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RWANDA: Controversy Over Plan to Join East African Economic Community

Aimable Twahirwa

KIGALI, Nov 5 2006 (IPS) - Rwanda and Burundi may be sworn in as new members of the East African Economic Community (EAC) when the grouping holds its next summit, Nov. 30, in the Tanzanian financial centre of Dar-es-Salam. The regional organisation presently comprises Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, and is headquartered in the northern Tanzanian town of Arusha.

“We’re in the process of organising a big celebration to welcome Rwanda into the organisation,” said Tanzanian President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete during his first visit to Rwanda earlier this year.

Rwandan Finance and Regional Planning Minister James Musoni told IPS that the Central African nation’s entry into the EAC would be of particular help to local businesses, enabling them to import and export products through the ports of other community member states (Rwanda is itself landlocked): “I’m sure that entry into the EAC will be a success that will be felt very shortly.”

Mary Baine, general commissioner for the Rwandan Revenue Office, also notes that customs duties will be reduced for Rwandan importers if the country becomes an EAC member, which will – in turn – spur national and regional trade.

But others are less optimistic about the eventual benefits of the community for Rwanda.

“The Rwandan economy risks being wiped out by a ferocious price and promotional offer war waged by other members of the EAC,” an economic researcher who teaches at the National University of Rwanda at Butare, in the south of the country, told IPS.

A political researcher and observer also expressed concern over whether the will of the Rwandan people had really been taken into account in debates over the country’s possible membership of the EAC.

“It’s sad that the people and other stakeholders were not sufficiently consulted before applying for membership. If there’s any possibility that this regional organisation will eventually fail, the citizens of our countries will be the main victims,” the researcher said in an interview with IPS.

For his part, Bonaventure Bizumuremyi – publication director of ‘Umuco’ (“culture”, in Kinyarwanda), a bi-monthly independent journal published in the Rwandan capital, Kigali – even has doubts about the long-term prospects of the EAC.

“There’s no guarantee…that this regional organisation will last. It’s a monumental mistake not to take into account the failure of other regional integration organisations,” he said.

Bizumuremyi cites the example of other groupings that Rwanda joined but which no longer exist, notably the Economic Community of the Great Lakes Countries and the Organisation for the Management and Development of the Kagera River Basin. “It’s important to first look into the past and meticulously examine what Rwanda has to gain by joining this new organisation,” he told IPS.

President Paul Kagame indicated during an August press conference in Kigali that Rwanda was in no hurry to join the community.

“All the member countries must agree on reciprocity so that each EAC nation derives advantages,” he said. “Rwanda doesn’t need to belong to several regional organisations. Instead, we must place priority on the major advantages the country can gain, especially in the domains of the economy and social welfare.”

The history of the EAC can be traced back to a customs union established in 1917 by Kenya and Uganda. The former Tanganyika, which later merged with the island of Zanzibar to become Tanzania, joined this organisation in 1927 – while the community itself was established in 1967.

In 1977 the EAC was dissolved because of differences between the three member states, but was relaunched in 1996 when the Kenyan, Ugandan and Tanzanian heads of state signed a new agreement on trade.

The EAC works in various sectors, ranging from trade, customs, transportation and communication to energy, agriculture and the environment.

Besides creating a customs union and allowing the free circulation of goods and persons, EAC member countries intend to launch a single currency by 2007, according to Juma Mwapachu – the secretary-general of the EAC, who spoke during a press conference in Kigali recently.

He added that trade and foreign investment in the EAC region, which has more than 110 million inhabitants, would be strengthened with the inclusion of new member countries.

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