Integration enthusiasts must be pleased with what they are seeing in East Africa. In less than one year much headway has been made in achieving greater integration than would have previously been expected. The commitment is evident and progress so visible that even the sceptics are left with very little to say.
This may sound overly optimistic, but two recent events confirm that what is happening is indeed fact, not fantasy.
The first was the release of the Common Market Scorecard in Arusha last week. The scorecard proved what is now well-known – that Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda have made significant progress on the free movement of people, goods and services across the respective countries.
Last June the three countries agreed to coordinate and fast-track common projects, especially along the Northern Corridor.
The scorecard also reported something that is common knowledge – that Tanzania and Burundi lag behind in implementing the free movement requirement of the Common Market Protocol. Both countries still have many restrictions.
This confirmation that the two countries are behind in implementing closer integration will probably not please their leaders. They reacted angrily when they were called laggards and the other three sprinters. The slow speed was a result of caution, not laziness or lack of will, or other negative intent, they said.
The second event was the now regular summit of the presidents of Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda that was held in Kampala at the end of last week. The frequent summits are called to review progress on agreed projects.
The meeting of the three heads of state has a new name (hopefully permanent) – the Northern Corridor Integration Projects Summit. It has undergone several name changes in its short life. First it was the Tripartite Infrastructure Summit. Then the media christened it the Coalition of the Willing, which name has stuck, at least in popular usage. And now the new name that is meant to faithfully reflect the real drive of the coalition and deflect criticism that it is separatist.
The Kampala summit provided proof for the findings of the scorecard. Since the beginning of January this year, citizens of the three countries need only their national identity cards to travel to the other countries. In addition, tourists can visit all three on a single visa.
Rwanda and Kenya abolished work permit requirements for East African Community citizens a few years ago. Uganda has finally joined them and has eased the same requirements for the two neighbours.
A security and defence pact was signed – a reflection of the concerns for dangers that global phenomena like terrorism pose to security in the region.
Other projects such as the oil pipeline, railway and power generation are all on course.
The Kampala summit produced another significant movement. Burundi indicated that it was now keen to be part of the Northern Corridor Coalition. Initially Burundi had shown no interest, even sneered at the coalition’s efforts. It seems that chafing at apparently being left out of the initial plans has given way to enlightened self-interest.
Tanzania, too, while still a little grumpy, also sees the logic of closer coordination and faster movement on the integration agenda. They now say they want to do for the Central Corridor what the others have done for the north.
All of which is good for the East African Community.
It has not always been like this – with political leaders pushing for faster integration. Indeed, for many years the complaint was that while ordinary East Africans wanted faster integration, and even practiced it, their efforts were thwarted by the political leaders and state bureaucrats. Roadblocks were placed in the way of ordinary people’s natural and progressive tendencies.
For proof, people pointed to the thriving cross border trade that was officially condemned. The trade was criminalised as magendo or illicit trade and consequently was never reflected in official national figures. Yet despite official harassment, the trade continued to thrive and finally forced governments to recognise it.
In this sense the people were ahead of their governments. The latter have now caught up and look like overtaking the people, the business community included. So, what has changed?
Keen observers of the East African scene put this new-found urgency and commitment to a different sort of leadership – one that has a broader vision, that is not prisoner to narrow and sometimes petty nationalist concerns. They recognise the power of the marketplace and reality of globalisation. They are confident (or modest) enough not to fear being lost in a bigger unit or losing influence as a result.
Actually, there is a different concern. There is the danger that, having caught up, political leaders might move too fast for the rest to keep pace. Yet it is the business community who must drive the integration projects and make them profitable.
A balance must be found where the pace is harmonised and all pull along together.
That is the problem today, but it is a good problem for East Africans because it must be solved.