Is Variable Geometry Leading to the Fragmentation of Regional Integration in East Africa?

Share |

By Gerald Ajumbo

Since July 2013, the presidents of three East African Community (EAC) countries (Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda) have been holding monthly summits to discuss regional matters, to the exclusion of Burundi and Tanzania, the two other members of the Community. Given that the monthly summits of presidents is not a policy organ of the EAC but merely gives general and political course, it is safe to assume that the reasons behind the sub-group’s talks are imbued in politics.

Going by the label “the Coalition of the willing” the sub-group appears to have invoked Variable Geometry, a principle that allows for members of a regional arrangement to cooperate in separation from other members. The sub-group has discussed topics ranging from progress made in the customs union consolidation, Common Market implementation, regional investment, infrastructure development, to the removal of non-tariff barriers (NTBs).  

It is not clear why the three countries would decide to exclude Burundi and Tanzania, but perhaps the thinking is that the potential benefits of such discussions far outweigh the risks of political fallout.   

Variable Geometry

The Treaty Establishing the EAC defines variable geometry in part as “...flexibility which allows for progression in co-operation among a sub-group of members in a larger integration scheme in a variety of areas and at different speeds...”  Therefore, under article 7(1)(e) of the Treaty, variable geometry grants Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda the rights to pursue cooperation and progress in areas of common interest, provided this is done within the ambit of the overall integration process in the bloc.

Despite the allowance provided under the treaty establishing the EAC, and for the sake of regional cohesion, it would have been better if the three countries had notified the other two precluded states of their intentions to invoke variable geometry. They could have, when informing Burundi and Tanzania, delineated the policies, projects and programs they plan to implement under variable geometry and hence prevent thoughts that the three partner states’ consultations are in bad faith.

Thus far information on the perceived variable geometry has not emanated from credible and authoritative sources. As the executive organ of the Community, the EAC Secretariat needs to put the record straight on the issue of variable geometry in the region. Failure to publicly explain the intentions, approach, scope, costs, opportunities, limitations and national prerogatives could leave political fallout as the only rational explanation. This could in turn accentuate barriers to regional partners that are deemed unfriendly.

Lessons from History

Regional integration historians argue that the preceding EAC (1967-1977) became dysfunctional and collapsed within a decade for failure to coalesce around common political and development strategies. Realization of objectives and achievement of regional priorities were further undermined by military dictatorship in one of the partner states, lack of private sector participation and an integration process that was largely motivated by governments’ fiat rather than being “people-driven”.

It is tempting to think that the regional bloc had good lessons from the collapse in 1977. The present-day incarnation of the EAC has made rapid progress on facilitating movement of persons, goods and services under the Customs Union (2005) and the Common Market (2010). However, some would argue that today’s political leaders in the EAC are bent on making different mistakes that might lead to similar consequences of 1977.  

Weak Institutions – Not the Real Problem?

The current institutional arrangements of the EAC lack the flexibility, technical and support capacities to manage variable geometry. For instance, it would be difficult for the regional institutions to effectively monitor the implementation of the customs union, common market or infrastructure development at different speeds by the sub-group and the other two regional partners. It is also conceivable that regional partners currently left out of the sub-group could as well establish their own group and invite one or two from the sub-group, thereby creating another cluster.

One can imagine this happening in different permutations.

Is it possible that, instead of variable geometry, what the EAC requires are different institutions to deal with implementation of issues related to the customs union, common market, and regional infrastructure development? Granting policy and administrative autonomy to sector-specific institutions would provide the region better economic integration best practice, rather than – lumping the Secretariat and a few Community institutions that are not strategic in their mandates and hence ill-placed to implement the varied interests demanded under variable geometry.

Could the EAC change its economic integration approach to be sector-/project-specific, network-oriented and progress in a manner that provides policy flexibility without threatening national sovereignty or prerogatives? The so-called Coalition of the willing met (in July, August and September, with another meeting set for October) to consult on, among other things, grand planning of regional infrastructure projects, introduction of a single tourist visa from 2014, and implementation of a passport-free zone. Launching a single tourist visa to ease the path of visitors across national borders could make it easier for the tourism industry to offer multi-destination packages. However, with challenges associated with weak institutions such as the immigration authorities and in light of the occasional security challenges in the region, the proposal to implement the tourist visa could provide the ultimate test on the three countries’ resolve to strengthen policies and institutions. Ultimately, these are issues that do not require variable geometry. All that is needed is the political will to enforce compliance and implementation of the necessary requirements.  

Integration vs. Fragmentation

While variable geometry could be a legitimate policy tool for realization of economic integration, its current deployment in the EAC has a political approach that could lead to defragmentation of the region. The interpretation that Burundi and Tanzania are being excluded at the political level has not gone over well. Little effort has been made to debunk the thoughts that the perceived isolation is ill-meant and counter-intuitive. In turn, strong language from Tanzania vowing “never to join integration initiatives that have been taken without its involvement” is worrisome and could stall implementation of integration programs.

The political sabre-rattling about variable geometry needs to be brought to a closure during the statutory EAC Summit at the end of November 2013 in Arusha, Tanzania. Frontline proponents of variable geometry should acknowledge that no single regional partner can demonstrate credible progress at the national level in implementing economic integration. The question of the sub-group of three leapfrogging their regional partners hence becomes somewhat tenuous.

All five partner states should address the issues that have given rise to the quest for variable geometry. At the heart of the dialogue should be non-implementation of policies, weak institutions and insufficient resources. Community members should freeze the creation of new policies and implement what has thus far been agreed upon – i.e. the customs union, the common market and infrastructure development. They should consider ceding their incredible powers under the EAC Treaty to a few supra-national institutions they could create to facilitate implementation.

A key way of dispelling the thoughts of variable geometry is timely implementation. Policymakers in the EAC have the tendency to focus more on the benefits of regional integration without necessarily considering how to expedite implementation. If there were timely implementation of agreements, it is hard to imagine that any sub-group would contemplate variable geometry.


Djamali Nambajimana - Rwanda 04/07/2018 17:37
Thank you so much for the very good analysis. what do you say about the ratification of EU-EAC EPAs? because again TZD is still hesitant to ratify this, yet Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya have ratified!
SHARITAH NAKUYA - Uganda 09/12/2017 13:53
This is a good analysis, i must say that with exclusion of the two partner states that is Tanzania and Burundi, EAC is laying a bed for its collapse as it was with the defunct EAC in 1966-1977. Much as the community aims at addressing the economic imbalance, in one way its creating a gap in the political relationship among the partner states.


Contact us

If you wish to submit an article to the editor for consideration, please contact us at with "Blog article for consideration" as your subject line. If the editor wishes to publish your article, they will get in touch and request a short bio and/or photo for publishing. Please note that we reserve the right to review and make grammatical edits to the article if it is published.

You are currently offline. Some pages or content may fail to load.