Is East African integration slowing down?

The question of the spirit and pace of East African integration was prominent at the just ended sitting of the East African Legislative Assembly in Kigali. The members were clearly exasperated by what they considered starvation of funds to the Community by partner states which had severely crippled its activities.

This prompted members to ask: “Are we really serious about integration?”

In March 2014, Charles Njonjo, the once powerful Attorney General of Kenya, warned that the East African Community was likely to face the same fate as its earlier version that collapsed in 1977.

At the time many people disagreed with the analysis that had led him to the gloomy conclusion.

Three years later, that warning and the legislators’ concerns lead to other questions. Is enthusiasm for integration waning? Or is Trumpesque country-first positioning hindering it?

East Africans have long recognised that they are fated to live closely together. It is both aspiration and a fact of history. And so they always dream about how to make the bond work stronger and build big promises of what it should be like.

But they also have a knack for knocking down what they are trying to build. Some clever people might start talking about an East African curse.

In the early 1960s, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania formed the East African Community (EAC). The EAC was hailed as a shining example of regional integration. For a decade, East Africans lived through what may be called the glory years of integration.

Then as the EAC was gearing to deliver greater things for East African citizens, the curse struck. Ideological quarrels with a little help from outside, mistrust and greed, and leaders who could not bear the sight of each other oversaw the breakup of a once promising project.

Partner states fell to carving up the carcase and took chunks of it home. Some, with bigger muscle and more cunning, took the biggest and choicest pieces.

But the dream did not die. It was rekindled in the 1990s. The East African Community was reborn and soon expanded beyond the original trio to six. Once again it was hailed as the perfect example of regional integration.

But even in its reincarnation, the community was dogged by problems, most of them having something to do with the pace of integration. Some members became impatient and wanted to move faster. Three of them formed a sort of association to speed up things.

The imaginative media soon had names for them. They were called the coalition of the willing, or the sprinters as opposed to the laggards. As always happens with government bureaucrats, they coined a more boring and long name for the trio that wanted to gallop along – the Northern Corridor Integration Projects Initiative.

For a few years they kept to the new pace. Meetings were regular and more focussed. Projects that each state was to spearhead were identified. Targets and timelines were set. It was not going to be business as usual.

Achievements were recorded in such areas as tourism, customs, communication and movement across borders. Other projects, especially the big infrastructure ones, have stalled.

For close to a year now, little has been heard of the so-called coalition of the willing and the projects they had agreed to work on. There are a number of reasons for this..

Some members have more pressing matters of local politics to worry about regional matters. Others are either busy killing their citizens or having second thoughts about originally agreed plans.

Some outside the coalition have woken up to the fact that they should not miss out on the benefits of some projects and are trying very hard to get in on the act.

Beyond the coalition of the willing, the wider EAC project seems to have gone cold.

Talk about political federation or common currency has gone silent.

The Secretary General seems to be a hostage of the country that nominated him and treats him like a messenger.

One member of the authority is too afraid to leave his hiding place and will not meet his colleagues. They cannot go to him even if they wanted because he is in total concealment, probably as divined by some oracle.

The EAC does not speak with the same voice on a number of issues.

One might even read mischief from some quarters to scuttle the whole integration project.

So the East African Assembly legislators might have reason to be concerned and Njonjo’s warning should not be dismissed as the incoherent mutterings of an old man. The integration project is too close to the hearts of East Africans to permit it to be thrown off track by individuals or a curse.