PUBLISHED ON September 29th, 2014

Ugandan president Museveni sees deeper integration in East Africa

Africa is increasingly in control of its own destiny and no longer needs to rely on other countries to promote its economic development, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni told WSJ Frontiers.

The veteran leader, who has been in office for 28 years, also laid out his vision for his country as a key part of an increasingly vibrant—and confident—East African trade bloc.

Mr. Museveni, who was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly meetings, left no doubt that he already sees the East African Community, which includes Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda, as a coherent bloc and that the future will see only deeper integration.

“It is already an economic union, we have a customs union, we are going into the monetary union and eventually we will become a political federation,” Mr. Museveni said.

Mr. Museveni’s comments come in the wake of a flurry of announcements about deepening regional cooperation, including plans to upgrade the region’s electrical grid and a project to enhance rail transport between Uganda and its neighbors.

As well as reducing the barriers to cross-border trade, enhancing the role of the East African Community gives the region’s countries greater leverage in negotiations with other countries, Mr. Museveni says.

“Uganda’s population is 37 million. The East African region has a combined population of 150 million—and it’s growing. When we pool our population we create a bigger market, which helps us sell our products but it also helps us negotiate with other markets, such as the European Union and the United States.”

African nations’ increased negotiating power was on display at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit hosted by President Barack Obama in Washington in August. During that event, a parade of American companies announced new or increased commitments to investing in Africa, while political leaders such as Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden attempted to highlight the opportunities that U.S. businesses could seize as they helped African nations develop their economies.

Mr. Museveni, though, believes the most significant outcome of the summit was not the potential American investment in Africa. “The most important contribution to our development was President Obama’s recommitting himself to AGOA [the African Growth and Opportunity Act],” he said.

“Africa will be developed by us, not by anybody else. All we need is market access. That’s what I said to President Obama. Opening your market to our products, that’s the biggest service you could offer to Africa.”

East Africa’s economic development prospects have been boosted considerably recently by discoveries of substantial hydrocarbon resources. Giant gas fields have been found off the coasts of Mozambique and Tanzania and considerable quantities of oil have been found in countries including Uganda and Kenya.

While the potential revenues from some of the new discoveries will swell the region’s coffers, Mr. Museveni played down the significance of future oil revenues for Uganda. “We are going to develop Uganda without oil, but now that we have got oil, it is a good godsend that will quicken the process of development and transformation,” he explained. “But it is nothing more than a tool.”

The Ugandan president is focused more on renewable resources, including agriculture, and is actively working to encourage investment in agro-processing. Part of that effort includes revamping the country’s program for assisting foreign investors.

Mr. Museveni admitted that the initial attempt to provide investors with a single point of contact to handle permits, tax issues and other key processes had been unsuccessful. “We created a one-stop center in the Ugandan investment authority. It was not well implemented [but] we are now going to make it mandatory that it will be respected,” he promised.

Some potential investors to East Africa have been deterred more by the regional security situation than the investment environment, though. Mr. Museveni acknowledged that unrest in the region, including in South Sudan, was causing economic damage. “There are definitely lost opportunities,” he admitted. However, he said that he and his counterparts in neighboring countries had been discussing the civil war in South Sudan, while they were in New York for the UN meetings.

“I think we shall find a solution,” he said.

Source URL: Frontiers

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