The confusion witnessed at East Africa’s border points this week demonstrated the consequences of a discordant approach to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the relative lack of depth of regional mechanisms, or commitment to them.
Tanzanian long-distance drivers forced a closure of their country’s common border with Rwanda as they protested over Kigali’s introduction of a relay (driver hand-over) system for long-distance commercial truckers.
As the number of mostly imported cases of Covid-19 cases rose, Kigali introduced a requirement for a crew change at the common border.
Inbound or transit cargo would have to be offloaded, warehoused and then transferred to Rwandan transporters for onward delivery.
On the Kenya-Uganda border, queues of trucks stretched back 40 kilometres as drivers waited to go through sample collection for Covid-19 tests. Both approaches have created a logistical nightmare and conditions that could actually aid the spread of the coronavirus among crews.
Rwanda and Uganda are apprehensive about their neighbours to the East and South, because routine testing has revealed more positives among long distance drivers than from within the community.
Although these numbers might not be an accurate predictor of the pandemic given that testing is biased more towards cross-border drivers than from within local communities, they are nevertheless informing the official response. Add in Tanzania’s reluctance to lockdown its population and you have a level of asymmetry that reflects long-ignored fissures.
East African cooperation is in peril. Members have over time slowly digressed from their commitments. What is happening now is only possible because for a long time the region has not been talking.
Kenya and Uganda have been caught in an unnecessary trade war; while Rwanda and Uganda are on the precipice of a deep political crisis.
The failure to write a common manual for management emanates from a crisis of trust and the failure to add fidelity to the systems that are supposed to entrench economic cooperation.
Under normal circumstances, a certificate of health, issued by any of the member states should be trusted by all the others. Keeping drivers in a pipeline with designated stops, should then prevent them from mixing with the community, but where is the goodwill and infrastructure to support that?
This newspaper has in the past argued that only deeper cooperation will save the region from this and any other crises in the future. We still stand by that view.
The current standoff is unwarranted, unproductive and will only inflict long-term harm on the business community who are the real engines of the regional economy. Collapse of firms will make a post-Covid recovery even more protracted and slow down economies.
President Yoweri Museveni has argued correctly that it would be suicidal to close borders to commerce. Export and import trade, though subdued, is still a critical lifeline to the regional economy.
It is therefore necessary that leaders take a leap of faith and give the EAC protocols and conflict resolution mechanisms a chance to demonstrate their functionality. So far, there is nothing to show that the rules have failed.
Instead, all evidence points to a failure of the spirit of regional cooperation.