The trilateral agreement between Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya to fast track construction of a regional railway line and opening of borders to ease movement of goods and persons through a single customs territory and use of national IDs is the shove that the East African Community (EAC) has been waiting for.
Until this decision by the three countries of the five-member bloc to move ahead of the other two (Tanzania and Burundi), the community had suffered inertia since 2010 when the common market was launched.
The launch of the common market came with a lot of promises and hope that things would never be the same again in as far as the way East Africans traded amongst themselves.
There was a feeling that those crossing borders in search of business, trade and investment opportunities within the community would find it easy and faster.
There was hope that at last, the colonial boundaries that for long separated communities and in some cases clans and families had finally been dismantled and the people were going to go about their business unhindered.
Unfortunately, this remained on paper because the real infrastructure needed to actualise the common market and the customs union is yet to come.
That means that the status quo remained and a Rwandan in Gatuna, who wants to cross the border to the nearby Kabale town in Uganda for education or medical treatment, must find a passport first.
Until Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya moved it a step a head, the closest that the region has ever gone to operationalise this very important aspect of integrating the people, was in 2009 when Annex I, Regulations for the East African Common Market, was added to the protocol on the free movement of persons.
Since then, everybody went silent—rendering talk about regional integration more of a casual talk over a cup of tea or coffee during workshops and conferences. With the use of national IDs, border communities will start to feel the real benefit of regional integration.
While it may have been better for the five-member countries to move together, there are some aspects of regional integration that matter most to some countries and have a bigger impact on the lives of their people than the others.
Take for example the issue of a single customs territory for Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya. The three countries are linked by an umbilical cord called the Northern Corridor Route that runs from the Port of Mombasa to Rwanda through Uganda.
The Northern Corridor Route is of no consequence to Tanzania because the country has its own Port of Dar-es-Salaam and would therefore feel no need for a single customs territory with Kenya, as Rwanda and Uganda would.
One would ask, what about Burundi? With the Port of Dar in equally competitive state, Burundi’s import and export trade would best be served by the Tanzanian facility.
If I am an importer in Burundi, I would require a lot of convincing to ship my goods through Mombasa because of the distance. Mombasa to Bujumbura is more than twice the distance from Dar.
There is therefore no problem with trilateral arrangements within the contest of regional cooperation. In fact even bilateral arrangements (between two member-states) that have a lot more at stake should be encouraged because they make integration faster and more meaningful.
Take the clear-cut case of the single tourist visa for East Africa that has been a subject for many workshops and conferences.
While all agree that it is in the best interest of each member country to market our bloc as a single tourism package, no tangible decision has been taken for almost 10 years.
Why should Uganda and Rwanda not have a bilateral arrangement for a single visa for tourists? Uganda and Rwanda are the only EAC members with the rare mountain gorillas—the single biggest tourist attraction in the region today.
With better transport infrastructure, the two countries can indeed market gorilla tracking as a single product and in the process attract more tourists.
There is no need to wait for Tanzania, Kenya or Burundi on this matter.
The writer is a journalist based in Kigali