Burundi has applied to join the South African Development Community. If it were to be admitted, it would join Tanzania as the second East African Community member state to also be a member of SADC.
Predictably, the move by Burundi, which has been clearly uneasy with the Community since the latest “troubles” started there with President Pierre Nkurunziza’s third-term power grab, has been seen as a blow to the EAC.
The EAC comes across as that boy whom no girl wants to dance with at the school ball.
The EAC is in trouble, yes, but Burundi’s regional promiscuity is actually a good thing.
Comparisons have been made with Tanzania, but that is misleading. Geographically, Tanzania because of its size straddles southern and East Africa. Politically, it has been shaped as much by its role in freedom movements in East Africa (against military ruler Idi Amin in Uganda, and the involvement of its patriots in Kenya’s Mau Mau rebellion), as it was by its role as the host of southern African liberation movements against white supremacist and colonial rule.
Burundi doesn’t have that dual character. It was a good candidate to be adopted as an East African child, but it is not a native of the region the way Tanzania is. The northern bits of Tanzania are so East African, they probably can’t understand how their country could share a border with Mozambique.
The value of Burundi’s bed hopping is that it helps clarifies how best the EAC should grow and find a new source of dynamism.
To start with, the core of the EAC is the regional bloc of countries that are stranded in East Africa.
Uganda and Kenya, unlike all other members, have nowhere to go. They can’t claim to be in central Africa, North, southern or Horn of Africa.
The British colonialists, you have to hand it to them, understood this very well, and thus built the Kenya-Uganda Railway as the main artery of what would eventually form the EAC.
That places an obligation on Kenya and Uganda to lead the regional integration project in ways they haven’t consistently done. Kenya and Uganda should be thinking about East Africa the way Rwanda does today, but they fall short.
The EAC failure to help resolve the political crises in South Sudan and Burundi also tells us that it is a club of the successful. It is the reason the first EAC broke up.
Once Kenya became richer than the rest, and Uganda was beset by a murderous tyrant, disharmony ensued. In addition, it isn’t a collective of democrats.
That being the case, the best candidate for inclusion in an expanded EAC before South Sudan was Ethiopia.
Somalia may be both Horn and East Africa, but the Horn is just Africa’s awkward elbow. Like Uganda and Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia are also stuck in the East.
Ethiopia is authoritarian with a growing economy, while Somalia is showing signs of stability. Ethiopia’s membership, if it will take it, is long overdue.
The right thing would be to encourage Burundi to move out of the East African house with all its belongings — cooking pans, mattresses, beds, curtains, carpets — then give the slot to Somalia.
There is a strong Swahili brotherly bond with Burundi, though, so perhaps an affiliate membership could be created for it.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. Twitter@cobbo3