Grand politics was at play in Arusha, Tanzania, on Wednesday, March 2.
The young, troubled country of South Sudan was admitted to the East African Community (EAC) as its sixth member (the others being Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda).
Being admitted to the regional body means that South Sudan will enjoy all the economic benefits the club currently has to offer (freer movement of labour and capital and, in principle, free trade) and will join the members as they move to increase economic integration (through a monetary union) and eventually establish a single political federation.
South Sudan applied for membership to the EAC as soon as it gained independence in 2011. However, its application was declined because of the country’s institutional weakness.
It is difficult, then, to see the logic behind its acceptance now given the civil war that has riven the country since 2013. The process of peace building – let alone state building – is still struggling to get underway and even doe-eyed optimists would have to admit that its chances of establishing a state that lives up to the EAC’s grand principles is a distant dream.
But then again, most of the members fall short of the very same principles. Chapter 2 Article 6 (d) of the EAC Treaty states that the principles of the community are: “good governance including adherence to the principles of democracy, the rule of law, accountability, transparency, social justice, equal opportunities, gender equality, as well as the recognition, promotion and protection of human and peoples’ rights in accordance with the provisions of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.”
It would be churlish to focus too narrowly on the details of the EAC’s stated principles and its members’ shortcomings. The EAC is not about the details, it’s a grand vision – big-picture thinking.
And when viewed in this way, the accession of South Sudan makes perfect sense.
In historical perspective, the country fits with the other five far more comfortably than it ever did with today’s Sudan ruled from Khartoum. The British were well aware of the fact when they governed the region and thus the then south of Sudan was treated more as part of the East African territories, with its leaders educated by missionaries and attending further education in the other East African countries rather than in Khartoum.
South Sudan joining the EAC must be seen from the perspective of grand politics.
The country is a mess now, on every conceivable metric, but leaders like President Yoweri Museveni and President Paul Kagame see themselves in historic perspective, shaping their countries and the region as a whole. Museveni, for example, has said that he will only leave power when East Africa is united (meaning a political federation) – he is a man with a plan.
For South Sudan, membership in the EAC is a no-brainer. As a landlocked country dependent on an unreliable and hostile northern neighbour, it just makes geographic and economic sense to join the club.
Meanwhile, for the EAC it cannot hurt to have an oil-rich member and, if stability returns, South Sudan will again be an attractive market for Ugandan and Kenyan corporates and small traders.
While some will argue that South Sudan should have established political stability and built a cohesive state before joining, there is a good argument that membership will help the process and give the country a shot at developing its institutions of governance.