When Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete ordered the eviction of men, women and children perceived to be non-original Tanzanians, he not only shattered innocent lives, but he also put a dent on the EAC integration process.
Tanzanians of Rwandan and Burundian origin were given two weeks to leave the country or else be evicted forcefully, and boy they were!
Despite being naturalized citizens, their pleas fell on deaf ears and their officially-issued identification documents were torn into pieces. Tanzanian security officials alongside some of their neighbours went on to kick them out like wild pigs.
Illegal immigrants, criminals and armed thugs are some of the tags placed on these innocent people’s heads, to justify their being kicked out. Needless to say, some of them are as old as 80 years, and had lived in the same areas for as long as six decades.
Families were broken up, property stolen and lives shattered in a matter of days.
The process also left scores injured with some still nursing bullet wounds.
Reports that security operatives and local authorities destroyed documents that proved that some of the immigrants were in Tanzania legally or naturalised citizens should be investigated.
And for those who property was stolen or lost in the process should be compensated. The least the Tanzanian authorities can do is ensure the stolen property is returned to their rightful owners and those evicted illegally should be united with their families – A family broken up is always one too many.
Beyond the unfortunate evictions, it is appalling that the EAC secretariat and its Legislative assembly were – for long – silent on the matter.
Is the eviction one of those issues that are too sensitive that the legislators opt to bury their heads in the sand?
Structures within the EAC framework have to openly condemn any actions that would risk derailing the integration process and these evictions are one such issue.
While most policymakers and leaders easily grasp the idea and benefits of integration, the ordinary citizen speak and understand the language of bread and butter. How the integration process feeds into their livelihoods will determine if they go with the flow or not.
And, it goes without doubt that any resistance from the ordinary citizens places a huge barrier to a successful EAC integration.
By splitting families and causing property loss to the mwaninchi, the EAC has just been dealt a massive blow.
The evictions by Tanzania would have been handled differently if there was no other option to kicking them out.
Diplomatically, all the affected countries should have been consulted prior to making the decision and ample time given to allow them make the necessary arrangements.
This would have enabled a soft landing for those affected and the love lost would have been minimized in the event that the evictions were non-negotiable.
The 6,000 plus East African citizens who are in Kirehe district in eastern Rwanda, will find it hard to understand why they had to be evicted from territory to which they had, for decades, called home.
There is little doubt the way they were kicked out of the Kagera region in North Western Tanzania will leave an indelible mark on their lives as well as their families for ever.
However, I still believe all is not lost. Projects like the railway line that will connect Kenya and Rwanda through Uganda or the Rusumo power project that will power and light Rwanda, Tanzania and Burundi offer a glimmer of hope.
Unless East African citizens are able to define themselves as one, the integration process will remain a challenge. The East African label will only stick if the citizens fell loved wherever they may be in East Africa.
As we preach the gospel according to the East African Community, let us not forget one key commandment – Love thy neighbour.