When lawmakers and government ministers arrived in Tanzania over the weekend for a much-awaited event at the regional parliament, little did they know how it would end. Now, a move by two members risks tearing apart years of delicate diplomacy.
For nearly half a year, the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) has not done any work because Kenya was yet to send it’s nine representatives and when Nairobi finally put its house in order following a bitterly contested election, all seemed on course until yesterday Monday morning.
All the 54 representatives from the six member states were ready to take their oath of office, and constitute EALA leadership. But business came to a standstill when a member from Burundi rose up to second Leontine Nzeyimana, from the same country for post of Speaker.
It also emerged, to the shock of Rwandan and Ugandan lawmakers, that Tanzania’s Adam Kimbisa had submitted his papers for the same post. The outgoing Speaker Dan Kidega (Uganda), who was not prepared for the scenes in the house, adjourned the session for some minutes urging members to hold consultations.
During the short break, images on social media show groups of same-country representatives gathered together. Rwanda’s nine members, who seemed shocked at the unfolding events, kept their cool.
The delegation from Kigali was well convinced that it was a done-deal, and what was left was the after party. Rwanda’s Martin Ngoga, a former Prosecutor General, was headed for the top job. He has been promoted by Rwanda for some time now, that all looked a foregone conclusion until the events on Monday.
For years, the unwritten rule has been that the posts of Speaker of EALA and Secretary General of the EAC secretariat are held on rotational basis. After Uganda leading the law making body, it was a near-obvious that Rwanda was next.
But all that is now up in smoke. Burundi, which is already holding the secretariat with Libérat Mfumukeko as boss, wants even more of the lucrative positions.
After the short surprise adjournment, Speaker Kidega recalled the house, and the battle of submissions ensued. Burundi delegates argued that they have the right to campaign for post on the basis of alphabetical order. But then, after U (Uganda), it is another country.
Burundians changed the argument that they want a new system to start immediately, and that all previous elections should not be considered. In other words, Burundi wants the Speakership race began afresh, under a new system of using alphabetical order.
Tanzanian lawmakers for their part say there is no rule that blocks them from submitting a speaker candidate.
The East African community has until in recent months been made up of Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi. South Sudan is the latest member.
So what will end the impasse? Rwanda doesn’t seem in any panic. “There is no any such rule otherwise Kenya would have come before Tanzania for Speakership or Burundi before Rwanda for SG,” said Ngoga on Twitter, referring to Burundi pushing for the alphabetical scheme.
“Best practice that has been in place would rule out the Country holding Secretariat from holding Legislature to preserve intergrity of oversight function. But this country would by law be eligible to run if they chose to abandon the practice. Wisdom of ballot would then decide.”
Meanwhile, in Burundi, the media there is raising the assassination of Hafsa Mossi last year. It is claimed that her killing was aimed at preventing Burundi from taking up the EALA speakership. Even when all available evidence points to a plot set within the Burundi ruling CNDD-FDD party to eliminate her due to her alleged links to Rwanda, Bujumbura is trying to convince its citizens that actually Mossi was killed by somebody else.
The former minister and longtime legislator Mossi had emerged as charismatic player in a chaotic country, and she had become a threat to the ruling establishment which considered her a double agent, according to sources.
There are nearly 90,000 Burundian refugees in Rwanda. Several dozen arrive daily – mainly at night, to escape the rage of their government, increasingly paranoid of plot to oust it from office. The president has only left the country once, to Tanzania, in the past two years.
Tens of thousands, in the country are facing food shortage, according to the UN.
The Burundian government has closed off its border with Rwanda. No Rwandans enter, but Burundians pour into Rwanda for business and family. Nearly all the senior Burundian politicians have some connection in Rwanda, so often travel here.
Back to EALA, the race opens again today, but another complication has emerged. Kenyan representatives have indicated they also want the speaker’s chair.
We can only wait and see, as probably intense behind the scenes diplomacy tries to solve the impasse.