Background to the idea of East African political federation

It has been reported that at the recently concluded summit in Burundi (November 2011), the East African community leaders have instructed the secretariat to issue new guidelines on the form of East African economic integration and political federation that is suitable for the region.

We need to understand two things very clearly:

1. The definition of a federation and how it works in theory and particularly in practice drawing on relevant lessons of federal states that include United States of America, Canada, India, Germany and Switzerland;

2. The background to the idea of economic integration and political federation in East Africa and steps taken to implement it among the three countries of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda and the difficulties that have been experienced among the three countries plus Burundi and Rwanda.

Federation or federalism is a political system in which the national (central) government shares power with local (state) governments. It derives its power from the people who must understand the merits and demerits and take informed decisions.

Leaders and their advisers or legislators therefore cannot seat alone and take decisions on integration and federation matters and impose them on the people. Even referendums imposed on the people who do not understand the meaning, much less the implications of integration and federation on their lives is not the right way to obtain people’s support for a federation.

According to experience from federal states federalism has changed overtime. The relationship between federal and state governments changes necessitating commensurate modifications. Positions held years ago may have changed under new circumstances requiring fresh information.

Thus, a federal arrangement that was appropriate in the past may not be so today. It’s perhaps with this in mind that East African leaders have sought new guidelines on the form of East African economic integration and political federation.

Originally federation was meant for the English-speaking countries of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Now the community has added two countries formerly under French-speaking colonial Belgian rule. This new political and economic development and other changes within and without the East African region may have created new circumstances needing fresh guidelines.

Although the idea of federation in East Africa gathered speed after the Second World War, it has a longer history stretching to the end of the 19th century.

The idea of an East African federation was proposed by Harry Johnston in 1899. Separately Lord Delamere of Kenya and Cecil Rhodes of central and southern Africa dreamed of the dominion of white settlers in Eastern Africa.

From 1905 white settlers met frequently to discuss the idea. With Tanganyika becoming a British mandate territory at the end of WWI, the idea of a federation became a colonial preoccupation to bring a closer political union of the three territories.

Between 1924 and 1945 various studies were conducted on EA federation. The common observation was that the governments in these three territories preferred their separate arrangements. The domination of white settles in Kenya acted as a strong deterrent to cooperation especially in Uganda. It was concluded that the territories were not ready for a political federation.

Subsequently a number of measures to prepare a platform for federation were launched. They included establishment of an authority to coordinate common activities in the region. In 1926 it was agreed that governors should meet regularly. This machinery would be used as a tool in the creation of the East African federation through common services such as trade, customs, posts and telecommunications etc.

In 1944 the governor of Kenya Sir Philip Mitchell was given specific instructions by the colonial office to devise a form of East African authority – High Commission – to address the East African common economic challenges. Tanganyika and especially Uganda were uneasy. They feared the dominance of white settlers in Kenya, causing a slowdown in progress towards federation.

The demands for decolonization of Africa in the 1950s regenerated an interest in the idea of the East African federation. Unfortunately, Oliver Lyttleton, then colonial secretary, made informal remarks in 1953 regarding East Africa federation. Baganda were disturbed by this remark and refused to discuss with the governor the political reforms that were under way even though assurances were given that a federation would not be imposed on the East African people.

To avoid federation nationalists from eastern and central Africa and later southern Africa pushed for national independence. They created an umbrella organization known as the Pan-African Freedom Movement of East and Central Africa (PAFMECA) in 1958.

They agreed that creating a federation before independence was not appropriate. “Federation was still seen as an imperialist plan to maintain control over the still dependent countries”(S. Diamond & F. G. Burke 1966).

At the East African conference of governors in 1961 the major theme was the East African federation. “It was agreed that the major objective of British policy in East Africa was to be a federation with separate independence for individual territories as a stop gap if they could not obtain federation” (Diamond & Burke 1966).

A timetable for federation was set for 1964. However, Britain would not take overt initiative. Local initiatives would be encouraged for federation of independent East African countries. Julius Nyerere became champion for the federation.

Meanwhile the activities of the High Commission were expanded and the Commission renamed East African Common Services Organization (EACSO) on the road to federation. Broader activities would include East African common market, common tariff, customs and common currency arrangements.

The idea of federation was added to the liberation agenda of PAFMECA which was also taken up at the Addis Ababa OAU Summit in 1963.

On return from that Summit the East African leaders met in Nairobi to draft a Federation Declaration committing the three countries to move forward quickly. But Uganda remained reluctant.

A ministerial working committee was established for this purpose. As discussions progressed, the momentum began to lose steam and Uganda became even more reluctant.

Uganda concerns included the following aspects:

1. Matters affecting the civil service;

2. Siting of the federal capital;

3. Whether to have a single or a bicameral legislature;

4. If there are to be two chambers, what powers would be allowed to each;

5. Disagreement concerning citizenship;

6. Division of powers and responsibilities between federal and state governments;

7. Uganda needed certain guarantees for her future within a larger unit and whom it was surrendering powers to.

Julius Nyerere admitted that there were justifiable doubts about setting up a federation in 1963. Because of these difficulties Prime Minister Obote skipped the East African Summit on federation in Nairobi in 1963.

Uganda’s other concerns were:

1. Uganda must be able to retain its seat at the United Nations;

2. Uganda’s sovereignty must be retained;

3. Member-states of a federation must retain their independent powers to raise money abroad;

4. Agriculture (including marketing boards) must remain a responsibility for each member-state;

5. Higher education, trade unions, lands, and mineral resources must be controlled by the individual states;

6. Interterritorial movement of people [and livestock] must be controlled to protect Uganda against being swamped by Kenya’s urban unemployed [now add on Rwandese and Burundians from densely populated countries];

7. Representatives in the projected federal House of Representatives may be based on appointments;

8. Uganda contends that each member-state must have equal number in the senate.

Given these demands and more which are still relevant to this day in December 2011, it was difficult to see what form of federation would emerge. Thus with Obote’s failure to attend the Summit, the door to the East African federation was shut at least for 1963.

To keep federation hope alive, the three East African countries created in 1967 the East African Community to address common economic and social development matters. Because of economic inequalities heavily tilted towards Kenya and ideological and personal differences, the East African Community closed shop in 1977, just before its tenth anniversary.

The East African Community was resurrected in the 1990s to facilitate economic and social integration without much talk of political federation. Former French-speaking countries of Burundi and Rwanda were added to the community, with new challenges particularly human and livestock mobility across borders with all the implications in carrying capacity of services, the job market and potential conflict of ownership of properties especially land.

Then in 1997, Yoweri Museveni announced that his mission was to create a federation of states in the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes region. Federation of East African states was added to the activities of the East African Community with Museveni as champion pressing for fast track (accelerated) progress ahead of economic integration. This approach has been likened to building a house starting with the roof down to the foundation!

As we have witnessed in the European Union and NAFTA, economic integration and political federation are not easy matters even among developed societies. Winston Churchill declared in September 1946 that the United States of Europe was absolutely necessary. It was later realized that it is better to begin with economic and social sector integration incrementally and progress towards a political union. Despite these strategies Europe has not achieved a political union yet.

In the economic sector a European Monetary Union (EMU) was considered a critical stage towards political union. But there were many reservations and skepticism among the Anglo-Saxon economists and other commentators about chances of success of the EMU and the Euro.

“Today, Greece, Ireland, and Portugal are suffering acute financial crises, with Spain, Italy and Belgium coming close to going down the same path. The general atmosphere in the European Union (EU) is filled with uncertainty and fear for the future” (J. V. Overtveldt, 2011).

East African leaders must take this lesson into account and adjust as appropriate, avoiding fixing rigid timetables. Furthermore lesson should be drawn from NAFTA.

Moving forward without proper analysis of issues as in the privatization of Uganda public enterprises, construction in Kampala, export of food, universal primary education and opening Uganda markets on Uganda manufacturing industries has already cost Uganda dearly. It should not be repeated with integration and federation.

The political, economic and social difficulties involved in economic integration and political federation were raised in the Uganda’s National Recovery Plan (NRP) prepared in 2011 and widely distributed by United Democratic Ugandans (UDU).

The challenges that have frustrated the East African economic integration and political federation still remain, made more complicated by adding Burundi and Rwanda to Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. There are still major economic, social, cultural, infrastructural and institutional, linguistic, democracy and human rights barriers to be overcome first. Countries whose governments torture citizens for dissent and those that steal elections, are corrupt and starve their citizens to earn foreign exchange should not be mixed with those trying to make things better for their citizens. As they say, you do not tether your good goat near a bad one. The bad habits will spread to the good goat and turn it into a bad one.

Open competition among unequal members is not an appropriate way to foster integration and federation. EU and NAFTA should offer some lessons on what to avoid.

In these circumstances the decision by East African leaders to call for new guidelines on economic integration and political federation was wise and timely.

We hope that Mwai Kibaki, president of Kenya, will use his economic and political experience and chairmanship of the East African Community for the coming year to guide the work of the institution well and firmly put it on the right track with equal opportunities.

This task will require involving all interested parties including the UDU which stands ready to participate in the deliberations. UDU also offers its plan to serve as one of the working documents. It is accessible at