Interview with Dr. Richard Sezibera, EAC Secretary General

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Richard Sezibera

Interview with Dr. Richard Sezibera, EAC Secretary General

Meet Dr. Richard Sezibera: East African Community (EAC) is one of the most vibrant regional blocks today! After long periods of skepticism and negativity this integration project has taken a turn. Currently, people in other African union ‘building blocks’ such as those in the Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS) and the ones that belong to the  Southern African Development Community (SADC) are looking at the speed to which EAC is moving with both admiration and envy! Depending on who you ask, even the European Union has sent officials to learn how things are done in Arusha!

Established by some of the region’s founding fathers such as Mwalimu Nyerere and Mzee Jomo Kenyatta in 1967, the East African Community is a regional inter-governmental organization comprising the Republics of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania. Although it was dissolved in 1977 it was reestablished in 2000 under Article 2 of the Treaty for the Establishment of the East African Community that entered into force on July 7th that year.

The vision of EAC is to attain a prosperous, competitive, secure and politically united East Africa. Her mission is to widen and deepen economic, political, social and cultural integration in order to improve the quality of life of the people of East Africa through increased competitiveness, value added production, enhanced trade and investment. The brand of the East African Community is ‘‘One People, One Destiny’’. To give you a visual of previous EAC impact, during the 60’s when it was full swing, you could take a train from Kasese in Western Uganda near Congo to Mombasa in just 12 hours. The three founding countries; Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda were truly connected.

Today, once again, regional political leaders are fully on board and member citizens are starting to understand and to buy into the idea an integrated East African region; slowly coming to terms with the opportunity presented and the challenges it will bring. To give you some numbers, Intra-EAC trade grew by 40% between 2005 and 2009. Uganda’s exports to Kenya increased more than tenfold from USD15.5 Million in 2004 to USD172 Million in 2009, while Tanzania’s exports to Kenya over the same period nearly tripled, from USD 95.5 Million to USD 300 Million. This pattern is expected to continue with the establishment Common Market

The man presently charged with steering this ambitious ship back to its glory days is none other than Hon. Ambassador Dr Richard Sezibera.  Dr. Sezibera is a hugely respected former Army Major, parliamentarian, Minister and Rwandan ambassador to the US. Prior to our meeting, I interviewed a few people who have worked with him and on meeting the man I was not disappointed one bit. He carries himself with great honor and humility. His answers are very insightful and diplomatic but he won’t shy away from dishing a sharp answer to an imprudent question as I witnessed during a panel at Harvard this past March. Since his appointment as EAC secretary general by EAC heads of states on April 19, 2011, Dr. Sezibera has been hard at work; putting in place agreement on a Single EAC Customs Territory, implementing a common market and completing negotiations on the EAC Monetary Union among other key strategic breakthroughs.  The does not enjoy talking about himself or what he has done. Either way, under Sezibera, EAC is destined to get more done and the man himself will certainly keep on doing bigger and better things long after he has left the EAC.

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TAP:: The region is growing, with lots of positive things coming out of it. What are your expectations for the region for the next two years or so before your mandate runs out?

Dr. Richard Sezibera: We pride ourselves in being the only community coming together with the explicit aim of forming a political federation. A dream that was started by the region’s founding fathers; Mwalimu Nyerere, Mzee Kenyatta and others in 1967. A legacy we’d like to see fulfilled. To achieve this there are several stages we’d have to go through namely:

  • The formation of a customs union to allow for free movement of people, goods, capital
  • Formation of a common market
  • A single monetary unit
  • Finally, a political federation

The important areas to facilitate the forward movement that I would like to see include a few things; The free movement of goods within East Africa, moving towards a common E. African identification card and passport, elimination of work permits and the use of a single identity card for members, common infrastructure including rail, energy, waterways ports and harbors.

I’m very happy that for the first time in a hundred years we are laying a railway line. For example, between the years 1954 to 2000 the only dam in Uganda was the one built by the British on the Nile in 1954. Currently though, Uganda has more dams, Kenya is generating geo-thermal energy, Rwanda is commissioning new dams, and there’s a lot of investment in the energy sector in all our Partner States.  Another important factor that would determine progress is involvement of the people in this agenda. The youth, women groups, religious leaders, people are very important when striving to build momentum towards integration. We are trying to create a momentum towards integration that is beyond just leadership.

TAP: How do you foresee a single political union for East Africa?

Dr. Richard Sezibera: You cannot impose political unity on people. It has to come from within, from East Africans feeling East Africa! And the best way to feel it is if it brings prosperity to them. This is the only way we can do this and that’s what we are working on; If you talk to East African business people, which I do all the time, they are excited about East Africa. The expansion of banks within the member countries is a good example. Banque de Kigali now has a liaison office in Nairobi and wants to expand to Uganda and other areas; CRDB of Tanzania has branches in Burundi. Kenyan banks and businesses have also expanded in the region. Overall, East Africans are excited about this because it’s working for them.

TAP: We are not modelling the EAC after the European Union model! Or are we?

Dr. Richard Sezibera: As a matter of fact we are not. If anything it is the Europeans that actually borrowed integration tips from the East African Community while it was still functional up until 1977. From the sixties they used to come and learn about integration. The two are different because of the different historical backgrounds, experiences, different levels of wealth etc. a good example is the fact that the European Union can afford to subsidize for poor performers within its system while we cannot, EAC chose not to have a compensation fund. We can nevertheless learn from them, we takeaway the good things they did and avoid their mistakes; we have to build our own thing that is purely East African.

TAP: Moving goods within the region has always been a hindrance, how are we tackling this issue?

Dr. Richard Sezibera: It still takes too long to move goods from one country to another and it is also very costly. This has been caused by delayed clearances along the way including but not limited to numerous roadblocks, delayed port clearance, delays at weigh-bridges. For example it used to take approximately 21 days to move goods from the port of Mombasa to Kigali. Concerted leadership reduced this to approximately 5 days. Transport cost has also gone down by over US Dollars 1, 070. Clearance times at Ports have been reduced and the Region has a target of moving goods from Dares Salam to Bujumbura and Kigali in less than 5 days by roads. Another example is that in Mombasa there’s now a charter called “Mombasa road Charter” where all agencies come together and you can pre-clear your goods! Even if you don’t clear your goods, the charter has targets to make sure that a container does not spend more than seven days at the port. This means they are now working 24hrs a day; they have single windows systems so a lot of work is going on to ease the costs and improve efficiency of doing business in the region.

Richard Sezibera

What is the E. A. C policy on youth and women?

Dr. Richard Sezibera: We have an East African youth policy. The community urges national governments to set up specific programs and funds for youth and women in their respective countries. We have youth organizations in Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.  For women, under the EAC council, we are promoting female-based enterprises. That being said, there’s only so much a policy can do. At the end of the day it is up to the concerned individuals to rise up to the challenge and take advantage of the opportunities availed to them.

TAP: Are we looking to expand the community by bringing in countries such as Ethiopia and the DRC?

Dr. Richard Sezibera: The EAC does not solicit for members. Individual countries apply and once they comply with the requirements they can join. Currently it’s only Somalia and South Sudan that have applied. And for Somalia there’s been limited headway due to the obvious reasons. With South Sudan we’ve been under talks for about a year now and formal negotiations start in March to about August then we shall see. The process is quite rigorous, application must be sent, verification process must ensue and the applicant must join the customs union, which is mandatory. We are not like many other organizations that a presidential declaration makes you a member. There are some specific things that we only do at the EAC members. However, the EAC, COMESA and SADC are negotiating a Free Trade Area (under the Tripartite arrangement) to bring in our neighbors. Under this we have common infrastructure programs, free movement of business people etc. It doesn’t make sense to build rail that takes you to Kigali but doesn’t reach Eastern Congo for example! Once done it will cover 26 countries and have a GDP of about 1trillion US Dollars.

TAP: You’ve said that if the EAC fails then a United States of Africa as a political and trading unit fails! Please expand.

Dr. Richard Sezibera: It is a huge historical burden for East Africans. If East Africa cannot form one political entity then I don’t foresee any other grouping forming such an entity. There are eight regional blocks on the continent that are accepted by the African Union and in my opinion East Africa has most chances of success in forming a political federation meaning the weight of history is heavy on the shoulders of the leaders of East Africa and Africa in this era. As already mentioned, the Heads of states have begun the process of making a constitution for the proposed Federation. Eventually, this will involve consultations with the people and I don’t know what the outcome will be but its something that has to be done.

TAP: What sort of pressure are you under since you are charged with the responsibility of ensuring the EAC works?

Dr. Richard Sezibera: It is a huge responsibility that I enjoy very much.

TAP: What is the report card process and how are member states receiving it?

Dr. Richard Sezibera: It is an online real-time reporting system-a self-reporting mechanism with clear commitments made by each country and since the commitments made are clear it is easy to verify. This information and the Secretary General’s independent report forms part of a scorecard for members.

Bi-annually, the council of ministers is expected to report to the Heads of states on their progress using these report cards. We have noted that East Africans generally are not bothered by the agreements but are more interested in the implementation so member states have received this well.

TAP: How would you like to see Africans in the diaspora getting involved within the block for the benefit of the community as a whole?

Dr. Richard Sezibera: First of all am happy that diaspora remittances for all countries are high and a key source of revenue. This is extremely important for the economy of East Africa but it’s not only the remittances of money! I’d like to see East African diaspora’s bring back their expertise and skills whether on loan or permanently. Returnees are beneficial to the block. Moving forward, I’d like to see more investment vehicles set up by the diaspora for the whole of East Africa. There is the East African Diaspora Business Council (EADBC) that exists in the United States and we’ve been talking with them to see how they can set up more investment vehicles beyond just remittances. We are seeking to establish a strong link with this council and we hope more council like this open elsewhere.

TAP: Is there any project that is particularly close to your heart and what legacy would you like to leave behind?

Dr. Richard Sezibera: No, I’m not a legacy person and I just want to do my job to the best of my ability. There’s still a lot of work to be done so right now am just focused on the delivery. However, at some point I will look back at my work.

TAP: What have been your biggest challenges and or accomplishments?

Dr. Richard Sezibera: My achievements are the achievements of the Community including the agreement on a Single Customs Territory, implementation of the common market, the completion of the negotiations on the Monetary Union, the focus on critical infrastructure including in particular, Railways, Energy, Ports and Harbors, inland waterways, etc. as well as involving the people of East Africa in the integration agenda.

The biggest challenge we’ve faced has been making people buy into the “project” idea since it has to be people centered and owned. Another challenge is getting the resources to match our big ambitions! Bureaucracy is also another one; it’s a challenge to get them to think regional, as they are set up to think and act national, we have to harmonize this as it can hamper progress.

TAP: What do you do to unwind?

Dr. Richard Sezibera: I read, play tennis and spend time with my family. Currently am reading the book “Capital and Inequality”.

Interview by Moses Mutabaruka

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