On the Promises of the East African Federation

Wangari wa Ngai
 International development specialist, Lead of the Young World Federalists and the Sustainable
Growth and Green Transition workteam of the World Federalist Movement’s Transnational Working Group on Africa-Europe affairs.
Undergraduate student at Strathmore University in BA International Studies

Why we need federalism to tackle global challenges

A federation is a structure of governance that distributes power among two interdependent levels of government. The first level is the federal government, and the second level is the state. The federal government has centralized control of key sectors of a nation, such as taxation, external defence, foreign policy, fiscal and monetary policy, and other aspects of governance stipulated in the national constitution. The state governments, on the other hand, deal with the provision of social services, such as health, education and public infrastructure, and other responsibilities allocated to them by the national constitution.

Federalism is the advocacy of forms of governance that decentralize power among two or more levels of government. Federalism may include other forms of decentralized structures, such as devolution and confederations or leagues. Devolution is the form of governance where central authority is distributed to local levels, but the central government remains the locus of governance. Confederation is a system in which the central government is weak enough to be subservient to the interests of its constituent states. A league is a loose association of states with a common goal. A federal government is unique because it subsumes the constituent states that form it, while allowing the member states to retain their autonomy and identity.

Some key global issues that are contemporary include global pandemics, climate change, transnational terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and economic crises.

Contextualizing an ideal federation

A federation ought to have three branches at the federal level – an executive, a legislature and a judiciary. These levels should be independent, so that they can check each other and create accountability. Under the federal level are the constituent states, or counties or cantons. The states also have their own constitutions, legislatures, executives and judiciary. The federal government should make and enforce laws on all citizens. The states also make and enforce legislation that is applicable within their state, and that does not contradict federal law.

The federation applies the principles of solidarity at the federal level, and the principle of subsidiarity at the state level. The federal government works for the common good, unites all the citizens, and takes up responsibilities that are best handled at that level, such as foreign policy, external defence, and creating a level playing field for its constituent parts in terms of trade and development. The state level protects ethnic and other minorities, ensures efficient delivery of basic services such as health and education at the local level, and addresses the particular needs of their local communities.

The aspirations of East African nations for political unity

The East African countries of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda were administered by one power (Great Britain), albeit with different statuses. Kenya was a colony, Tanganyika (before it joined with Zanzibar to form Tanzania) was a territory, and Uganda was a protectorate. When these countries gained independence, they shied away from creating a political federation, due to ideological and development differences. They instead opted for a confederation between 1967 and 1977, that was called the East African Community.

The East African Community was revived in 1999 after it had collapsed in 1977, with a goal of ultimately achieving a political federation.

The goal of political unification is aided by the geographical continuity of their territory, the presence of a common language (Swahili) that is widely spoken in the region, shared colonial experiences, common challenges such as terrorism, climate change and poverty, and somewhat similar development statuses.

The aspirations to political unity in the East African Community will be further aided by an increase in intra-regional trade with the adoption of the Protocol of the EAC Customs Union (2005) and the EAC Protocol on the Common Market (2010), which guarantee free movement of persons, labour, capital, services, and commodity, and remove tariffs, import quotas and non-tariff barriers to trade. Additionally, the EAC has plans to roll out a common East African Shilling, which will further facilitate cross-border capital transfers and trade.

The role of the proposed East African Federation in tackling common challenges

A politically unified East African Community will be better placed to tackle the common challenges that we face in the region, which include, insecurity, climate change, water management, pandemics and poverty.

A federation of East African countries will have a more effective East African Standby Force (EASF) to intervene in hotspots of insecurity, such as the Eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In comparison to the current situation where the contribution of troops is the prerogative of member states, a federation will have its own resources and powers to conscript troops. This will make the federation an ideal institution for rapid deployment of security forces where they are needed. The federal government will also be best placed to solve inter-state disputes when they arise, and to intervene in any member state when human rights abuses are being committed, to protect innocent and vulnerable citizens from arbitrary use of state power.

A federation will also have the resources to implement climate change adaptation and mitigation measures. The federation will have the resources to provide grants, cheap loans and incentives such as subsidies to their constituent states which do not have enough resources. The federation will also distribute resources in a fair manner to ensure equity in development among the constituent states, and lift the bottom 40 percent out of extreme poverty, hence cushioning them from the most drastic effects of climate impacts.

A federation will be able to take appropriate action against a member state that is lenient on companies and entities that destroy the ecosystems. The federal government will have the coercive power to establish and execute policies that will protect water catchment areas. In particular, it will be able to make sure that members states comply with the principles of the Protocol for the Sustainable Development of Lake Victoria Basin. Besides, the federation can complement this protocol with additional environmental laws that are binding to all member states, giving the federal government a veto on how states utilize water resources within their territory. A harmonized policy that allows equitable and reasonable utilization of water resources will give all the riparian states equitable allocation of the waters of the Nile. The federal government will provide for rights and obligations on all peripheral states and there will be a clear referee (the Federal government) to look and enforce that law.

Apart from the above benefits, a federal government will be able to set high standards for the sports sector, and facilitate deeper commercialization of sports. This is in line with the joint-bid by Kenya with Uganda and Tanzania to host the 2027 AFCON football tournament. A federal government of East Africa will have more resources and diplomatic strength to bid to host regional and global tournaments such as AFCON and the World Cup.


A federal government is a governance system that combines the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. If implemented in the East African Community, a federation will enable the region to harness its development potential and become an African powerhouse. Most importantly, the federation will have the powers, prerogatives, potential and resources to effectively manage common challenges such as security, climate change and underdevelopment, and spur progress in social and cultural sectors, such as social justice, sports and diplomacy.

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