Expansion versus Cohesion: The East African Community’s Turbulent Journey to Greater Unity

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The East African Community (EAC) is facing persistent tensions and infighting among its member states: Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Somalia. This is due to its prioritization of trade and expansion at the expense of addressing pressing internal issues and security concerns. This misstep could undermine the organization’s efforts toward regional integration and potentially threaten the stability of the bloc, calling into question its very existence. The admission of the latest members, Somalia and the DRC—both of which are battling internal conflicts and external tensions—has diversified the bloc and broadened investment opportunities. But it also challenges regional leaders to extend political goodwill and immediately augment long-running efforts toward ensuring the stability of each of the countries in order to expedite the benefits of expanding the bloc.

Somalia: Overwhelming Expectations of the Latest Member

Somalia formally joined the EAC in March 2024 after years of negotiations. Since 2007, African Union (AU) peacekeepers in Somalia—now known as ATMIS—have been supporting efforts to fight the al-Shabab militant group that occupies a vast territory in the center and south. As ATMIS prepares to leave at the end of this year, Somalia is looking to its immediate neighbors—Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya—to be a buffer for the region. Mogadishu is also expanding economic relations and political alliances through the EAC, which gives its nearly 18 million people a range of opportunities to invest and build partnerships even though almost half of its population faces severe food scarcity. Somalia’s full membership has triggered criticism that its long history of conflict may give rise to new security concerns within the bloc. In addition to general destabilization caused by its fragility and poor state presence due to the activities of the al-Shabab group, piracy is returning off the Somali coast, which threatens to further inhibit trade in the region. This adds to the ongoing conflicts in at least six out of the seven existing member states—either directly or indirectly—leaving Tanzania as the most stable state in the bloc.

The DRC: A Trail of Disappointments 

The decision to allow the DRC to join as the seventh member of the EAC, despite ongoing regional tensions with a member state—Rwanda—and conflicts with the March 23 Movement (M23) rebel group and over 120 armed groups, stems from the bloc's primary objectives of economic integration and building trade partnerships. The admission of the DRC, with its abundant natural resources, including 70 percent of the world’s cobalt, was deemed strategic in advancing the bloc’s trade and development agenda because the state expands the EAC’s internal market with its population of nearly 90 million people, making the EAC now home to over 300 million people. However, the decision to allow the DRC to join the EAC has been criticized as reckless and irresponsible by former DRC minister of foreign affairs Raymond Tshibanda, who argues that the DRC has more to lose than gain from this alliance given that the anticipated benefits of being a part of the EAC are speculative and long term, whereas the adverse outcomes are felt immediately.

The DRC sought—and then quickly abandoned—aid from the EAC to end the rebel insurgency in the east that has implicated neighboring Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda. Some of the most powerful armed groups based in the chronically volatile east have historic links with Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda, which are long-standing members of the EAC. Member states organized a joint force of regional troops to assist in resolving the conflict along with launching a simultaneous peace process led by the former president of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta. The Kenyan-led troops, mandated with containing, defeating, and eliminating negative forces in the eastern DRC, were slated to operate for six months, with the possibility of an extension. However, the situation took a turn when the troops were eventually deployed, operating under a mandate of diplomacy—utilizing nonviolent means—as directed by the EAC heads of state. The troops were instructed to remain neutral and only to use violence as a last resort. This ambiguity in the mandate received strong criticism from the DRC’s president, Felix Tshisekedi, and Congolese locals, who condemned the East African Community Regional Force’s (EACRF) failure to quell the conflict. Eventually, the group withdrew in December 2023. After the failure of the EACRF, disappointment and acrimony worsened the internal dynamics of the bloc. However, Kenya insists that the mission was a success, and that the mandate restricted the troops from taking sides in a conflict that has resulted in the loss of innocent lives and the displacement of thousands. The EAC’s failure to assist in resolving the conflict has prompted President Tshisekedi to seek help elsewhere, turning to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) for assistance. The SADC has since deployed 5,000 troops, pledging to aid the country in restoring peace and stability in the eastern DRC. The DRC’s decision to seek assistance from another bloc comes as a big blow that would only stain the credibility of the EAC.

More Invitations Equal More Burdens

Despite these setbacks, the EAC is determined to diversify its membership. Spearheading this objective is Kenya, which sees it as a key component of its “grand strategy in a changing world.” Kenya has taken on the de facto role of a regional hegemon as President William Ruto extends invitations to potential member states, with Comoros being among the latest to receive overtures. Although Comoros is able to bring climate and trade to the agenda, it is a troubled state that has experienced over 20 coups since gaining independence from France in 1975. There are also questions about the credibility of the leadership in Comoros following tensions and deadly violence related to recently held elections in which President Azali Assoumani was elected president for a fourth time. 

Similarly, in the wake of a devastating war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, Ruto has also extended an invitation to Ethiopia to join the bloc. Ethiopia is considered a potential partner as it would bring its population of 100 million and its ongoing market reforms to the bloc. However, these moves further highlight the EAC’s focus on economic expansion, potentially at the expense of addressing conflicts and their potential spillover effects within the bloc. This is particularly concerning given the existing mistrust and hostility among member states. It is important to recognize that expansion does not automatically lead to cohesion or consolidation, and it could instead increase pressure on the bloc to resolve disputes and ensure stability. Failure to address these challenges will only besmirch its reputation.

The Struggle for Leadership and Structural Strength 

Underlying these contrasting reflections is the fragile leadership of the historically turbulent bloc.

Internal conflicts have been present since the establishment of the bloc in 1967 by its founding members, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. These conflicts led to the bloc’s dissolution in 1977 as disagreements between member states became insurmountable. Kenya’s request for more seats in the decisionmaking organs and the economic disparities among member states were just some of the factors that contributed to the bloc’s disbandment. The EAC was later revived in 2000 and has since undergone expansion. However, 24 years later, member states still have internal disputes, exacerbated by the expansion and the failure to prioritize stability, which undermines the bloc’s goal of regional integration. Although the EAC’s primary objective is to strengthen trade ties between member states, member states have failed to recognize that sustainable economic development and growth cannot flourish amid conflict and violence. The prevalence of conflict and violence within the region poses a significant threat to the lives of millions of civilians, which not only hinders progress and development but also creates an unstable environment for businesses and investments. As a result, member states will never achieve the kind of regional integration they seek without first prioritizing stability.

A bloc is only as powerful as its leadership. Likewise, the EAC, which is currently led by President Salva Kiir of South Sudan, is only as powerful as its leaders. Confidence in his leadership is low as his country is in a fragile state beset with weak governance, widespread corruption, and insecurity. South Sudan’s fragility makes it a much weaker country than the EAC countries it is heading, and as such it struggles to impose its leadership on these much stronger states. Consequently, the DRC was unable to rely on the EAC’s leadership to resolve long-running tensions with its neighboring member state, Rwanda, caused by Rwanda’s alleged support for the M23 militants. Despite substantial evidence of Rwanda backing the M23 rebels from Western states and bodies, including the United Nations, the United States, and the European Union, the EAC’s diplomatic and military efforts failed to take significant measures to address these claims. The inaction of the EAC has only intensified tensions between these countries.

With regard to the structures within the EAC, it is evident that while the treaty recognizes the vital importance of peace and security, it has still not taken into consideration the urgency of addressing security issues, which could potentially hinder efforts to foster cooperation among member states. This can be seen through the bloc’s dispute settlement mechanism, administered by the EAC court, which only possesses jurisdiction over disputes related to the customs union and common market protocols, which implies that the court lacks the jurisdiction to effectively resolve conflicts among member states, exposing a lack of authority in addressing such matters. The EAC has a peace and security protocol with 20 objectives. However, this protocol has been met with challenges due to ambiguity in the interpretation of its objectives, such as joint troop deployment, as observed during the DRC intervention. 

Therefore, it is critical that the EAC not only establishes clear and unambiguous objectives but also takes a firm stance in ensuring peace and stability among its member states and the bloc as a whole.

Future Proofing

As one of the leading regional economic blocs in Africa, the EAC has made significant progress toward establishing a free trade area, a customs union, and a common market for its member states. In 2022, EAC intra-regional trade hit the $10 billion mark, and trade with the rest of the world stood at $62 billion, which has been attributed to member states’ political goodwill in removing nontariff barriers by former EAC secretary general Peter Mathuki. However, the discrepancy between these figures further proves that the EAC is falling well below its potential and is unable to fully maximize intra-regional trade opportunities due to the different barriers—border closures, trade disputes, and existing nontariff barriers—imposed by member states as a result of internal tensions and conflicts.

For balance, it is important that the leadership and member states demonstrate the same level of political will to maintain peace and stability in the region. This is necessary to prevent any political disputes and infighting from undermining the EAC’s regional integration agenda. It is crucial for the EAC, which has been lauded as the most integrated bloc in Africa, to carefully consider the potential consequences of expansion and prioritize addressing internal issues before taking on new members, or better yet, to admit members that have attained some degree of stability and whose democratic principles align with those of the bloc. Dispute resolution mechanisms would need to be more robust and resilient to help member states overcome acrimonious relations. The EAC will also have to delicately straddle adhering to shared principles and respecting sovereignty, which each member state partially surrenders as they uphold collective values.

Mariam Ogboye is an intern with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Beverly Ochieng is a senior associate (non-resident) with the CSIS Africa Program.

Mariam Ogboye

Research Intern, Africa Program