East African Federation Looks Set for Further Delay

East African Federation Looks Set for Further Delay

The creation of an East African Federation (EAF) has been steadily progressing since the latest initiative began at the very end of the 20th century. The proposed ‘super-state’ has received rhetorical support from African leaders and would be an exciting development in sub-Saharan Africa. However, such progress has been repeatedly beset by setbacks and delays and looks certain to be delayed once again, with the 2023 target for confederation almost certain to be missed. Several underlying issues need to be resolved if the project is to avoid the complete collapse that befell previous attempts.


The idea of creating an east African ‘superstate’ has been around since the immediate post-colonial era. The essential concept is a political union of six East African nations – Burundi, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and South Sudan – as a federated sovereign state united under a single president. It has proved difficult to implement, with movement towards federation collapsing in the 1960s and the original East African Community (EAC) falling victim to internal disputes in 1977. 

East African Projection

Projection of East African Federation states. Source Wikimedia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15753630 

The benefits of forming such a state would be numerous. Firstly, and most clearly it would give landlocked nations like Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan access to the sea. With the Somalian coast to the north and Mozambican coast to the south, the East African Federation would offer the most politically stable access to key maritime trade routes on Africa’s east coast. Additionally, an economic union would facilitate internal trade and commerce between coastal regions and the densely populated great lakes region. The EAF would be one of the largest states in Africa (both in terms of population and land mass), would be distanced from political strife in the west and would be surrounded largely by relatively weak neighbours. It would theoretically be in pole position to become a regional great power. 

However, currently this remains just an idea. The current drive towards federalisation began with the revival of the EAC in 1999, and four key stages were identified in the move towards political unification. These were: a customs union; a common market; a monetary union, and; a political union. A customs union was agreed and implemented in 2005, with a common market following in 2009. The original aim was for a complete political union to be attained by 2015. This has clearly not happened, as the final two stages have proven more difficult to be agreed upon. 

Recent Developments

A committee of experts was formed in 2018 to begin drafting a constitution, with a deadline of 2021 for completion. The draft will be reviewed before being submitted to Heads of State for signing, with it originally being set for adoption by 2023. It is expected that the political union will initially take the form of a confederation, with a federation being moved to after partner states have been able to harmonise their political systems. 

However, this has not been running smoothly. The most recent consultation meeting on drafting the constitution, held in Ngozi province in Burundi, was boycotted by Rwandan representatives. This is illustrative of the sour relations between the two countries, with talks in Rwanda having previously been conspicuously avoided by Burundian representatives. Additionally, there remains no monetary union in place amongst the partner nations. The latest plans for a 2024 introduction recently collapsed, and there remains a lack of policy alignment in key areas such as fiscal policy and the establishment of a central bank. 

The 2023 deadline for confederation will almost certainly be missed as a result of these issues. It is difficult to see how confederation and then federation can occur in the current climate. With the global pandemic exerting economic and political pressure, national leaders are prioritising the immediate needs of their respective countries rather than expending any serious effort on forming this hypothetical superstate.

Obstacles to Progress

The main obstacles to further progress revolve around mutual distrust and economic policy divergence. The region is still beset by inter-state distrust taking the form of trade disputes. The border between Rwanda and Uganda has been shut since February 2019, as has the border between Rwanda and Burundi. All three nations suspect the others of sponsoring opposition to their respective regimes. More recently, a dispute has erupted between Kenya and Tanzania, with Kenyan authorities blocking Tanzanian truck drivers from entering Kenyan territory (due to fears of spreading COVID-19) and Tanzania responding by barring Kenya’s national airline from landing on Tanzanian soil. This political rivalry caused by suspicion of neighbouring leadership is a strong barrier to further attempts at integration.

Key pieces of economic infrastructure and policy also remain lacking. Rwanda and Kenya have made good strides, constructing rail lines and building more ‘one stop’ border posts to expedite customs clearance. However, these actions have not been matched by other involved nations. With many countries of the EAC underdeveloped and reliant on foreign aid they remain mistrustful of their neighbours and vulnerable to economic shocks. This does not create an environment conducive towards infrastructure investment and economic reform. Overall, it appears that the EAF is pursued by some more vigorously than others, and awkward tensions remain unaddressed impeding uniform progress. 


Adoption of a political union would be subordinate to implementation of a monetary union. The major benefit of federation would be enabling the region to fully exploit its natural resources, such as oil in Uganda and natural gas in Tanzania, by being able to transport those resources from landlocked areas to coastal trading hubs. In order for this to happen, foreign direct investment is required to put in place the necessary infrastructure. It is very difficult to do so without a single currency as exchange rates cannot be controlled or standardised. Thus the major benefit of a political union would not be achieved without first a monetary union being put into place. Progress towards this goal will require significant economic reforms. 

It is difficult to see such reforms and key infrastructure being put in place whilst the region is still suffering under the global pandemic. Additionally, some of the distrust existing between the involved states stems from differing approaches to the threat of COVID-19. Therefore, a route towards a monetary and a political union cannot even begin to be imagined until the effects of the pandemic are no longer being felt in sub-Saharan Africa. 

So – what will happen?

As well as the existing 2023 deadline being missed, there is a distinct possibility that the project will fall apart as it has done in the past. Whether this happens or not will depend on the leadership within the EAC. Almost all internal disputes and lack of reform stems from incumbent leaders feeling a sense of vulnerability in their positions. Leaders such as Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and Burundi’s Evariste Ndayishimiye are under political pressure to maintain their domestic positions. Being under such pressure makes them concentrate on their immediate concerns rather than put in the effort to implement reforms that will only have long-term benefits. Additionally, it is within their interest to create conflict with neighbouring nations in order to shore up domestic support against foreign ‘aggressors’. It is no accident that the two leaders most responsible for generating forward momentum, Paul Kagame and Uhuru Kenyatta, are the two most secure in their domestic positions. This sense of vulnerability is the largest underlying obstacle to further progress, and the greatest threat to the culmination of the project. Hopefully, the concept can survive and the region can emerge in the post-pandemic world in a more stable position to achieve its own lofty ambitions.

Categories: Africa, Politics

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