By Charles Onyango-Obbo
OPINION – First, the bad news. We learned recently that Burundi and South Sudan have still not made good the subscriptions they owe the East African Community (EAC). The good news is that Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and Tanzania are now paid up.
South Sudan is hopelessly behind, The EastAfrican reported, owing more than $24 million. Seems Burundi’s new President Evariste Ndayishimiye is more serious than his predecessor, the late Pierre Nkurunziza. It has paid something but still owes $6.5 million. Sanctions have been recommended.
What last desperate measure can East Africa take to collect from South Sudan and Burundi? Because of Covid-19, there is a spirit of generosity and forgiveness in the air everywhere.
Perhaps South Sudan and Burundi should get some virus breaks too. Question is, what form would they take? In parts of this East Africa, hard-pressed parents have been known to give chicken, potatoes, and bananas to schools to the value of their children’s fees. Some parents might even exchange labour.
The latter is definitely out, for surely presidents Salva Kiir and Ndayishimiye cannot go to Arusha to work for their countries’ subscriptions.
It is possible though, to exchange goods. Take South Sudan. Sticking to its top two exports, data indicates that in 2019, it exported mineral fuels, including oil, worth $1.5 billion. It exported wood worth $9.7 million.
In recent years, many reports have indicated that a lot of South Sudan’s oil is stolen, as is the bulk of its precious timber. In the case of wood, therefore, that $9.7 million is a drop in the ocean.
South Sudan should give the EAC several barrels of oil, and timber, and it could pay up its arrears and pay ahead for a few years. It could also sell legal timber. All it has to do is bring the timber to its border with Kenya or Uganda and hold an auction. The strange cast of honest traders and crooks who deal in timber would take it off its hands in a blink, and pay the money to Arusha. End of story.
Burundi, on the other hand, had a very interesting mix of exports for 2019; far more diverse offering than South Sudan. The data says gems, precious metals bagged for it $66.8 million. Coffee and tea $59.9 million.
Milling products, malt, starches, $10.3 million. Mineral fuels $4.8 million. Beverages, spirits, vinegar, $4.2 million. Tobacco and manufactured substitutes, $4.1 million. Iron and steel, $3.5 million.
There is too much tea and coffee around East Africa, so we will not look there. There are great possibilities in bartering its milling products, and beverages and spirits. In one weekend, the rest of East Africa can drink Burundi out of its EAC debt.
Missing, is an item that could do the trick — cattle. Burundi has cattle. We also have three East African presidents who are cattle keepers; Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, and Tanzania’s John Magufuli.
I am not sure about South Sudanese cattle, but Burundi could distribute some cows to settle its EAC debts around their farms, and they would take care of them for the rest of us, until they go to market.
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