Somalia’s bid to join the East African Community seems to have come at the right time as the bloc also seeks expansion to include nearly everyone in the Horn of Africa. More than a decade since Mogadishu first filed interest, all indications are that Somalia could be the eighth member of the bloc by end of the year.
That has raised criticism as well, with some quarters terming the pace “too fast” (Somalia resubmitted the bid late last year) for a country still at war with itself and several other governance problems.
The EAC says it will not stop at Somalia and wants to have as many as 10 members by 2025, at the earliest, or before the close of the decade. This, officials say, will help countries in the region apply the rules of trade under the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement without worrying about concentric bloc memberships.
After Somalia, three more countries are expected to begin the admission process. They are all in the Horn. Ethiopia, Djibouti and Eritrea have been touted as possible candidates.
But while the desire is to encourage all countries in the neighbourhood to belong to one organisation, critics say the bloc is ignoring its basic principles.
Under Article 3 of the EAC Treaty, the criteria for the admission of new countries into the community include: Acceptance of the community as set out in the Treaty; adherence to universally acceptable principles of good governance, democracy, the rule of law, observance of human rights and social justice.
There are growing concerns that instead of strengthening and increasing intra-trade, the admission of the latest EAC partner states including South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and now Somalia is slowing down the integration process due to internal conflict in their respective countries.
This has partly been blamed on the EAC decision to rush for admission at the expense of adhering to its set criteria of new entrants on matters of democracy, rule of law, and human rights among other universally acceptable principles of good governance.
Proponents argue good governance will come naturally where communities trade freely. “Somalia attaches great importance to EAC as it creates business, trade and investment opportunities for country. It is one of the most integrated economic blocs on the continent, with intraregional trade accounting for roughly 30 percent of overall trade volumes,” argued Idd Bedel Mohamed, chairman of US-Somalia Business Council, an advisory body for Somalia business and investment policy, especially with neighbours as well as the US.
Bedel said this week that EAC’s integration makes it more viable than other blocs. But he argued Somalia isn’t coming to be a burden.
“Somalia offers opportunities to EAC countries that outweigh challenges it brings to the bloc; it has a vibrant market economy, a young generation, and business-oriented society with substantial investment in Africa and Middle East and huge natural resources. It is to the best interest of EAC to accept Somalia to join the bloc,” he said.
At the start of negotiations to admit Somalia, EAC Secretary General Dr Peter Mathuki said it was about markets under the AfCFTA, and guided by the African Union 2063 agenda.
“The EAC will deliver the Africa we want in 2063. Whenever we admit a new member, we are talking of extra people, and that is markets. And so, DRC came in with an extra 100 million people. Somalia is coming in with huge benefits but also Somalia will be able to benefit from joining the community,” said Dr Mathuki this week at the Kenya School of Government in Kabete, near Nairobi.
AfCFTA is an ambitious continental trade pact that seeks to improve sluggish intra-trade by tapping Africa’s 1.3 billion people with an estimated trade volume of $300 trillion. It seeks to gradually eliminate over 90 percent of tariffs on goods, reduce barriers to trade in services and increasing Africa’s income by $450 billion by 2035. But countries must first integrate under regional blocs.
“Joining the community would enable Somalia to benefit from the EAC’s regional infrastructure projects such as roads, railways, and energy networks, which would create connectivity between the EAC and Somalia.”
Dr Mathuki hinted that after Somalia, the EAC would be eyeing Ethiopia, Djibouti and even the troubled Sudan to join the EAC.
“Somalia that has the longest national coastline of over 3,000km in Africa, linking Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, which the region can tap into to increase intra-regional trade and improve the lives of East Africans. That will lessen transport of goods within East Africa making EAC a very competitive bloc. And that is why I will deliver the Africa we want. It is not about adding numbers but rather about markets.
“With a possible 800 million people once we have the larger Horn of Africa joining the EAC, we shall be able to depend on ourselves more and stop over reliance on the rest of the world.”
Somalia made its first application in 2012. However, the verification mission was not conducted immediately due to various reasons.
Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for East African Community, Rebecca Miano, said negotiations between the EAC and Somalia were being held in accordance with a directive by the 22nd Extraordinary Summit, which gives it legal backing and political will.
“Negotiations between EAC and Somalia are being held in accordance with the directive of the Summit and relevant legal framework of the Community. The negotiations are expected to focus on the following clusters: political, legal and institutional; infrastructure, productive and social sectors; and economic and trade affairs,” she said.
“As you know the vision of the EAC is to widen integration and therefore Somalia applied to join the community. We are growing as a family. We are not in a rush to admit Somalia but focusing on expansion of the regional market.”
If the bloc completes the current negotiations, Mogadishu may be admitted by November this year, going by the previous admission procedures.
“The community is already contributing to peace and security in Somalia with partner states providing troops as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia. The people of the rest of East Africa are eager to welcome their brothers and sisters from Somalia into the community,” she added.
The criteria for a country to join the regional bloc includes potential contribution to the strengthening of integration within the East African region; establishment and maintenance of a market-driven economy; and social and economic policies being compatible with those of the Community.
The EAC has recently come under criticism for admitting the DRC, whose eastern region has not known peace over the past two decades.
“The DRC is yet to contribute even a single cent since it joined the EAC over one and-a-half years ago, just like South Sudan,” said Denis Namara, an MP in the East African Legislative Assembly.
An older entrant, Burundi, is also yet to fully contribute to the EAC budget leaving Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda as the major fund contributors to the regional bloc.