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10,000 rules that have tried ­‑ and failed – to kill trade in the East African Community, By Charles Onyango-Obbo

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During the week, the business press in Nairobi, quoting a government paper, reported that Kenya and Tanzania had resolved 23 problematic regulations that slowed down trade between the two countries since President Samia Suluhu Hassan visited Kenya in May 2021.

The non-tariff barriers (NTBs) ranged from rules on licences to quotas, embargoes, foreign exchange restrictions and import deposits. The reports made the point that a lot of progress had been made.

It can be difficult to imagine that there were still as many as 23 rules hindering trade between two East Afriacan Community economies, but that is if you haven’t heard the full story.

The resolution of those 23 squabbles brought the number of cumulative NTBs that were sorted and eliminated to 256 by end of June 2022.

Those 256, however, are not even the tip of the iceberg. An expert who studies the bewildering rules East African bureaucrats have imposed on what — on paper — is supposed to an open the Common Market told me there are nearly 1,000 of them governing just food trade in the EAC!

At that rate, if one adds up the regulations that get in the way of trade in the region, which include countless national legislations in the seven EAC partner states, not just the stuff in the EAC protocols, there could well be 10,000 of them.

During the week, the business press in Nairobi, quoting a government paper, reported that Kenya and Tanzania had resolved 23 problematic regulations that slowed down trade between the two countries since President Samia Suluhu Hassan visited Kenya in May 2021.

The non-tariff barriers (NTBs) ranged from rules on licences to quotas, embargoes, foreign exchange restrictions and import deposits. The reports made the point that a lot of progress had been made.

It can be difficult to imagine that there were still as many as 23 rules hindering trade between two East Afriacan Community economies, but that is if you haven’t heard the full story.

The resolution of those 23 squabbles brought the number of cumulative NTBs that were sorted and eliminated to 256 by end of June 2022.

Those 256, however, are not even the tip of the iceberg. An expert who studies the bewildering rules East African bureaucrats have imposed on what — on paper — is supposed to an open the Common Market told me there are nearly 1,000 of them governing just food trade in the EAC!

At that rate, if one adds up the regulations that get in the way of trade in the region, which include countless national legislations in the seven EAC partner states, not just the stuff in the EAC protocols, there could well be 10,000 of them.

 

That is 10,000 reasons why there isn’t free flow of trade in the EAC. To see the impact they are having, consider what happened when Kenya and Tanzania dealt with just those two dozen NTBs.

The reports noted that trade between Kenya and Tanzania crossed the Ksh100 billion (nearly $808 million) mark for the first time. Multiply that across the EAC and you are looking at billions of dollars left on the table because of NTBs.

If East Africa truly swung its markets open, there would be a lot of money swishing around, jobs galore for youth, and booming economies generating a lot of taxes for the politicians to feed on. It is a mystery that this national economic interest is still trumped by nationalism and small-minded protectionism.

With thousands of these trade-hampering regulations, for most business to be done, customs and other officials at the border have to behave like traffic police in most of East Africa. Most people don’t realise it, but the traffic rules in the region, going back to the colonial period, are a mountain. New rules have only piled on old ones.

There are thousands of rules, down to the colour of cars, ride height, tyre type, extinguishers, wattage of lights, tools that should be in a car, drivers’ vision, and so forth which, if enforced 100 percent, there would be no cars on East Africa’s roads.

Today, you will roll up to an EAC border point, and cross into the next country while eating roast maize or a fresh mango and no one will flag you down. If you read the rules in detail, that is not permissible. Happily, the rules are sometimes overcome by bewildering borders too.

Arua is a hectic city in northwest Uganda, situated strategically between the country’s borders with the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.

A few kilometres out of Arua, the official Uganda-DRC customs post is Vurra. It’s not as famous as Namanga, Busia, Malaba, Katuna/Gatuna, or Nimule, and no fancy one-stop border post has been built there yet.

However, it’s a fascinating little devil of a border. When you get past the boom gate on the Uganda side, you head into DRC. But that is only if you turn right. Despite having crossed the gate, if you turned left you would remain in Uganda. If you stay left, you are essentially governed by a different logic about the border, than if you if go right.

There is nothing stopping the Ugandan chap who turned left from turning right into DRC a kilometre in, or to hand a packet of maize flour to his Congolese mistress. Yet, somehow, an invisible order keeps most people in their right territorial lane.

Not always, though.

In 2021, Uganda closed the Vurra customs post for two months after Congolese youth crossed and erected a barrier and other structures 300 metres inside Uganda, claiming it was part of DRC territory. It didn’t make regional or international news. All attention was still on the Katuna (Gatuna in Rwanda) border that had been closed at that point for two years.

The matter was solved with little drama. When the border reopened, as we saw with Katuna/Gatuna last year, the people on both sides went into wild celebrations. The confusion of the Congolese youth about the border line, and the reluctance of the Ugandan authorities to use a hammer to resolve the “incursion,” was understandable.

Besides the big trucks carrying fuel and other goods to the DRC and South Sudan, the most common trade vehicles on the roads there are the lorries, young people perched on top, carrying Ugandan cattle to the borders. Some of them come from as far as western Uganda, ferrying cattle to South Sudan. It is a surprisingly orderly and big business. If the weird rules about livestock trade were enforced, perhaps not a single animal would cross the border.

And the local Congolese and South Sudan elite would miss out on their beef steak. Thank goodness for common sense, and some cross-border pragmatism.

It would be wonderful the day that spirit infected all of East African trade.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3

Strictly Personal

Tinubu and ghosts of fuel scarcity, new naira notes, By Festus Adebayo

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In a piece I wrote entitled A O M’erin J’oba At Tinubu’s Colloquium(April 1, 2018) I warned that the man who has now become the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress, (APC) Bola Ahmed Tinubu, was making a strategic mistake in assuming that Buhari loved him. Or that he would probably want to relinquish power to him. Using a famous folklore rendered as tale told by the moonlight in traditional African Yoruba, but which Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Minister of Works and folklorist/writer, Joseph Odunjo, brought into vivid perspective in his Alawiye Yoruba literature series, I explained how Tinubu, resting his belief on a mistaken belief that Buhari would requite the good done him in making him president, would make a fatal fall.

Using the animal world as a motif, Odunjo told this story which ancient Yoruba belief used to depict gross human deception and how human beings are easily susceptible to and capable of mischief. Represented as a character with power, majesty and acclaim, the mammoth-sized Elephant, the beast, was the untouchable king of the jungle and lord of the manor whose humongous size was a huge bother to other animals in the jungle. Several efforts were made to oust his prowess, to no avail. So, a plot was hatched using his majesty as his destruction. Tortoise, a cunning and serpentine animal, was procured to do the hatchet job. Tortoise resolved that, given Elephant’s size and height, violence would not bring him to his hilt but a seemingly innocuous strategy of deception, praise-singing and bootlicking.

Tortoise then went into the cave of the Almighty Elephant. His message was that, all animals had purposed to make him their King in the jungle. Elephant was to come to the palace adorned in the full regalia of a King. Prior to the day, Tortoise had dug a very deep ditch that could swallow Elephant’s elephantine and mammoth size by the palace. He however decorated it with a beautiful wool carpet worthy of a king’s royal feet, complete with an ornamented chair just at the edge of the royal carpet. Encircling the carpet, all the animals in the town clapped and hailed the new King dressed in flowery royal robe as he walked majestically towards the royal carpet. They cheered the Elephant on, shouting a o m’erin j’oba, eweku ewele. The Elephant, in turn, fascinated by the splendor and cheer, walked majestically to be crowned and fell into the ditch and unto his death.

My conclusion in that piece about the Tinubu-Buhari silent tango was: “The President is thus prepared to play the Tortoise, sing a o m’erin j’oba and fawn Tinubu the Elephant so as to humour his ego. The strategy would be that, by the time it would be too late for Tinubu to make a U-turn, the Hannibal and Chaka the Zulu would lift up his scabbard, draw out his dagger and skewer the flesh of an Elephant who cannot see that he is on a dangerous path.” Is this folklore apt in the description of what is playing out between the duo today?

As they say in legal parlance, the most recent outburst of Tinubu in Abeokuta, Ogun State, last Wednesday has provoked issues for determination. The issues are in the form of rhetoric. You will recall that Tinubu, on a campaign train to the ancient city, had stirred the hornet’s nest when he alleged that the currency re-design policy of the Muhammadu Buhari government and the current fuel scarcity that has literally turned Nigeria into a Dystopian disaster were orchestrated by a veiled God-knows-who, with the aim of ensuring that he didn’t win next month’s presidential election.

To be sure, the allegation of a conspiracy theory was already in the public domain, long before Tinubu made that allegation. With this final Tinubu affirmation of the ploy woven masterfully in high places against him, the headline of this piece should then have been The Columnist As A Seer. In previous installments entitled Emefiele’s Terrorism Mess (December 25, 2022) and Buhari and Emefiele’s Buga Handshake (January 20, 2023) except for the fuel scarcity addition to the conspiracy theory, I submitted that the Naira re-designation policy could be targeted at the APC candidate.

In Abeokuta last week Wednesday, Tinubu mortally bit the bullet again. In his now familiar drawl, delivered in Yoruba, he hit his bare knuckles on the spatula. “If they like, they can change the ink in the naira note, we will shock them, we will win the election; the opposition (the umbrella party) will be defeated… We will take over the government from them; they are traitors that want to wrest the government from us…We will use our PVCs to take over the government from them, if they like, let them say there is no fuel, we will trek there. They are full of mischief, they want to create fuel crisis, they have started creating fuel crisis…Let the price of fuel continue to increase, they are the ones that know where they are hoarding it. They are hoarding naira notes, they are hoarding fuel, we will vote and we will win,” he told a jubilant but rowdy crowd of supporters. He thereafter revved the people up to a revolution.

The issues for determination from this outburst are tripodal. One is the domain that Tinubu always chooses to rouse Nigerian people to militant action and provoke the beast in them, apologies to Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Why the choice of Abeokuta? Is it deliberate? Was Tinubu doing this, conscious of the historical signification of Abeokuta or it occurs by mere happenstance?

Second, who exactly were these arrows shot at? Forget the very jejune and I dare say, lacking-creative-acumen press release issued by the Directorate of Media & Publicity of the APC Presidential Campaign Council. In the statement, it hung on the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) the arrows shot by Tinubu.

“For the records, Asiwaju Tinubu during APC campaign rally at Abeokuta on Wednesday, in his statement, did not mention, blame or accuse President Muhammadu Buhari for the current challenges in the country… (he) was only adverting government’s attention to the sabotage being carried out by some Fifth columnists in the system, possibly working in cahoots with the PDP…Tinubu is aware of the salutary efforts by President Buhari to end the fuel queues, by chairing a 14-man panel…How does an advisory genuinely made by Asiwaju Tinubu to protect and create goodwill for the government of his party become an attack? It can only be so in the jaundiced view of the PDP,” the office said.

But for the dog-eat-dog mentality and saber-rattling deployed as language of communication and accepted as part and parcel of the political language and temperature of Nigeria, the APC PCC should be scandalized nationally by this barefaced cookery. It is a very tame effort at assuming that the Nigerian is a fool and has a very low reasoning capacity. The reasons are obvious.

Was Atiku Abubakar the “they” who wanted to “change the ink in the naira note”? Is the PDP currently in government, to whom Tinubu swore that “we will take over the government from them”? Is Abubakar the “if they like, let them say there is no fuel…they are full of mischief,” and who “want(s) to create fuel crisis” and “are hoarding naira notes, they are hoarding fuel,” to whom he promised that “we will vote and we will win”?

A few days after the Tinubu outburst, media reports claimed that the man, famously dubbed the Landlord of Lagos, made a nocturnal sneak into Daura, Katsina State home of Buhari, in company with three APC governors, on a “fence-mending” with the president. As at the time of going to press, this alleged sneak had not been denied nor, as usual, attributed to the “handiwork of PDP and Labour Party sympathizer” journalists by the Tinubu Ananias and Saphirra clown in the APC PCC. The question I ask is, what is responsible for this sabbatical that honour has taken from political parties’ communication machinery in Nigeria? Methinks that, rather than make mockery of oneself and the decades that one had put into journalism practice, deep thinking should show journalpreneur wolves in sheep’s clothing currently speaking for politicians that they should not allow reversible politicians tarnish what is left of their perceived honour?

Now, was Tinubu right in assuming that “they” are fighting him? I think he was. I had always argued that, rather than basing his political tomorrow on Buhari, Tinubu should have cleaned up his Yoruba home and won its confidence while using it as a bargain for 2023. He rather believed that it was more expedient to do obeisance for the Cow in the hope that he would honour him with his chunky meat. For instance, in another piece I did which I entitled Tinubu the Ap’ejalodo and His Strange Fish Friend, (September 16, 2018) using an ancient tale told in traditional African pre-colony which helped to tame the greed of pre-and post-colonial Yoruba society, as well as any tendency within it to play God, I argued that, as the Yoruba would say, constant removal of perceived bad woods from the log of woods under a cooking pot would boomerang. It was the time Tinubu was said to have made up his mind to remove Akinwumi Ambode. Now that Buhari is playing God with Tinubu’s presidential aspiration, that piece makes sense now for its Karmic significance, doesn’t it?

Even a fool knows that Buhari does not want Tinubu to succeed him. Second is that there is a mutual disdain between the two which both have clothed in shawls over the years. Buhari has, over the decades, built an impregnable moral universe round himself; a universe whose precinct was delineated by him, membership of which he defines from his narrow conception. Tinubu does not fit that definition. Tinubu is also too agitative, too Alutaic, perhaps in the mould of MKO Abiola; too much of a disrupter of long-established rulership codes, in spite of the contradictions of his being a member of that same ruling caste. Atiku Abubakar is a lesser evil for the president and occupiers of his fiefdom to banter with.

The third issue for determination is whether Tinubu deliberately spins those nukes or they are mere Freudian slips. Mainly used in psychoanalytic theories, Freudian slips, also called paraptaxis, was authored by Sigmund Freud. It is defined as an error in speech, memory or physical actions which occur due to interference from an unconscious or subdued mind with or an internal train of thoughts. You will recall that, in June, 2022, hours before the APC congress, Tinubu had made similar spark where he literally called Buhari out.

Considered a denigration of Buhari, he narrated how, without him and God, Buhari could not have been president in 2015 after he lule-edthree times in his bid for the presidency and had to weep on national television. Tinubu concluded that it was his turn to take over power. It was a daring speech which many thought was derring-do that would finally collapse his presidential aspiration. Unexpectedly, that speech finally became a deus ex-machina of Tinubu’s aspiration, giving it a huge leap, we were told. From that speech was extracted the most notoriously mentioned phrases in social and political discourses of today – O lule and emi lo kan.

Finally, should Tinubu have been making those off-the-cuff outbursts when he knows that he would eventually crawl on his belly like a coyote to beg Buhari? I don’t think so. Is it an effective strategy to tame Buhari with revelations of his nocturnal political gambles so that he can be railroaded from his preference of a successor? Maybe, but in war, which Tinubu’s current quest for the presidency can be likened to, you don’t half-decapitate your enemy. You slash their necks with deft, brutal precision. If Buhari holds the key to Tinubu transmuting from the Lord of Lagos to Lord of Aso Rock, those revelations should have been guided confidentially like a licked bowl of soup which the Yoruba say does not make a pendulum-like swing and sound in the bowels of an elder. Revealing them publicly and seemingly making mockery of an unforgiving General like Buhari could be a fatal blow to his presidential ambition.

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Strictly Personal

Umeme, grain and coffee: Why Kenya should fear Uganda’s economic gamble, By Charles Onyango-Obbo

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Uganda, the 1990s shining Africa poster boy for privatisation, is engaging in what could be East Africa’s biggest economic liberalisation reverse gear. Last year, the Uganda government formally announced it would not renew the contract of electricity distributor Umeme in 2025, when its concession expires, and that it will form a state-owned entity to take over its business.

The government’s main criticism of Umeme is its margins are too high, so it has failed to lower electricity costs, and the expensive rates have hobbled Uganda’s industrialisation ambitions. Umeme counters that it is just a distributor, and the high electricity costs are passed on from the power generators.

In two years, the debate will be resolved. Uganda will be in the midst of campaigns ahead of the January 2026 election, when President Yoweri Museveni, weighed down by the wear and tear of 40 years in office, will likely be bidding for a record-shattering ninth term, with his son, Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, among those trying to wrestle the crown from his head. It will be the worst possible timing because incumbents rarely make the most enlightened decisions during heated election campaigns. As the West Africans say, there will likely “be a lot of cry.”

Distribution concession

Umeme was formed in 2004 when the government of Uganda granted the distribution concession to a consortium belonging to Globeleq, a subsidiary of the Commonwealth Development Corporation of the UK, which held 56 per cent, and South Africa’s now inept utility corporation Eskom, which had 44 per cent. In 2006 Eskom exited the consortium, and Globeleq became the sole owner of Umeme.

The regional impact could be significant because, among other things, Umeme shares are cross-listed on the Nairobi Securities Exchange. If it unravels, Kenyan shareholders would be left crying in their bowls, and we could be back to the feud over regional assets that followed the break-up of the first East African Community in 1977.

Too messy to swallow

The renationalisation of Umeme will not be unique. Kenya just tried to renationalise cash-haemorrhaging national carrier Kenya Airways but found it too messy to swallow. The recently elected new government of President William Ruto has decided to throw it back on the block.

The difference in Uganda is that Umeme is just the shallow end of the pool. There are other moves to renationalise the very lucrative liberalised coffee sector by granting a near-monopoly to a Vinci Coffee Company, owned by controversial and shadowy Italian “foreign investor” Enrica Pinetti, to process and export Uganda’s coffee. That would take Uganda back to the early 1990s when the disastrous Coffee Marketing Board was disbanded.

A similar move is being made to give the Grain Council of Uganda, on paper a non-profit membership organisation, the kind of sway over the country’s grain last seen in the colonial era.

The force behind the Grain Council is the otherwise amiable president’s younger brother, retired Lt-Gen Salim Saleh (Caleb Akandwanaho), a sly operator who is the second most powerful figure in the land. A nationalist and statist, Saleh has led a quiet but effective assault against laissez-faire liberalisation, which he argues has mostly benefited foreigners and left Ugandans with only holes in their pockets. He has taken over a large chunk of the country’s agricultural budget and several “development” functions under the amorphous state-created vehicle Operation Wealth Creation (OWC) that he heads and inserted disciples in key national economic institutions.

Return to old roots

This state of affairs is a dramatic return to old roots. Uganda launched the first of a series of economic liberalisations in the 1990s that were deemed impossible in Africa at the time and anathema in the hyper-nationalist traditions that were entrenched in post-independence Africa.

It was the first country in Africa to radically liberalise its foreign exchange market and still maintains one of the least-interventionist approaches to the money market on the continent. It was also the first in East Africa to pass laws that gave the central bank extensive independence.

It was the first on the continent in the early 1990s to liberalise the fuel market and scrap fuel subsidies. Again, in East Africa, at least, it is the government that meddles least in setting the price of gas at the pump. When fuel prices skyrocketed everywhere following the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, it alone was the East African government to flatly refuse to even consider a fuel subsidy and price cap, as all the rest of the EAC states did.

Price of food

Uganda, too, is the country where the price of food is most considered none of the government’s business. When Ugandans read stories and political fights over maize in Kenya, and the government setting the price, to some of them, it sounds like a tale about an alien planet.

The country and economy that Uganda is today are about to change. Some of the changes have to do with the politics of the Museveni succession and how the family and vested interests that have coalesced around the State House view their future security. A lot of it, though, is because of some good things: the rebirth of the EAC; the end of the wars in Uganda and the ushering in of the country’s longest spell of peace; the rebound of a post-KANU Kenya; and the Rwanda post-genocide recovery.

If there are two people in East Africa outside Uganda, who have edged Uganda to the fork in the road where it is today, they are Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame and former Kenya president Mwai Kibaki.

The author is a journalist, writer, and curator of the «Wall of Great Africans». Twitter@cobbo3

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