24 February 2024

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Exclusive: George Odongo on regional peace, trade; vaccine equity, EALA and Lango

EALA was inaugurated on December 17; the date when the 4th assembly session started in Arusha, Tanzania.
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Stephen George Odongo talks to TND News on Friday. TND News photo.

Last Updated on: 29th September 2022, 09:13 pm

“EALA has become very, very vocal on matters of transparency within the institutions of the community,” George Odongo.

This is a ‘very long piece’, however, reading it entirely will refresh your mind!


Kampala – February 5, 2022:  George Stephen Odongo is representing Uganda on the National Resistance Movement (NRM) party flag at the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) based in Arusha Tanzania. Odongo who is seeking another term had an exclusive interview with TND News Milton Emmy Akwam on Friday.

The conversations (interview) focused on regional peace and stability including trade between Uganda-Rwanda-Kenya; Covid-19 vaccines equity, seeking another term, efforts by the Lango Parliamentary Group and the people of Lango to have the Lira-Kamdini road worked, and more.

How has the Assembly managed to focus on the region, and do we have some successes?

There have been some major milestones by the assembly. There are also challenges that the assembly has gone through. As you are aware, we were elected in February. However, we were only sworn in on December 17; the date when the 4th assembly, EALA was inaugurated.

Our swearing-in was delayed by the Kenyan elections was disruptive as you know. Kenya had to do two elections after the court ruling. That year was a very difficult year for us the elected members but we were sworn in at the end of the year, and from then the assembly had to begin the business – the bulk of which was from the previous assembly.

The first order of business was actually to legislate on the East Africa Monetary Institute Bill that is supposed to midwife Monetary Union. That Bill has now been assented to by the Heads of State Summit. This bill puts in place the East Africa Monetary Institute, an institution that is supposed to facilitate the partner States to go into our monetary union. 

The monetary institute will look at our interest rates; it has to regulate the conduct of the financial institutions, the banks. It’s supposed to aggregate our monetary policies so that we have a single monetary policy as a community – so we passed that Bill.

We also passed the East Africa Statistics Bureau Bill. The bill is part of the raft of legislation that is supposed to facilitate the entry of the monetary union. So, it’s one of those institutions to aggregate our statistics as a region.

In terms of legislation, there have been quite some Bills that the Assembly has passed including the Anti-Corruption Bill. This Bill looks at how the community is going to fight corruption within its institutions. As you might be following, EALA has become very, very vocal on matters of transparency within the institutions of the community. The community receives a colossal amount of monies from donors and also from the partner States and audit reports consistently show that the community has had an “equated audit report”.

This report means that the community has not been transparent as some money has been lost. So, EALA decided that we need to put in place a law because there does not exist any specific anti-corruption law in the community that fights corruption within the institutions of the East African Community apart from us relying on the anti-corruption legislation in different partner States but that is general – this (Bill) is very specific to the institutions of the community.

The Anti-corruption Bill is waiting for the Heads of State to accent to it. And there are others.

There is a priority for the East African Community from 2022 to 2026 and one of which is ‘strengthening regional peace, security, and good governance. Uganda and Rwanda over the last 3 years have had issues with borders and this affected quest for regional integration. What is your opinion now that the two countries are trying to talk about peace, trying to say we can work together, again?

Well. First of all, I want to thank the government of Rwanda for deciding to open the border and also to thank both governments for taking the path of constructive dialogue and discussions, and negotiations on the differences that caused this conflict that has been there for three years. But again, this conflict taking three years is an indication that within the EAC we do not have a robust mechanism to respond to conflicts once they arise. So, the EAC needs to invest in a “toolbox” from which the different tools can be drawn to respond to conflicts as and when they arise.

The institutional structure mechanism within the EAC does not have an institution whose responsibility is to deal with conflict within the community and that has been sustained, it has taken 3 years. And this is also because if you read deeper into the EAC, you will find that EAC does not have the mechanism of enforcement of compliance to the Treaty requirement and other legislations. It depends so much on the goodwill of the partner States, and I think this has been one of the biggest challenges and weaknesses of the community. The community needs to have a mechanism for enforcing compliance.

As we speak, you will see that the border between Rwanda and Burundi is still closed because there are differences. We still have partner States that are non-compliant in terms of their remittances to the community; we still have partner States that continue to have non-tariff barriers to trade. 

There is no mechanism other than reciprocation like the last time between Uganda and Kenya: when Kenya stopped milk from Uganda – Uganda also said we are now going to identify some of your products. So, the only weapon in the hands of partner States is reciprocation but I think the community needs to have a wide range of options that it uses to enforce compliance between the different partner States.

 More on Rwanda and Uganda…

The situation between Uganda and Rwanda should allow us to reflect deeper as the community and for us, of course as an Assembly we want to see that we come out with legislation to operationalize the spirit of the Treaty which requires that there should be good neighbourliness between partner States. This is one of the things we are going to prioritize and the conversation should already start on how the assembly can come out with the law that can operationalize the treaty which necessitates that countries must coexist peacefully and there is good neighbourliness.

If you look at the Treaty, it invests a lot of powers in the Summit of the Heads of States, so when there are differences as a result of the differences between Heads of States, it’s almost at a very high level that even the Assembly has no powers. This is the way EAC is structured, structured in such a way that there are some “no-go areas”. It’s a real governance dilemma if you want to call it so.


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It’s a real governance dilemma because ordinarily, parliament should be the voice of the ordinary citizens and that is the voice that should take precedence on matters of EAC. However, the Summit of the Heads of State has a lot more powers in decision-making than our parliament, and even if you look at the functions of the Summit, one of them is to continue to review the peace and security situation between partner States – that is why the matter between Uganda and Rwanda was a matter for the Summit to address and that is why you see that most of the discussions were between Heads of State, there were no other institutions that would facilitate that conversation other than Summit itself.

Can the assembly propose to the Heads of State that should this continue, it’s going to affect our regional integration and peace?

The Assembly is not restricted. Its domain, the scope of its work is not restricted; it can have a discussion on matters related to peace and security within different partner States. But, we just recommend it. The assembly can have an intense discussion on the situation between Uganda and Rwanda, it can discuss any other matter because that is its mandate, because it’s demanded by the ordinary citizens; be it it’s demanded by the Council, but its powers remain at the level of recommendation.

We recommend to the Head of Summit, Council of Ministers. One of the recommendations was that the “two partner States should fast track the normalization of their relations through diplomatic engagements, and through peaceful means”, and that they should “cease to amplify the passion that tends to drive a wage between the two partner States.”

Those recommendations are contained in the debate of the assembly and were carried to the Council of Ministers who should escalate it to the Summit – the final decision-maker.

In 2019 the region (EAC) entered into the Covid pandemic. This has affected regional development and businesses. We have seen countries like Uganda hit hard, the government made some interventions including Kenya. We have problems with vaccines, and testing and the rich nations are progressing. How should Africa and East Africa adapt?

What Covid has taught us, Covid has reinforced, has given us a compelling argument for regional integration because Covid has shown us that actually, the world does not care. The rich nations of the world are more preoccupied with securing their citizens and it’s like any other person: if the community is attacked, the first thing parent do is to run home and secure their children before they can think of their neighbours.

 Now, this is what has happened with our Covid situation. Am only disappointed that Africa and indeed East Africa have not built solidarity around Covid apathy, that we have continued to talk about it, we have continued to make it an intellectual discussion. This is an existential discussion because it threatens the very existence of Africa and our region.

We should as a community begins to think of a common strategy to develop our capacity to respond to crisis when they arise. Whether it is Covid, security, or environmental degradation we must have a common strategy. My call to the international community is that they should first all lift patents on the production of vaccines and liberalize them. 

This can be treated as an exception so that countries that have capabilities (it has been demonstrated that if we work together as partner States we should be able to produce vaccines) at a fairly cheaper price than what is being sold to us by the vaccines producing nations. The problem has been the issues of patents which makes vaccine production a very expensive exercise for poor nations which include the EAC.

The cry here is that in a situation like this one where nobody is safe, the vaccine-producing nations and the international community should come together and come up with an exception to the issue of patents so that countries can now begin to produce these vaccines.

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EALA MP for Uganda Hon George Stephen Odongo. Courtesy photo.

Now, that said though, I think the EAC needs to wake up because when we were hit by Covid you saw that different partner States were responding as individual partner States and each one of them adopted their package of the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). Tanzania under President Magufuli at the time said Covid was just like any other flu and nobody should be scared about it and they have remained open to date, they have never closed, they have never enforced any serious SOPs; the wearing of the mask is optional. 

You same the same happened in Burundi and South Sudan up to recently the situation was the same and yet in Uganda, we were in total lockdown, and there was total enforcement of SOPs, the same in Rwanda and Kenya.

We are living in one Community and since we are all signatories to the Common Market Protocols (CMPs) that allow for free movement of goods, services, and people, it means people can move from one partner State to another. So if people are moving from one partner State to another and the SOPs are different I think the Covid situation should be an eye-opener for us to begin to pull in the same direction.

When it comes to testing at the borders, you know we have truckers from Kenya, and Tanzania carrying cargo and the testing fee has been high. Recently we saw a long queue of trucks carrying fuel and this has contributed to increased fuel prices in Uganda. What should be the alternative means?

 Lake I said earlier I think that the coming of Covid has reinforced the argument for regional integration. You know, we would not be having a situation where truckers are lined up over 70 kilometres inside Kenya because Uganda is enforcing SOPs and therefore testing is a requirement. We need to come out with a common position to deal with this.

The Council of Ministers of Health sat in Arusha and they came out with a “whole package” of procedures. They signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on how to deal with trade across borders during the pandemic and one of the requirements was that we should have mutual recognition of the test. If I test from Mombasa, that test as long as it is still within a certain number of hours should be recognized at the border of Uganda. If I test from Tanzania and I arrived at the border of Uganda within those hours then there is no need for me to test again.

A panel of experts from all the six partner States was put together and they went to all the different partner States to access the competencies and capabilities of laboratories. The ones that they visited were credited. There are accredited laboratories in all six partner States.

What should have been done was to insist that all truckers, all travellers that are moving by roads across should go to those mutually recognized laboratories so that if you test from this laboratory it’s recognized by all the partner States.

Our problem is that we have left the matter of compliance to the goodwill of the partner States: we can agree on certain standards, we can agree on certain commitments but how each partner State complies with that standards, complies with that agreement, MOU is a matter of that partner State’s goodwill.

There are no countries that have just grown on goodwill if they are to integrate. Goodwill must be enhanced by strong legal and institutional frameworks to enforce compliance and this is where the weakness is with the EAC.

 You have shown interest to go back to the Assembly. What is your key area or strategic areas for Uganda that Uganda should trust you again?

One of the things I will continue to (and that have been part of my records in the EAC) is the insistence of us scaling up our governance standards across the region; that we must begin to have conversations around the governance architecture of the East African Community.

Two, on the standards, governance is the software that can drive our integration and we can not have different standards in the different partner States, we should have a certain quality of governance for us to push this integration. That means the quality of our elections, the quality of our legal frameworks, the quality of our democracy, and the quality of the livelihoods of our people.

The institution that should drive our integration includes peace and security- all those are part of the incentives that drive me to go back to the EAC Assembly because I think it is still a work in progress. That conversation has got to start. I will tell you for example that governance is not a very simple issue to talk about at the EAC because the Treaty (remember the treaty is like almost the Constitution) is very protective of the sovereign authority of different partner States.

One of the provisions of the Treaty is that “nothing” should come under the purview in the discussion of the Assembly that touches on the Constitutions of the different States so it is a “no-go area” but we want to have some constructive engagements around those areas so that we can have some reforms in our Treaty to make sure we have a latitude to debate and discuss matters of governance. That is one.

The other thing that I am looking at is the issue of facilitating trade across the region. We need to enhance trade in our region and these are some of the ways:

  • To have infrastructures in place and this is why I associate myself with the position that was taken by the Lango Parliamentary Group and the people of Lango to persuade the government to tarmac the Lira-Kamdini road to be motorable and upgraded it to a standard that can facilitate the movement of trucks because that is a major road that connects to South Sudan and very soon to DRC. So infrastructure is very critical and that infrastructure is not just roads; it should be other things like electricity; we need value addition.
  • The region has got to invest in energy and I think there are conversations between EAC and the donors particularly the GIZ on energy equity. Some of those issues are things we are looking at.
  • Of course, the other thing is security and to me, security is not just the presence of hardware, it is also not just the deployment of the military. Security is broader. The deployment of the military is to put in place a minimum condition. For example, right now we are investing as Uganda in our peace and security by deploying in the DRC, and we want to pacify the Eastern part of the DRC. Beyond that, the minimum environment that this deployment will create is an environment of confidence for people to trade and once people trade and enhance their incomes then you can be sure that you are investing in peace.

My understanding is that we need trade dividends and security dividends and we need incomes. The argument of saying we are expanding our markets is only viable when that market leads to individual incomes that become the purchasing powers otherwise it is just going to become nominal numbers. So, now we are having 180 million East Africans. 

If we add another 70 million, we are going to have like 250 million East Africans including the DRC. But if you have 250 million poor East Africans it means you have not yet expanded the markets because in economics markets are a function of effective demands, we need to see how we enhance effective demands for us to have the market arguments passed for the expansion of the EAC.

More on his campaign for a better EAC…

My campaigns are predicated on some of those critical areas that we should focus on as a country and also as a region.

The other, of course, is regional cooperation and that should be proved by our own. I believe in the power of personal example that Uganda has the credibility to talk about peace and security because it is investing in it, that Uganda has the credibility to talk about a constructive dialogue because it is engaged in it; that Kenya has the credibility to talk matter of trade if Kenya can showcase an example of freedom to trade under the current regime. 

I really would want to see we enhance our corporation between different partner states, scale it up from the level where it’s predicated on just goodwill, and limit the level of bilateralism.

As you noticed in the last couple of years we have engaged so much in bilateral discussions. Bilateral discussions though good is an indication that we are not yet pulling in the same direction as six partner states. 

Bilateral means “go and negotiate” with Tanzania on Uganda-Tanzania “basis. Then when there is a problem with our borders with Kenya I have a bilateral discussion between Uganda and Kenya. There have got to be standards that apply to every partner State so that we reduce the level of bilateral engagements and give confidence to our regional integration. 

These are some of the things I think are works to be done at the EAC and I feel passionate about them and I know I have the capabilities to provide leadership.

Still, on security and politics, our neighbour, Kenya will hold general elections this year and we saw the 2017 disruptions. The Kenyan elections are also coming at a time the EALA will be starting a new term. What is your message to Kenya as a partner state?

That is a brilliant question. You know, first of all, our regional integration is predicated on the principles of good governance and that is why for a State to join the EAC, it should demonstrate credentials of good governance and democracy because we feel that, as I said earlier on, democracy and good governance are the software that drives our trade, integration, movement of our people and so-on-and-so-forth. Kenya is a very important partner State because it is the biggest economy in the EAC. The stability of Kenya is the stability of all partner States. 

As was seen in 2007 when there was chaos, and riots, when there was ethnic profiling in Kenya it affected the whole region. Uganda was one of those adversely affected by the consequences of the elections in Kenya.

My call to Kenya is one: to exercise restraint in the conduct of their elections. Of all manifestations of power, restraint is one of the most critical even when faced with the most difficult decisions, if a decision is prone to cause trouble for the country you rather restrain yourself.

Two is that the management of the elections should put in place a transparent system that inspires confidence so that the outcomes of that election are legitimate. We would want to have legitimate elections and therefore a legitimate government. EAC is an intergovernmental organization – that is the way it’s described.

Three, the people of Kenya should invest in peace so that there will be Kenya even after the elections. There is no need to destroy your country just because of the differences during the elections. Kenya should make peace a priority, should make the security of property and individuals a priority, and should ensure that they participate in that election to determine their leadership.

EAC still maintains that each partner State is sovereign. It’s not from me in Uganda to determine the outcomes of the elections in Kenya because the Constitution and Treaty respect the sovereignty of Kenyans. Our prayers as a Community is that they have peaceful elections.

EAC will deploy observers and the East African Legislative Assembly is an active participant when it comes to elections observation.

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