For a long time, the political talk of the East African Federation has reverberated on the region’s political scene but without resulting in the actual implementation of the scheme. Recently there has been a recourse to talk of Confederation following a political scheme to expand the East African Community to include Somalia, Ethiopia and Djibouti.  Currently, it consists of Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, South Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. If it expands that much, it will not only include most of the Great Lakes Region of which Congo Brazzaville is also a part, but also most of the Nile Basin, excluding Egypt and Sudan. However, the quest to expand the East African Community is happening simultaneously with growing political talk of a “confederation of States”. If this continues, it might dampen forever the long-standing political talk of the federation of East African states. 

It is interesting to note that the resurgence of East Africanism and expansionism has happened since 1986 when President Tibuhaburwa Museveni assumed the instruments of power in Uganda after waging a five-year-long guerilla war against the regimes of Apollo Milton Obote and Tito Okello (1981-1986). On 26th January 1986, when the Uganda President was sworn in as President, he made a statement that is in practice being felt throughout the region “This is Not a Mere Change of Guards but a Fundamental Change”. Shortsighted people thought the statement applied to only Uganda. Soon political talk of pan-Africanism, which had lost steam, came back not only in East Africa but the whole of Africa. 


Uganda became the Headquarters of the revitalized Pan-African Movement (PAM).


The Nile Basin Initiative was formed in 1989 with Burundi, DRC, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda as members and   


Presidents Daniel Arap Moi of Kenya, Ali Hassan Mwinyi of Tanzania, and Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of Uganda signed the Treaty for East African Co-operation in Kampala on 30 November 1993 and established a Tri-partite Commission for Co-operation. A process of re-integration was embarked on involving tripartite programmes of cooperation in political, economic, social and cultural fields, research and technology, defence, security, and legal and judicial affairs.


Uganda became the springboard of the Rwandese Patriotic Front/Army revolution that overthrew the Hutu-dominated regime of Juvenal Habyarimana, thereby replacing it with the Tutsi-dominated regime of Paul Kagame in 1994.


The East African Community (EAC) was revived on 30 November 1999, when the treaty for its re-establishment was signed. It came into force on 7 July 2000, 23 years after the collapse of the previous community and its organs. 


A customs union was signed in March 2004, which commenced on 1 January 2005. Kenya, the region’s largest exporter, continued to pay duties on goods entering the other four countries on a declining scale until 2010. 


On 30th November 2016, it was declared that the immediate political aim would be the East African Confederation, not the East African Federation. Burundi, DRC, Rwanda and South Sudan had joined. This, however, did not completely erase political calls for federation in the region. It was left for Ugandans within Uganda to continue their political struggles to have Uganda as a federal state rather than a unitary state because the unitary state had progressed at the expense of the constituent entities that on Independence Day on 9th October 1962 constituted the State of The Commonwealth Realm of Uganda. The Commonwealth Realm of Uganda transited to Uganda on the first anniversary of Independence on 9th October 1963.  Some of the entities were Kingdoms (Ankole, Buganda, Bunyoro and Toro), one was a semi-kingdom (Busoga) and the rest were Districts). 

Ironically, the constant political figure and voice while all these changes have been taking place is President Tibuhaburwa Museveni. He has been at the forefront of seeing that other countries are included in what continues to be called the East African Community even after the declaration that the aim is Confederation. He is the only surviving Head of State and member of the East African Community Authority to oversee the accession of Burundi, Rwanda, DRC and South Sudan to the Community at a time when the aim seemed to be the East African Federation. Recently he, together with the Kenyan and Tanzanian Presidents, oversaw the accession of Somalia to the Confederation.  He will be the happiest President in Africa if the potential expansion of the confederation includes Angola, Central African Republic, Comoros, Djibouti, Congo Brazzaville, Ethiopia, Malawi, Zambia and Sudan ultimately join the confederation, although Tanzania and Uganda opposed Sudan’s membership on account of having no border with East Africa. But what border does Djibouti have with the original East African countries? The ultimate aim should be to decolonize the area occupied by all these countries. The credit should go to President Tibuhaburwa Museveni who has really sought to implement a fundamental change in the area. However, talk of the nomadic human energy system expanding its range being the main drive of President Museveni’s expansion of the East African Community beyond its original territorial size, seems to be reducing the importance of greater political and economic cooperation in the expansive area.

I think I should clarify what is meant by Confederation and Federation and how they are related. One thing is true. They are both strategies in regional or intergovernmental political governance. 

What is a confederation? A Dictionary definition of Confederation is that it is a more or less permanent union of states with some or most political power vested in a central authority. A confederation is also known as a confederacy or league). It is actually a political union of sovereign states united for purposes of common action. It is usually created by a treaty Confederations of states tend to be established for dealing with critical issues, such as defence, foreign relations, internal trade or currency, with the central government being required to provide support for all its members. Confederalism represents a main form of intergovernmentalism, defined as any form of interaction around states that takes place based on sovereign independence or government..

 A good example of a confederation of states is Canada, which became a confederation in 1867. However, it is important to note that in Canada, the word confederation has an additional unrelated meaning whereby it refers to the process of (or the event of) establishing or joining the Canadian federal state. So, for Canada, both confederation and federation are politically important, but In fact, the country is an unusually decentralized federal state, not a confederate association of sovereign states, the usual meaning of confederation in modern terms.  Canadian Confederation (French: Confédération canadienne) was the process by which three British North American provinces – the Province of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick – were united into one federation called The Dominion of Canada, on July 1, 1867. It was initiated by proclamation Queen Victoria ”For Uniting the Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick into one Dominion Under the Name of Canada” Thus upon Confederation, Canada consisted of four provinces: Ontario and Quebec, which had been split out from the Province of Canada, and the provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Over the years since Confederation, Canada has seen numerous territorial changes and expansions, resulting in the current number of ten provinces and three territories.

What is a federation? A dictionary definition of Federation is “a group of states with a central government but independence in internal affairs”. Another dictionary definition of Federation is “the action of forming states or organizations into a single group with centralized control”. Otherwise, a federation, which is also known as a federal state, is a political entity characterised by a union of partially self-governing provinces, states or other entities under a central federal government (federalism).  In a federation, the self-governing status of the component states as well as the division of power between them and the central government is constitutionally entrenched and may not be altered unilaterally. Or else, a federation is a form of government in which sovereign power is formally divided between a central authority and a number of constituent entities, which retain some degree of control over their internal affairs. Although the original floaters of the idea of the federation of East Africa did not clarify the kind of federation they wanted, it is possible it is the latter type they wanted. 

When Ugandans voted 65% for a Federal system of government in a nationwide constitutional change initiated by President Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) in the early 1990s, they sincerely wanted a federal government of Uganda. Unfortunately, the ensuing Uganda Constitution 1995 did not show that 65 % of Ugandans of voting age wanted a Federal State of Uganda. Instead, it reaffirmed an overcentralized government with all powers and authority invested in a President, who was destined to be President Tibuhaburwa Museveni.  He has not only used his powers and authority to reduce the entities that formed Uganda at independence in 1962 to numerous unviable entities through bantustanisation of the country simultaneously with his political pursuits in East Africa, the Great Lakes region, Nile Basin and Africa. At the face of it President Museveni, one of the longest reigning Presidents of Africa, wants a united Africa, but he rules Uganda like a Monarch, while as the oldest and longest ruling Head of State in Eastern Africa, he has been the foremost advocate of Federation over the years and now confederation.

So, if you want to know where East Africa, the Great Lakes region and the Nile Basin are headed, you can not ignore the centrality of the President of Uganda in regional political dynamics unfolding in this part of Africa. He has dampened the Ugandans’ calls for a Federal State of Uganda while playing central to the shift from a federal to a confederation political choice for this part of Africa. The question is: Will the confederation succeed where the federation has failed? Supposing confederation succeeds the way it did in Canada when the force behind it was our former colonial power Great Britain long before its imperial power was extended to Eastern Africa?

It will be remembered that when British imperial influence extended to Eastern Africa following the Scramble and Partition of Africa by the Great imperial powers of the world then at the 1984-1985 Berlin Conference on Africa, British interest was not political conquest and occupation. It was economic interest. While the Germans pursued their interests in Tanganyika (which years later combined its territory and politics with the Islands of Zanzibar and Pemba to form a country called Tanzania), it was a British trading firm called Imperial British East African Company (IBEAC) founded by William MacKinnon in 1888, that was the effective ruler of the areas that were called Uganda Protectorate (Uganda) and East African Protectorate (Kenya).  Apparently, the firm included Somalia, not Tanganyika, under its jurisdiction. Tanganyika was a later addition to the British East African sphere of influence after the Germans were ejected out of East Africa.  

IBEAC granted immunity of protection to all British subjects. It also allowed them to collect taxes, impose custom duties, administer justice, make treaties and otherwise act as the government of the area.  Unfortunately, IBEAC collapsed in 1896 due to bankruptcy. However, by that time, the British were through Captain Lugard developing great political interest in the entire East African region. According to Jane Banfield (1963), the idea of a Federation of Africa was very early banished from the political vocabulary of the British colonialists in Nairobi, Entebbe and Dar-es-Salaam. Although later it was on the lips of the new post-colonial leaders – Julius Kambarage Nyerere (Tanzania), Apollo Milton Obote (Uganda) and Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya).

Although President Tibuhaburwa Museveni persists in talking as if the idea of a Political federation of East Africa is a possibility, and President Arap Ruto of Kenya was quoted in the media in October 2022 saying the possibility of a political federation of East Africa is no longer an idle dream but the ultimate pillar in the East African Community (EAC) integration process, preceded by the Customs Union, Common Market and a Monetary Union in that order, one truism is that it remains, like before, on the lips of leaders. 

Many questions remain unanswered:

Can Political Federation be pursued simultaneously with Confederation? 

What do the East African leaders want: the East African Federation or the East African Confederation? 

Why is Political federation being so neatly interspersed with East African Confederation?  

What is the collective voice of the people of the former East African region? 

Ultimately whose project is East African political federation? 

Whose project is East African Confederation? 

Which way is East Africa beyond its current political leaders?

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Written by Oweyegha Afunaduula (3)

I am a retired lecturer of zoological and environmental sciences at Makerere University. I love writing and sharing information.

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