The media noise about Greece, its bailout package and whether or not it would or should leave the EU has died down. Even at the height of the discussion, I can’t quite remember there having been much debate on what the East African Community could learn from Greece. For example, whether a common currency really works when economies are very different, or to what extent member states are obliged to bail out another country when it runs into (self inflicted?) trouble. This is not to argue that regional economic integration doesn’t have advantages – but I think the EAC missed an opportunity here.
So I was more than a little surprised to read in the news that Southern Sudan has now been admitted to the EAC. The country had applied for membership back in 2011 when it became independent from Sudan. But it seems very odd timing to grant it admission just now.
South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir had recently reappointed opposition/rebel leader Riek Machar as vice president, effectively restoring the status quo before the (re)outbreak of civil war in late 2013. When you look at the past decades of South Sudan/Sudan’s history, there is so much déjà vu, it will make your head hurt. And Machar appears very reluctant to return to Juba to get on with work. If past patterns are anything to go by (and they usually are), then it is not certain if this is really the end of the civil war. Previous attempts at coming to a truce and a political solution have come to nothing much. And it is also not certain if this is a long-term solution. This is because South Sudan has no stable, competent institutions as such that can run the country competently, and it has a history of decades of fragmentation (often, admittedly, also stoked from outside) and civil war, occasionally interrupted by a handful years of relative quiet.
Even if an official agreement holds, it will be an enormous challenge even for a competent government (which won’t exist anytime soon) to reverse the recent ravages. Mike Pflanz, for example, writes that in the past two years, the civil war had "killed 10,000 people and driven 2.3 million from their homes, stoking catastrophic hunger". In the same article, he describes how Yambio, in the country’s south, had previously largely escaped the civil war, but had then also been hit by rebel/government soldier violence last year. Residents fled to the DRC and now live in a makeshift camp in a village called Bitima, close to the South Sudan border.
South Sudan’s Foreign minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin was quoted in the media saying that his country will "benefit from joining the EAC" and that there were ‘"no reasons for South Sudan not to join the economic bloc". I can see that this might be in South Sudan’s interest but there are plenty of reasons why this is not the time to admit South Sudan. As VOA News writes concisely, and understatedly: "An EAC member country is expected to adhere to principles of good governance, democracy, the rule of law and observance of human rights and social justice. South Sudan has struggled with all these issues since the outbreak of the war in December 2013." And even before.
For Uganda in particular, South Sudan had played an important economic role. An estimated 15 per cent of the country’s exports went to its neighbour. No great surprise then that Uganda President Yoweri Museveni had been quite happy to lend some of his armed forces to Kiir when the latest round of civil war broke out.
I guess you can look at South Sudan’s EAC accession from different perspectives. One would be to acknowledge that South Sudan has long had strong ties to its southern neighbours Uganda and Kenya, even before its official independence in 2011. A lot of Ugandans and Kenyans, both firms and individuals, had come to South Sudan to do business or seek work – this ranged from large corporates to enterprising small traders. Many South Sudanese study or work in the EAC. And because the South Sudanese power brokers hate it just as much as anyone else to make do without comfort, they own real estate in the EAC, keep their families there, and go there to rest and recover. Even warlords need R&R – wearing fatigues and living in the bush can be so awfully draining. So maybe South Sudan’s admission to the EAC would just make this de facto regional integration official, and ideally could nudge the country to sort out some of its issue?
I lean far more to the other side that admitting South Sudan before it had come to a lasting political solution was a mistake, a real disservice to the people of South Sudan. It would take a country like South Sudan a long time to measure up to EAC standards even if it were at relative peace, but that relative peace should have been the very least that the EAC should have demanded before letting it in. But then, possibly with the exception of Tanzanian President John Magufuli, East African leaders don’t currently seem very preoccupied with such fluffy stuff as democracy and governance.