By Fumbuka Ng'wanikilala
DAR ES SALAAM (Reuters) - Tanzania has complained to the five-nation East African Community that it is being sidelined in discussions on future integration by members Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, highlighting strains in one of Africa's main economic blocs.
Tanzanian officials demanded an explanation after the three states agreed on a new railway that would link them up, but without connecting Tanzania, and on moves to create a single customs area in a series of meetings that excluded Tanzania.
Uganda, one of those blamed for creating the rift, said the three-way talks had not covered matters of integration and said there was no effort to sideline Tanzania, the group's second biggest economy after Kenya.
"We want to know why these three partner states have been holding high-level meetings to discuss regional integration issues without informing us," Tanzania's deputy east African cooperation minister, Abdulla Juma Saadalla, told Reuters.
"Tanzania has officially raised its concerns to the EAC council of ministers and we have also asked the EAC secretariat for some explanations."
Analysts say Tanzania, which is also a member of the 15-member Southern African Development Community, has dragged its feet over moves towards deeper economic integration including the free movement of workers and trade.
The East African Community began as a tripartite body in the 1990s that brought together Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, with Rwanda and Burundi joining in 2007. It has since moved faster than other African blocs towards deepening trade ties.
But relations within the group can be testy. Tanzania's recent call for nations in the Great Lakes region to talk to rebels to help end Congo's conflict riled Rwanda, which saw this as meddling and an attempt to prod it into negotiations with a group it blames for the 1994 genocide.
Tanzania also asked Uganda to mediate.
UGANDA DISMISSES CONCERNS
Kenya, home to the port of Mombasa that is vital to land-locked Rwanda and Uganda, has held several meetings with both Kampala and Kigali about speeding up the transit of goods.
The three nations have agreed on plans for a new railway that will connect the three states. At a meeting in July, Kenya said it would allow Rwanda and Uganda to collect customs on goods at arrival at the port to help speed up clearance.
"The meetings that Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda have had where Tanzania did not participate were for discussing infrastructure projects to connect the countries involved in these ventures," Okello Oryem, Uganda's junior foreign affairs minister, said.
"They have nothing to do with EAC affairs or the integration process in the sense of the traditional meetings that we're used to," he told Reuters.
Tanzania, her added, was invited to any gatherings that involved meetings about the community.
Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda, as well as aspiring member of the bloc South Sudan, said last week in Kigali they were launching a single customs territory to boost business by eliminating non-tariff barriers. Burundi and Tanzania were not present.
"Tanzania was supposed to lead the integration process, but is not seen to be doing that. This is because the country has been opposing the fast-tracking of the proposed political federation and has been against key land reform issues," said Tanzania analyst Benson Bana.
The bloc launched a common market in 2010, but missed its target of having in place a common currency in 2012. The stated goal is a political federation, though analysts say that is likely to be many years off if it happens at all.