At the 19th summit of the East African Heads of State in Munyonyo, President Museveni was uncharacteristically blunt.
Before the visitors, he chastised Ugandan organisers for being incompetent by bringing visitors to a hall with poor air conditioning.
“I am very sorry about your suffering,” Museveni said.
This openness was supposed to set the tone for the summit for partner states to talk frankly about issues affecting the region and holding back progress towards integration. But as the meeting progressed, seemingly small though critical issues were glossed over as focus turned to grand plans.
The EAC secretary general, Ambassador Liberat Mfumkeko, announced that the bloc would need $78 billion over the next ten years for various infrastructural projects, including railway, roads, ports and airports.
Of that amount, only $5bn is in the kitty. For the first time, the summit discussed health issues in the region and called for the harmonisation of health practitioners training in member states.
There have been calls for more public-private partnerships (PPPs) in funding projects. However, heads of state, save for Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta, poured cold water on the idea.
Museveni said PPPs were responsible for the high cost of power and interest rates in Uganda, making it necessary for states to go slow on them in critical sectors.
Public-private partnerships are a funding model where government and private investors pool resources to work on a particular project. The private investor is assured of their money and return on investment. Government benefits from having an investor bring in funds.
Kenyatta, nonetheless, said he is a strong believer in PPPs.
“I have a problem with some bureaucrats responsible for coordinating these projects. We have partners willing to get on board but are frustrated by the bureaucrats.”
Richard Kamajugo, a director at Trade Mark East Africa, one of the private funders of infrastructure projects in the region, told The Observer that states need to develop their internal capacities to negotiate with private players.
The final communique talked of speeding up establishment of a monetary institute, finalising integration of South Sudan into the community, assessing Somalia’s eligibility and fast-tracking the setting up of an automotive industry.
But beside these big plans, it was Dr Mukhisa Kituyi, the executive director of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, who drew attention to the critical issues affecting the EAC.
“Today, tariff barriers are non-existent but it’s true that services are not moving in the region. A lot of non-tariff barriers are still holding us back,” Kituyi said.
“There are unstated inefficiencies that are stalling movement of services in the region. If the production capacity is not developed, those roads will be used to dump bodies.”
Non-tariff barriers have been a thorny issue in the region, with traders pointing out that they are eating away advantages of integration. For instance, Ugandan traders have complained of their trucks being charged more money to go through Tanzania than what vehicles from that country pay to transit through Uganda.
Tanzanian-registered trucks pay $50 when they go through Uganda yet Ugandan ones pay $500 to drive through Tanzania.
Just last November, 6,400 day-old chicks from Kenya were burned in Tanzania, on suspicion they could spread bird flu. In January, 5,000 chicks were destroyed as Dar es Salaam said they were smuggled into the country – increasing diplomatic tensions between the two countries.
There is a border dispute between Burundi and Rwanda at Sabanegwa Hill, which is yet to be resolved but it didn’t appear on the list.
Dr Isaac Shinyekwa, a research fellow with Makerere University’s Economic Policy Research Centre, likened the EAC to a marriage with shortfalls requiring counsellors to stabilise and ensure its purpose.
“We shall get over the EAC marriage [integration],” Shinyekwa said, asking Ugandans not to cry and sit but, rather, move and act in making use of the preferential free trade area.
The summit communique spoke about promotion of the textile industry but did not specify how the delicate matter of secondhand clothes imported into the region will be handled.
This is an area where key donors like USA are very interested. Only Rwanda was bold enough to ban them, saying the decision was about the country’s dignity.