Kenya-Uganda Trade Impasse: Analyzing the Impact Of Non-Tariff Barriers On Regional Petroleum Trade

By Steve Biko Wafula / Published January 15, 2024 | 10:47 pm



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The recent trade dispute between Kenya and Uganda highlights the complexities and challenges of regional trade in East Africa. As of 2021, Uganda stands as a significant destination for Kenyan exports, underpinning the importance of their bilateral trade relationship. However, Uganda’s reliance on Kenya for sea access to import goods, particularly petroleum products, has recently been strained, leading to a legal dispute at the East African Court of Justice.

At the core of this contention is Kenya’s refusal to issue a license to the Uganda National Oil Company (UNOC), restricting its capacity to operate at the Mombasa Port for fuel imports destined for Uganda. This decision has far-reaching implications, not only for Uganda’s petroleum supply chain but also for regional trade dynamics.

Typically, non-tariff barriers (NTBs) are resolved through diplomatic channels or regional mechanisms like the EAC Sectoral Committee on Trade. However, the failure of these avenues in resolving the licensing issue indicates a deeper rift in Kenya-Uganda trade relations. The matter’s escalation to legal proceedings underscores the urgency and significance of the issue for Uganda.

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The controversy arises in the wake of Kenya’s Government-to-Government (G2G) agreement, formulated to stabilize the Kenyan shilling and reduce reliance on foreign currency. Under this arrangement, the Kenyan government engaged oil import suppliers in a credit-based plan, overlooking the potential repercussions on Uganda’s fuel importation.

Uganda’s response to circumvent these constraints by purchasing fuel directly from Vitol Bahrain was a strategic move to bypass the increased costs associated with Kenya’s OTS method. However, this shift posed a direct challenge to the Kenya Revenue Authority’s tax revenue from local firms acting as intermediaries in the trade.

President Museveni’s assertion that the G2G agreement inflated Kampala’s fuel prices by 59% reflects the economic strain placed on Uganda due to these trade barriers. Concurrently, Uganda’s engagement with Tanzania to utilize the Port of Dar es Salaam for fuel imports signals a potential reorientation of its import strategy, which could negatively impact the Kenya Ports Authority, a crucial gateway for landlocked countries like Uganda.

This trade standoff raises critical questions about the effectiveness of regional trade agreements and the importance of considering the broader implications of unilateral trade decisions. The imposition of additional requirements by Kenya on transit goods not destined for its market contradicts earlier agreements and highlights the need for more transparent and cooperative regional trade policies.

The current impasse between Kenya and Uganda is not just a bilateral issue but a reflection of the challenges facing intra-African trade. As African nations strive to increase regional integration and economic cooperation, this situation underscores the necessity of harmonizing policies and addressing non-tariff barriers effectively. The outcome of this dispute will likely have significant implications for regional trade in East Africa, offering valuable lessons for other African countries navigating similar challenges.

The Kenya-Uganda trade standoff serves as a microcosm of the broader challenges inherent in regional trade within Africa, particularly in the context of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). This ambitious trade agreement aims to create a single market for goods and services across the continent, yet the Kenya-Uganda situation highlights how national interests and policy decisions can undermine regional integration efforts.

Kenya’s refusal to grant a license to UNOC, ostensibly due to its own economic considerations, underlines the delicate balance between national sovereignty and regional cooperation. While Kenya’s G2G agreement aims to stabilize its economy, it inadvertently places a significant burden on Uganda, a key trading partner. This decision not only strains bilateral relations but also sets a precedent that could discourage other African nations from fully committing to the ideals of the AfCFTA.

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Uganda’s pivot towards Tanzania for its petroleum needs is a pragmatic response but also a stark reminder of the fragility of regional trade alliances. This move could potentially lead to a reconfiguration of trade routes in East Africa, impacting not only Kenya and Uganda but also other landlocked nations that rely on these ports. The economic implications are far-reaching, as shifts in trade patterns can affect everything from transportation logistics to local businesses along these routes.

Moreover, this standoff raises important questions about the role of regional bodies in resolving trade disputes. The East African Court of Justice’s involvement signifies the importance of legal frameworks and independent adjudication in managing regional trade disagreements. However, the efficacy of such bodies is often limited by the political will of member states to adhere to their decisions. The effectiveness of regional institutions in enforcing agreements and resolving conflicts is crucial for the success of larger trade initiatives like the AfCFTA.

In conclusion, the Kenya-Uganda trade standoff is a complex issue with multiple layers of economic, political, and legal implications. It underscores the need for African nations to balance national interests with the broader goals of regional economic integration. As Africa moves towards a more integrated market, the resolution of such disputes will be critical in building trust and cooperation among member states. The outcome of this particular case will not only impact Kenya and Uganda but also set a precedent for how similar challenges are managed in the future, shaping the path of regional trade in Africa.

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About Steve Biko Wafula

Steve Biko is the CEO OF Soko Directory and the founder of Hidalgo Group of Companies. Steve is currently developing his career in law, finance, entrepreneurship and digital consultancy; and has been implementing consultancy assignments for client organizations comprising of trainings besides capacity building in entrepreneurial matters.He can be reached on: +254 20 510 1124 or Email: info@sokodirectory.com

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