After lengthy rounds of negotiations among partner states, the EAC Common Market Protocol was finally signed by all the five Heads of State last Friday, in what many described as a landmark agreement.
As the Heads of State appended signatures to the pact in Arusha, Tanzania, many Rwandans and especially members of the business community pondered on the implications of this landmark treaty that comes into force in July 2010.
Like the Customs Union, the protocol directly impacts on the lives of Rwandans as it seeks to enhance integration through the elimination of restrictions on movement of EAC citizens by allowing them to freely do business across the region.
Some of the annexes include; free movement of persons, free movement of workers, the right of establishment, and the right of residence.
Though a good number of Rwandans welcomed the pact, a significant portion of others had reservations over its implications to local traders.
Laurent Mwenzangu, a businessman and head of the Retailers and Wholesalers Association, said the protocol, once ratified, will lead to the enlargement of the Rwandan market as goods and services will now be freely entering the country.
“The business environment will blossom and products on our market will be much cheaper because of the competition that will be there. It will be easy for Ugandans to import clothes here, not leaving it only to Rwandans to bring them,” says another businessman who runs a shop on the Commercial Street.
Some also cast doubt on the survival of Rwanda’s emerging industrial base, saying that in addition to the customs union, the common market was likely to swallow up many upcoming firms.
“How can we compete with well established firms like those in Kenya?” questioned a trader in Quartier Mateus.
However, experts say that with free movement of capital, the Protocol is expected to further bolster trade and economic activities in Rwanda and the region.
“This protocol means that one can freely invest money anywhere in the region. With the eventual ratification of the protocol, all restrictions will be eliminated,” said Mary Baine, the Commissioner General of Rwanda Revenue Authority.
Robert Ssali, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of East African Affairs, says the protocol will enable Rwandans and other East Africans to stay for longer periods in any EA country instead of being restricted by immigration conditions.
He said that with this new integration stage, Rwandans crossing to any East African country can have their passports stamped with a visa lasting as long as six months.
According to the protocol, after the six months elapse, a trader who travelled to any of the partner states, will be eligible to apply for residence.
The use of electronic identity cards as travel documents is another milestone brought by the protocol. people will not need passports to cross to any of the EAC partner states, instead, their Identity cards will serve the purpose.
“Time will come when those long queues at the border posts will no longer be necessary. You will simply be required to present your national identity card and proceed,” Ssali says.
On the free movement of goods, Ssali says that it will not require a Rwandan businessman based in Gicumbi to travel to Kigali just to sell his tomatoes. The trader can as well cross over to say, Kabale in Uganda, which is much nearer, and make use of the market there.
This is the same for a Rwandan residing near the Rusumo border who would want to sell his rice on the Tanzanian market at the other side of the border post.
The Common Market protocol will also enable a veterinary doctor based in Nyagatare, Eastern Province to freely render his services to Uganda’s neighbouring district of Ntugamo.
Now that the integration process has moved a step forward, there will be need to enhance the entrepreneurship skills of Rwandans in order to fully benefit from the EAC market of over 120 million people.