„On the road people call us Corona”

How the drama about the testing of truck drivers at the borders is revealing the challenges for governments and the fault lines between countries in East Africa

Stau an der Grenze Kenias

Image: of Twitter Trucks queuing at Kenya-Uganda border in Malaba. Image sourced from Twitter.

Stau an der Grenze Kenias

Image: of Twitter

They have been vectors of a virus before. At the outbreak of the aids epidemic during the early 1980ies truck drivers were the first who carried the HIV-virus across Africa’s borders. Now with the Coronavirus long distance drivers transporting everything from fuel to vegetables are also carrying SARS-COV-2 from the Eastern ports of Mombasa and Dar es Salaam into the interior of the continent. At one stage in mid-May nearly half of those tested positive by the Ugandan health authorities were truck drivers.

Introduced at the border posts rather belatedly, the testing procedures have caused general mayhem, strikes and diplomatic incidents. At Malaba the Kenya Long Distance Truck Drivers’ Union accused Ugandan authorities of harassment and complained about ill-treatment along the route. “On the road people call us Corona”, a Kenyan driver tells the reporter of the Ugandan Daily Monitor, admitting that he and his colleagues are scared of the local population. At Namanga local government officials from Tanzania and Kenya accused the other side of manipulating test results. In both cases it took ministerial intervention to calm down the nationalistic overtones of the driver’s protests and the officials’ responses.

Tracking the truckers in East Africa is revealing the national challenges of responding to COVID-19 and the fault lines inside the East African Community (EAC). At first, governments imposed lockdowns without thinking through the consequences and their lack of (man)power to implement controls. Those who have visited an East African border post know that they are fascinating microcosms of their respective countries, places where the rule of law meets more free-wheeling and innovative means of solving conflicts. Border posts and border regions have their own political economy where most things are for sale, from goods to permissions to pass.

Thus, the necessity to keep cargo trucks going for the landlocked economies to survive, as stressed by Uganda’s President Museveni in every address to his nation, posed a dilemma for his government. To avoid long delays of imported goods the government initially tested the drivers but let them roam on for days before the results were in; only to find out that drivers with the virus would not follow the rules to only stop at designated areas; or even disappeared into the community after having delivered their truck to its destination. But when Kampala changed this failing approach to keep truck drivers wait for their results, it created a huge, up to 50 km-long traffic jam with drivers having to cook their meals in their cabins for days.

All this, because of the failure of the East African Community (EAC) to develop and adopt a common policy to contain the spread of COVID-19 at the onset of the pandemic in Africa. Newly founded in 2000 – after its initial collapse in 1977 – the EAC is an intergovernmental organisation of six East African countries. It is an ambitious project, currently a common market for goods, labour, and capital within the region, with the goal of creating a common currency and eventually a full political federation. At the same time it is a club of six more or less dominant male presidents who seem to prefer cultivating their personal and political squabbles over practicing mutual cooperation. The challenge of COVID-19 has just brought out the best and worst of them. Whereas President Kenyatta of Kenya and President Museveni of Uganda have now agreed to a practical solution at their common border, Tanzania’s President plays havoc with the virus at home and thus undermines the efforts of his country’s neighbours. Burundi’s new ruler, Evariste Ndayishimiye has just profited from an election campaign where social distancing was an anathema. And South Sudan’s government seems to have collapsed under COVID-19 with more Vice-Presidents and Ministers testing positive than the young country has ICU-units. There seems to be hardly anybody left in Juba to deal with the issues of truck drivers, or of South Sudanese IDPs and refugees in Uganda crossing the border habitually to sustain their livelihoods.

The absence of a coordinated response to COVID-19 in the region has rekindled the long-standing debate about the usefulness and practicability of the East African Community as such. Opponents like the Ugandan commentator Andrew Mwenda, write about “COVID’s nail in the EAC” arguing that “in our poor countries, social groups with strong vested interest in such regional schemes are too weak (politically) to tilt public policy in favour of regional economic integration”. Others point out that the very failure of national and regional responses to the pandemic strengthens the argument for a further integrated East African Community.

On May 30th, the six EAC partner states have adopted the EAC Regional Electronic Cargo and Drivers Tracking System which will allow the users to share information across borders in a transparent manner, after truck drivers will have uploaded the phone app on their phones. Whether this regional policy proposal will be the first lesson East African countries have drawn from their so far tepid response to the pandemic, or if it will go down as just as another empty promise in the history of the EAC, remains to be seen.

Rolf Paasch is country director of FES-Uganda and co-coordinator of this blog.

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