By JULIUS BARIGABA*
Is President Yoweri Museveni itching to take over the leadership of the African continent?
This was the unspoken question as the Ugandan leader assumed the chair of the East African Community on November 30, becoming the head of three influential regional groupings.
He heads the East African Community; the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa), whose leadership he took over in Kampala three weeks ago; and the peace, security and development outfit — the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), where he has been at the helm since December 2011.
President Museveni’s rise to these positions may have caused ripples of unease at the African Union, where there is a growing sense that the Ugandan head of state is positioning himself as the continent’s top dog.
At the helm of Comesa, EAC and ICGLR, President Museveni will influence security, trade and economic policies of 23 countries, with a population of nearly 540 million people (the 19-member state Comesa alone had 468 million people as at 2011).
Currently, the main architects of the United States of Africa project are no longer in the picture, with Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi dead, and (former Senegalese president) Abdoulaye Wade also out of power, President Museveni’s position as the continent’s most influential man is unchallenged.
“Where is all this leading? Is it just a coincidence that one man is chairman of three blocs all at the same time? President Museveni always makes a strong case for political integration,” a senior source from the AU told The EastAfrican.
The source added that currently no sitting African president rivals President Museveni’s credentials to lead the continent. His role in pacifying Burundi, mediating in the Congo crisis and fixing Somalia as well as the respect he commands among Western leaders are among the things that make him a giant among his peers.
“This is an opportunity for him to make his mark on these organisations and move their integration agenda forward. But President Museveni’s record on African integration is not encouraging. He opposed Gaddafi on faster movement to a United States of Africa,” argued Philip Kasaija, a lecturer of political science at Makerere University.
President Museveni’s challenge is how to use his position as the boss of three regional blocs to gain acceptance, and especially break the hegemonies in the other regions, notably those of South Africa in the Southern African Development Community, Nigeria in the Economic Community of West African States and the current North Africa powerhouse — Algeria.
Taking down the barriers
While addressing the Comesa Summit in Kampala on November 24, President Museveni made an impassioned speech decrying the balkanization of the African continent, and why it was important to do away with the small units of disparate states.
“The greatest disadvantage Africa faced at Independence, ever since 1957… was political balkanization. The foresight by the Lagos Action Plan, which pointed out the need to be organised into blocs for trade in different zones of Africa in order to tackle this balkanization was correct. Integration should have two dimensions — economic and, where possible, political integration.
“In East Africa, we are aiming at both — political and economic integration. The people of East Africa have for decades, been yearning for an East African Federation that will deal with both political and economic integration. This is the ultimate goal of the EAC. The bloc’s people travel farther because they are either similar or compatible, and aiming at political integration, leading to the Federation of East Africa,” said President Museveni.
Critics say that President Museveni’s falling out with Gaddafi was not necessarily over the idea of a United States of Africa; it was rather because he was not the project’s prime mover.
So, instead of the swift transition to a continental state that Gaddafi advocated, the Ugandan leader favours the path of regional economic communities as the building blocks of a future united Africa.
But at the heart of all this was a clash of egos in 2005 when Gaddafi “demoted” President Museveni by assigning the latter a low-key department in the would-be continental government set-up, with the presidency going to Ghana’s John Kuffour, sources reveal.
President Museveni believes the AU should push regional economic communities to deliver the “hardware” of roads, electricity, ICT and water through infrastructure bonds, while the politicians help with such things as trade facilitation, which are the “software,” by removing impediments like non-tariff barriers.
With the muscle he wields in the EAC, Comesa and ICGLR, President Museveni now considers himself a suitable candidate to take charge of the continent, and once at the helm he could then tackle his pet project of building infrastructure to unlock Africa’s potential.
The EAC Summit in Nairobi started with a retreat on regional infrastructure — rail, road networks, waterways, electricity and ICT — which ties in with President Museveni’s vision for the continent.
“I am glad that now Comesa, EAC and SADC are engaged with one another under the tripartite efforts. Comesa has done well and will do even better. As you heard, the trade volumes among Comesa members are of the magnitude of $18.8 billion.
“This will grow if we deal with infrastructure… I want to see a rail link with South Sudan, a rail link with Kisangani in Congo, a rail link with Gisenyi in Rwanda and the upgrading of the East African Railway system to a standard gauge. We need railway links with Ethiopia and Somalia from Kenya. In the end, we need to conclude the agreement on the African Common Market,” said President Museveni.
This is a position the AU chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma agreed with. “Integration of the three communities will create huge momentum for continental integration… we will therefore work to strengthen the African Union, as the premium voice of the continent, working with the RECs, organs and other strategic partners,” Dr Dlamini-Zuma told the Comesa Summit.
*Source The EastAfrican