Cross-border issues in East Africa

24 June 2020

East African countries must develop a centralised policy for disease control and coordinated cross-border controls in response to the pandemic

Frederick Chepkonga
Editorial credit: Rich T Photo / Shutterstock.com

Recently, there was controversy between Kenya and Tanzania following a rise in positive cases of COVID19 among truck drivers crossing the border between the two countries. Cross-border issues amidst the pandemic also caused trade to slow down between Kenya and Uganda, the country’s neighbour to the west. A report published in the Washington Post, for instance, notes that ‘when you are on foot, you can cross the border (between Kenya and Tanzania) as easily as crossing a road’.  While this may be good for business in the context of economic integration as that envisaged by the East African Community (EAC), it may also pose challenges during a pandemic. Since COVID19 hit East Africa, truck drivers and traders have been lining up in the Namanga and Malaba borders for up to two weeks to get tested for coronavirus. This situation has left more questions than answers regarding cross-border policies and relations between the countries in this region.

Understanding East African border issues and policies is essential to any understanding of the global COVID19 pandemic, as East Africa provides an important gateway into Africa for many European countries. European countries import raw agricultural products such as coffee, tea, and flowers from Africa, and export manufactured goods such as cars, electronics, and home appliances to the continent. The UK has approximately 100 multinational companies based in Kenya alone, including Unilever, Standard Chartered Bank, and De La Rue. The total valuation of these investments stands at some £2 billion. When borders are being so tightly controlled, the entry of European products into Africa will be highly restricted. However, a porous border might also cause diseases and crime to spread in the region, posing health and security threats to local communities and to European citizens doing business in Africa alike.

Borders play an obviously important role during a pandemic because they provide the routes for the spread of contamination from the coronavirus, as well as for the transportation of essential goods. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni emphasised the importance of both containment and free commerce in the East African region, stating that “We need the cargo, we need the goods. But at the same time we don’t want the disease”. 

East African borders are primarily used by truckers who play a critical role in the integrated East African Economy. They move imported goods from the ports of Mombasa, Kenya and Dare es Salaam and Dodoma, Tanzania, to Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo and beyond. There are multiple webs of interactions involving truck drivers, for example, as they chew khat, shoot dice, and hire sex workers at the Namanga border between Kenya and Tanzania. Since the outbreak of the pandemic in the region, hundreds of truckers (150 as of May 22) crossing the Namanga border from Tanzania to Kenya have tested positive for the disease and were turned back at the border in a bid to prevent the spread of the disease.

Nevertheless, Tanzania’s president John Magufuli has reiterated that the disease is under control in that country; he was quoted saying, ‘corona is finished’. In a public address on June 9, President Magufuli declared the country to be ‘free of coronavirus’ It raises many questions to see how a country that had hundreds of nationals turned back at its own borders due to COVID19 infections less than two weeks before, being able to get rid of the disease within such a short period of time. The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention organisation (CDC), a non-governmental organization that provides information and services on diseases in Africa, called on Tanzania to disclose their true rate of COVID19 cases. The country has not updated its coronavirus data since late April, leaving many to wonder how the country is progressing with the disease. This has left other East African countries with no choice but to tighten their border control policies, with Kenya and Uganda being particularly strict in their approach to cross-border movement.

In May, Uganda requested Tanzanian truck drivers to make their trucks available for mandatory checks at the Kenyan border in a bid to monitor and prevent the spread of the disease. The land-locked country implemented a “relay trucking” policy in which truck drivers arriving at the border were required to stop and sanitise their vehicles before handing goods across the border to Ugandan drivers. In one way, this makes good sense, and helps to limit the spread of the disease.

On the other hand, the Kenyan government initiated a policy that requires truck drivers to be certified before even being allowed to travel out of the country, and truck drivers are required to receive testing 48 hours before any planned journey. Drivers would then be given a COVID19-free certificate from the Ministry of Health, which would be valid for 14 days. When Kenya recorded cases of infections among truck drivers in May, President Uhuru Kenyatta ordered the closure of Kenya’s borders with Tanzania and Somalia except for truckers ferrying essential goods such as food and petroleum.

Rwanda also imposed a mandatory test of truck drivers entering the country through the Rusumo border from Tanzania. Initially, the country used the approach that Uganda used – that is, by passing goods between drivers at the border; but it has since abandoned the method following bilateral discussions with the Tanzanian authorities.

In sum, the pandemic has revealed underlying issues of cross-border trade policies and relationships among East African countries. This has threatened bilateral trade and diplomatic relations in the region. The East African Community (EAC) was designed to be an integrated economic bloc that would enhance free trade and diplomatic relations among member states. However, the pandemic has revealed deep-seated issues within the bloc. Namely, the member countries – Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, South Sudan and Burundi – have struggled to introduce a common policy on controlling the spread of a pandemic, such as COVID19, while at the same time facilitating free trade. While Uganda and Rwanda held bilateral talks on cross-border trade, the health ministries of Kenya and Uganda hatched separate plans to create joint mobile clinics at the Malaba-Uganda border to speed up the testing process and to minimise the spread of the disease.

In April, the EAC introduced administrative guidelines to enhance the transportation of goods across borders in the region during the pandemic. The regulations require member countries to follow the recommended hygiene guidelines promulgated by the World Health Organization (WHO), although Burundi has not welcomed WHO’s contributions to the containment process. On Friday 12th June, Burundi expelled WHO officials, including coronavirus coordinator Dr Walter Kazadi Mulombo and COVID-19 testing expert Professor Daniel Tarz. The foreign ministry stated in a letter addressed to WHO that the expelled officials were ‘declared persona non grata’. The EAC has also compelled member countries to provide and share information regarding the spread and management of COVID19. However, the regional body requires individual member countries to provide independent control measures for the handling and movement of cargo within the region. This guideline is vague and lacks any centralised authority or policy to guide the border control process.

How an individual country chooses to handle the situation is up to the government of that country, and no agreed policy mandates them to act in any particular way. That is the reason why Rwanda and Uganda resorted to stopping foreign drivers at their borders, causing the movement of goods to slow down, which negatively affected economic activity in the region. The lack of a common policy has also allowed Tanzania to withhold information about its coronavirus cases.

Indeed, the absence of any coordinated policies has caused a souring of relations and disagreements among EAC member countries. Meanwhile, such an uncoordinated approach to cross-border and pandemic management creates an opportunity for the spread of the disease.

Clearly, East African countries must develop a centralised policy for disease and cross-border controls in times of a pandemic. Such policies should provide for the establishment of multi-agency coordination that manages the movement of people and goods throughout the region. Such integrated cross-border management should be overseen by health and transport professionals from all the member states. Joint policies should also impose a legal duty and responsibility on all member states to provide information and support to a coordinating team. This approach would enhance the free flow of cargo, increase transport efficiency, reduce the spread of disease, and enhance diplomatic and political relations across the region.