Drivers standoff turns EAC states relations on its head

Truck drivers wait to go through the Uganda’s immigration office in Malaba border with Kenya on April 29, 2020. PHOTO | BRIAN ONGORO | AFP

A stalemate between truck drivers and border control officials at different EAC crossing points has paralysed movement of goods within the region, raising the possibility of severe shortages of supplies in the coming weeks.

The standoff, which has been caused by East African Community member countries’ failure to agree on how to stop regional spread of the Covid-19, has created massive traffic jams at border control gates of member countries as truck drivers boycotted work to protest against perceived mistreatment.

Hinterland countries, mainly Uganda and Rwanda, have accused Tanzanian and Kenyan drivers of spreading the deadly virus to their countries, watering down their efforts to control the pandemic through strict restrictions of movement and public gatherings of their own nationals.

Kampala and Kigali have been calling for fumigation of trucks and a changeover of crew (relay driving) at the borders or offloading of cargo at crossing points, but Tanzania and Kenyan drivers have opposed the proposals.

Tanzania Truck Owners Association and Kenya Transporters Association (KTA) have suspended transport of goods to Kigali, citing strict measures put by the Rwanda Revenue Authority as well as fears over security and safety of drivers and their cargo.

Punitive measures

“We suspended ferrying Rwandan cargo until the Rwanda government eases measures which are against the EAC protocol for free movement of goods especially during this Covid-19 pandemic. We cannot risk loss of cargo and truck by involving multiple drivers in a single haulage,” said Mercy Ireri, the KTA chief operating officer.

She added that the relay driving advocated by Rwanda is impractical since it would require recruitment and training of new drivers and would drastically increase the cost of transportation at a time cargo volumes were low and transit times longer.

In Uganda, Kenyan truck drivers have been directed to the Nelson Mandela Stadium, Namboole, and are not allowed to access the country beyond that point.

Kenya has so far reported the highest number of Covid-19 infections in the region with 621 cases followed by Tanzania (509), Rwanda (273), Uganda (114), Burundi (19) and South Sudan (120).

Different scripts

Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya have imposed strict restrictions on movement of people and public gatherings, while Tanzania and Burundi have a more relaxed stance against the virus which has infected more than 3.8 million people globally and killed over 270,000 since December.

Truck owners complain that they have incurred additional fuel expenses, and increased truck and cargo security expenses which has increased their overheads.

EAC trade officials, however, appear to be reading from different scripts.

“Ministers and permanent secretaries of Trade, Health and EAC have met and issued a protocol on how the truck drivers should operate during the Covid-19 measures,” Kenya’s Principal Secretary in charge of Trade, Johnson Weru said.

“Parameters have been set, places where the testing should take place and modalities of how it should be carried out has been agreed upon. It is only implementation that is varying from one country to another.”

Last week, both the EAC Customs and Trade Commissioner General Kenneth Bagamuhunda and his Health counterpart Dr Michael Katende visited the Kenya-Uganda border seeking solutions to the thorny issue of truck drivers.

They were, however, unable to resolve the stalemate.

“On April 30, 2020, I made an assessment mission to Malaba where I discussed with heads of border agencies from both sides the operational interventions to address the challenges. There are joint efforts by Kenya and Uganda to remove congestion at the borders,” said Bagamuhunda in an interview.

On May 1, the Customs and Trade boss visited Busia one-stop-border point and met Heads of Customs and Port Health of Kenya and Uganda.

Assuaging fears

Even as the EAC issued administrative directives for uniform implementation of measures to allow free movement of cargo as envisaged under the EAC Common Market Protocol, implementation bottlenecks persist.

Rwanda is only allowing in trucks that have changed crew at its Rusumo and Kagitumba Customs border posts.

Kenya on Wednesday announced that cargo drivers must be tested at least 48 hours before travel and issued with a Covid-19 free certificate before loading cargo in Mombasa.