the Novel Coronavirus pandemic on May 12, two countries were absent: Burundi and Tanzania. This led to questions on the cohesion of the six-nation community.
According to New Times, the meeting was led by President Paul Kagame, the current chair of the regional bloc.
It has emerged that the two states requested to sit out of the meeting citing different reasons, according to Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Vincent Biruta.
Burundi requested to sit out of the meeting because they are preparing for their general elections slated for May 20 and are in campaign period, while Tanzania requested for a bilateral meeting with Rwanda to iron out outstanding issues on the movement of cargo trucks between the two countries.
Biruta said that Burundi had requested an exemption from EAC meetings and planned to resume after their elections.
Tanzania, on the other hand, has been in talks with Rwanda regarding the fate of cross border movement of freight trucks.
The talks between the two countries seek to address concerns such as the fate of the trucks destined for Rwanda are stuck in the Tanzanian border town of Benako, after some Tanzanian truck drivers protested the requirements by Rwanda to adopt a relay system handing over their trucks to Rwandan drivers.
The system was adopted by the government as part of the measures to curb the spread of coronavirus.
Rwanda uses the port of Dar es Salaam for much of inbound and outbound cargo, through what is commonly known as the Central Corridor.
The EAC meeting and challenges to convene it revealed weaknesses in the bloc’s protocol which states that to successfully convene a Summit, all Heads of State of the respective partner states ought to be present.
While the presence of all member states may be a positive aspect in decision making, it was found to derail and slow the momentum of the bloc with Heads of State committing to review it.
For instance, prior to this week’s meeting, the Heads of State had postponed summits since November last year as some members were not in position to feature in the meetings.
Biruta said that the bloc should consider updating this particular protocol, saying that it was set when the EAC bloc had only three member states, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
With a membership of six countries, the protocol will be reviewed going forward, according to Biruta, who is also the government spokesperson.
He added that issue of the amendment will feature in the next summit to improve the efficiency of the bloc.
Freight trucks from Tanzania
EAC’s cooperation and working together is likely to determine how fast the region can resume normalcy in regards to the COVID-19 pandemic. The bloc is working out modalities to determine aspects such as free movement of good across the bloc without compromising individual states’ vulnerability to the pandemic.
This has led to the emergence of concerns such as the fate of freight movement across the bloc.
In this regard, countries are considering feasibility of a relay system that would allow handing over of trucks to Rwandan drivers at border points, offloading cargo at border points as well as COVID-19 clearance certificates for truck drivers.
“The main issue we need to work on is the harmonization of how we are testing and the value we give the certificates (COVID-19 clearance) to allow free movement of goods. We need to have a system that is agreeable to everyone,” Biruta said.
The bloc has since agreed to appoint focal persons from each country to the issue to be involved in following up developments and necessary adjustments.
“Most importantly is that we need to communicate and adjust to the situation. We have decided to appoint focal points in all members of EAC. We need to keep flexible in measures we are taking,” Biruta added.
On the issue of truck drivers, Biruta said that currently, a majority of patients in the treatment centres are truck drivers or their assistance which is an indicator of the need to handle the issue amicably to avoid further vulnerability.
Manasseh Nshuti the State Minister in charge of East African Community (EAC) said that with different approaches and reactions to the pandemic by regional countries, there has been an effect on free movement of goods across borders.
The different reactions by individual countries he said had led to the disruption of the movement of goods as was being experienced in the Tanzanian border town of Benako where close to 1,000 trucks destined for Rwanda are currently stuck.
Rwanda is however optimistic of an agreement noting that it is in the interest of all parties to have a resumption of cargo movement.
Responding to whether Rwanda was concerned about Burundi and Tanzania’s handling of the pandemic, Biruta said Rwanda does not judge or hold an opinion over approaches that have been chosen by its neighbours.