East African Federation: A New Regional Power?

By Charles Marsh, Research Fellow

Figure 1: Flag of the East African Community

In September 2018, the East African Community appointed a twelve member Committee of Experts to begin drafting a new constitution for an East African Confederation as a step towards full federation.[1] By 2021, it is hoped the bloc will have a functional constitution, to be promulgated by 2023. By the middle of this decade then, a new nation could encompass a large part of East Africa and provide a hopeful future for one of the poorest regions of Africa. This piece provides a brief overview of the project, its prospects and implications for the US and EU, and recommendations for how the US and EU should engage it.


A Brief History of the Concept


This is not the first time an East African union has been proposed. As the nations of the region gradually became independent following the end of European colonialism in the 1960s, talk of federation was rife.[2] This however fell apart amid disagreements between leaders as to how this federation would look. Instead, an East African Community (EAC) was established, building upon common institutions left over from the British colonial administration;[3] yet this too collapsed in 1977 amid internal disputes.[4] There were many reasons for this collapse, but they largely stemmed from “[p]olitical differences between the erstwhile leaders and perceptions around unfair distribution of the benefits and costs of regional integration.”[5]


The EAC was subsequently revived in 1999[6] and discussion of further integration has only increased from there, to the point where the member states are once again discussing political union through an East African Federation. Indeed, the Treaty for the Establishment of the East African Community calls for integration on three pillars: “common foreign and security policies, good governance and effective implementation of the prior stages of Regional Integration.”[7] As of 2017, the EAC intends to establish a confederation as a first step towards full federation.[8]


What Would an East African Federation Look Like?


The envisaged East African Federation (EAF) would be a political union of the nations of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. It would aim to be a federal or confederal state,[9] with a central government based in the city of Arusha – a city that would prove a fitting capital for the federation, having served as the seat of regional peace and reconciliation over the years. Indeed, such is the perception of this small city’s reputation that it has earned itself the moniker of the “Geneva of East Africa.”[10]


The EAF would be the second most populous state in Africa, and the largest by landmass.[11] It would be economically poor but resource rich, having one of the lowest average incomes in the continent but the fifth largest overall economy in Africa.

Figure 2: Map of the EAC

Figure 1[12] shows a map of the current EAC, and also serves as a map of the proposed federation. Topographically, it benefits from the Indian Ocean to the East and the Rift Valley lakes and mountains to the west. This isolates it somewhat from the instability of its western neighbours, and thus allows a chance for greater protection in the future. Moreover, the proposed federation would have one of the largest politically stable coastlines on the Indian Ocean. With the port of Mombasa, the EAF could well become the route into the African continent for trade coming from the east. This could be a source of huge economic growth as the African continent grows.

It would also share a common currency, the proposed East African shilling. Originally, the currency was used in Britain’s colonies in East Africa; today it is being proposed as a shared currency for the East African Community, although such plans have consistently fallen behind schedule.[13]


Its working language would be English, which would be a lingua franca of the bloc along with Swahili. As such, the EAF could be one of the largest Anglophonic economic actors on the planet.

Figure 3: Projected real GDP growth in 2020.

In other words, the EAF would be large but underdeveloped. Yet as seen in Figure 2,[14] the entire region has some of the highest growth rates in the world, with entire bloc predicted to average around 5-8% growth in 2020, placing it among the fastest growing economic regions on earth. Given current economic and population growth rates, a unified EAF with a shared currency, economy and foreign policy could realistically emerge as a major power sometime after 2050.


How Much Has Been Achieved So Far?


The current plans are thus far behind initial expectations. When the concept was first revived, it was hoped that a complete political union would be attained by as early as 2015.[15] Similarly, it was hoped that a currency union would be obtained by as early as 2012,[16] yet the latest plans for a 2024 introduction recently collapsed.[17] Similarly, the accession of South Sudan to the EAC in 2016 necessitated further delays to integrate the new region into pre-existing measures. This is not to say that progress has not been made. The Treaty for the Establishment of the East African Community lays out four milestones on the path towards political union:[18]


  1. Customs Union

  2. Common Market

  3. Monetary Union

  4. Political Union


The Customs Union was attained in 2005; this ensures zero-tariff trade within the bloc, as well as a common external tariff for trade with nations outside the bloc.[19]


The next stage, a Common Market, was achieved only five years later, and ensures the free movement of goods, persons, services and capital between member states, as well as providing the right of residence and establishment. This allows citizens of all member states to migrate to, do business in, and settle in all member states in the bloc.[20]


What Problems Has the Project Faced?


Overall, it has been surmised that a “lack of political goodwill and [the] poor economic policies” of member states have largely hindered integration thus far.[21] Interstate distrust, reminiscent of that which caused the collapse of the EAC of the 1960s and 1970s, has led to a series of trade disputes. These have led to border crossings being closed and accusations of trade wars.[22] Thus far, however, these issues have not developed into disputes large enough to imperil the EAF project.


The second core issue hindering the monetary union process is a lack of required economic and policy convergence between member states. In this area, the EAC may have learned from the difficulties the EU had in trying to establish a monetary union between widely differing economies,[23] and is focusing on closer alignment before implementation.[24] In other words, the bloc is prioritising doing the job correctly, rather than doing it quickly.

Public support has emerged as another core issue. Previous literature notes that popular support is vitally important in ensuring the success of the integration project,[25] yet thus far the general public in member states, when polled, seem ambivalent at best about the matter.[26] Some research has found that has been largely due to a lack of awareness among the general public. As seen in Figure 3,[27] a large part of the public in Tanzania was unaware of the ongoing integration project in 2012. Even after four years, during which the significant milestone of the Common Market was achieved, public awareness barely grew. If the EAC hopes to reform itself into a confederation by the end of this decade, it will need to build a popular mandate. Work would need start now to raise awareness of this project in order to ensure that when the matter comes up for public debate in a referendum or an election, the public can be properly informed.

Figure 5: Awareness of the proposed East African Federation in Tanzania, 2008-2012.

How Have External Actors Interacted with the Project Thus Far?


As with any interstate project that can dramatically alter the balance of power in a region, external actors have taken an interest. In the case of a potential EAF, the main partner thus far appears to have been the European Union (EU). The EU has, in many cases, been suggested as a paradigm for the EAC integration process[28] and is the EAC’s first trade partner for exports (25.3% of EAC exports went to the EU in 2017) and third partner for imports (12.5% of EAC imports in 2017),[29] with this economic relationship only expected to grow in coming years. In 2014, the EU and the EAC concluded negotiations on an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA).[30] In addition to increasing mutual market access and economic growth, the EPA is expected to “[p]romote regional integration, economic cooperation and good governance in the EAC.”[31] This agreement has, however, led to some internal divisions within the EAC, as some members have not yet ratified it. At the present time, the EU is in negotiations with EAC members to try and resolve the outstanding issues.[32] Other EU-EAC cooperation projects have included a Maritime Security Programme, a Regional Integrated Support Programmes, an Inter-Regional Coordinating Committee, and various developmental and infrastructure projects.[33]


The US, in contrast, does not have the same depth or breadth of agreements with the EAC beyond the US-EAC Trade and Investment Framework (TIFA) of 2008;[34] and that agreement does little beyond laying out the terms of economic engagement. It does, however, ensure high-level meetings between the two parties to discuss economic relations at least once every two years. As such, whilst the US remains one of the EAC’s largest trading partners, there is little political engagement.


As China’s economic presence in the region grows,[35] it may soon emerge as a major partner for the bloc. Russia too is seeking a more robust regional presence.[36]


Recommendations for the US and EU


The US and EU should take great interest in what could be a potentially monumental geopolitical development; more so considering the emerging role China and Russia are trying to play in the region. If these actors wish to retain their influence in the region, they should keep a close eye on the development of the EAF project.


The EU would do well to build upon its current economic and political ties to the EAC integration project. The shared norms of the two projects are enough that a common front on the world stage would benefit their mutual interests. Indeed, as economic ties between the two nations continue to develop, the EU-EAC relationship looks to be a profitable one for both sides.

The US has, however, neglected to meaningfully politically engage with the emergent bloc thus far. It has instead chosen to pursue bilateral relations with EAC member states, such as maintaining a strong connection with Kenya. As such, the US is not an especially supportive actor of the EAC integration project. Despite trading with members of the bloc, the US should do more to support the EAC project or risk losing influence with what could be a major player on the African continent. This includes more of a focus on multilateral trade with the bloc, and a greater willingness to support and engage with integration projects as the EU has done.


[1] Moses Havyarimana, “Ready for a United States of East Africa? The wheels are already turning,” East African, September 30, 2018, https://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/news/ea/Dream-of-a-United-States-of-East-Africa/4552908-4783896-glbl64/index.html.

[2] Donald Rothchild, “East African Federation,” Transition no.12 (January 1964), p.39-42. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2934492?seq=1.

[3] Matthias Busse and Rasul Shams, “Trade Effects of the East African Community,” Estey Journal of International Law and Trade Policy vol. 6, no. 1 (2005): p.65, https://ageconsearch.umn.edu/record/23870/files/06010062.pdf.

[4] Mahmood Mamdani, “The East African federation: challenges for the future,” Makerere University, Makerere Institute of Social Research, 2011, http://repository.eac.int/bitstream/handle/11671/234/EALA-Symposium-Mamdani.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.

[5] Aloysius Uche Ordu, “Headwinds toward East African regional integration: Will this time be different?” Brookings Institution, April 22, 2019. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-focus/2019/04/22/headwinds-towards-east-african-regional-integration-will-this-time-be-different/.

[6] Treaty for The Establishment of The East African Community, 1999, https://www3.nd.edu/~ggoertz/rei/rei200/rei200.02tt1.pdf.

[7] East African Community, “Political Federation,” https://eac.int/customs-union/14-integration-pillar. See also, Treaty for the Establishment of the East African Community (As amended on 14th December 2006 and 20th August, 2007), http://eacj.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/EACJ-Treaty.pdf.

[8] East African Community, “Political Federation.”

[9] Raymond Tamale, “Which way? Confederation or federation?” East African, November 23, 2019, https://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/news/ea/Which-way-eac-confederation-or-federation/4552908-5359416-9r2dye/index.html.

[10] East African Local Governments Association, “Influencing Change, Building Capacities to Strengthen Local Governance: EALGA Trains ALGAPL Mayors in Arusha,” October 2014, p.4, http://eacsof.net/upload/NEWSLETTERS/EALGA/EALGA%20Newsletter%20October%202014.pdf.

[11] World Bank, World Bank Open Data, https://data.worldbank.org/.

[12] United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, “East African Community,” https://www.uneca.org/oria/pages/eac-%E2%80%93-east-african-community.

[13] The East African, “Plan to have the East African currency collapses, council of ministers reviews timelines,” Daily Monitor, October 14, 2019, https://www.monitor.co.ug/News/World/Is-the-dream-to-have-the-East-African-shilling-still-valid/688340-5310112-c4e132/index.html.

[14] International Monetary Fund, “World Economic Outlook Database,” October 2019, https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo/2019/02/weodata/index.aspx.

[15] Reuters, “East African common market begins,” July 1, 2010, https://www.reuters.com/article/eastafrica-market-idAFLDE65T2AJ20100701?sp=true.

[16] John Lavelle, “East Africa: Resurrecting the East African Shilling,” East African Business Week, July 5, 2008,https://allafrica.com/stories/200807071183.html.

[17] The East African. “Plan to have the East African currency collapses…” See also East African Community, “Monetary Union,” https://eac.int/monetary-union.

[18] See Article 5 (2) in Treaty for the Establishment of the East African Community (As amended on 14th December 2006 and 20th August, 2007), East African Court of Justice, http://eacj.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/EACJ-Treaty.pdf.

[19] East African Community, “Customs Union,” https://eac.int/customs-union.

[20] East African Community, “Common Market,” https://eac.int/common-market.

[21] Samwel Odoyo Njura, “A Comparative Analysis of the European Union (EU) and the East African Community (EAC) Economic Integration Models: Lessons for Africa,” October 2016, University of Nairobi: Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/52f7/abff66afdf70f7430cd4607a11c9243a284e.pdf.

[22] Aloysius Uche Ordu, “Headwinds toward East African regional integration…”

[23] Hans H. Bass et al., “A common currency for the East African community? Lessons from the introduction of the euro,” International Business and Global Economy no. 37, 2018, p.215-230, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/d351/b88c856d5b4545519e36dc65c688ba8ca2e0.pdf.

[24] The East African, “Plan to have the East African currency collapses…”

[25] Earnest Aryeetey and A. Oduro, “Regional Integration Efforts in Africa: An Overview,” in Regionalism and the Global Economy: The Case of Africa (The Hague: FONDAD, 1996), p.11-49, http://fondad.org/uploaded/Africa%20Regionalism/Africa%20Regionalism-Aryeetey.pdf.

[26] Samuel Balongo, “Support for the formation of a federation of East African states: Citizens’ attitudes in Kenya and Tanzania,” Afrobarometer Policy Paper No.16, January 2015, https://afrobarometer.org/sites/default/files/publications/Policy%20paper/ab_policypaperno16.pdf.

[27] Josie Knowles, “East African Federation: Tanzanian Awareness of Economic and Political Integration Remains Poor, But There Is Growing Support for Political Links,” Afrobarometer Briefing Paper No. 146, July 2014, https://afrobarometer.org/sites/default/files/publications/Briefing%20paper/afrobriefno146.pdf.

[28] See, for example, Samwel Odoyo Njura, “A Comparative Analysis…”

[29] Thanos Ramos, Thierry Beranger, and Alessandra Tucci, “The Economic Impact of the EU – East African Community Economic Partnership Agreement,” European Commission Directorate-General for Trade, 2017,https://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/docs/2017/february/tradoc_155363.02%20Economic%20Impact%20of%20the%20EU%20-%20EAC%20EPA.pdf.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Julius Barigaba, “Trade impasse as EU seeks deal with entire EAC bloc,” East African,July 13, 2019, https://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/business/Trade-impasse-as-eu-seeks-deal-with-entire-eac-bloc/2560-5194414-sbnurg/index.html.

[33] East African Community, “European Union – EAC Regional Cooperation,” tps://www.eac.int/terms/17-basic-page/434-643-419-european-union-eac-regional-cooperation.

[34] US Trade Representative, “U.S. East African Community TIFA,” July 16, 2008, https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/uploads/agreements/tifa/asset_upload_file413_15020.pdf.

[35] Hannah Edinger and Jean-Pierre Labuschagne, “If You Want to Prosper, Consider Building Roads; China’s Role in African Infrastructure and Capital Projects,” Deloitte Insights, March 22, 2019, https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/insights/us/articles/za22330_consider-building-roads/DI_If-you-want-to-prosper-consider-building-roads.pdf.

[36] Allan Olingo, “Washington uneasy of intense push by Russia, China to court African countries,” East African, February 9, 2020, https://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/news/ea/4552908-5448324-tbhao3z/index.html.

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