The EAC is alive and well, no need for a vote

Mr Charles Njonjo, Attorney General of Kenya in the Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi administrations, is very much alive and still lives in the 1970s.
Joseph Rwagatare
Joseph Rwagatare

Mr Charles Njonjo, Attorney General of Kenya in the Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi administrations, is very much alive and still lives in the 1970s.

He reminded us of this fact in a recent newspaper article (see The East African, March 9-15 2014).

In the article he argued that the current East African Community was likely to face the same fate as the first attempt at integration that collapsed in 1977 unless the people of the region were fully involved in what is happening.

That involvement should be by way of a referendum.

He went on to classify the EAC partner states according to their political and economic systems and prophesied that these made the demise of the Community certain.

According to his classification, Kenya is a democracy; Uganda is getting regressive in respect to human rights; Rwanda is a police state; and Tanzania is apprehensive of the intentions of its rapacious neighbours.

All of which were ingredients for the dissolution of the Community.

About Burundi, he had no opinion.

When talking about the collapse of the earlier East African Community, Njonjo must be taken seriously. He knows what he is talking about because he was a key actor and must have had a hand in wrecking that first experiment at integration.

In his day Charles Njonjo was a powerful man. He raised individuals to top positions and brought others down.

He built careers of some people and wrecked those of many more until he had his own destroyed by Moi, the man he had helped become president.

Today, however, Mr Njonjo’s advice, based on first-hand experience does not fit the circumstances. He still looks at East Africa through 1970s lenses and from a cold war perspective in which the world was neatly divided between capitalist and socialist systems.

In this division, Kenya was the capitalist of the region, Tanzania the socialist and Uganda tending to socialism under Milton Obote and having an undefined system under Idi Amin.

Kenya saw itself as a rich partner that was being dragged back by the other two. They, in turn, complained that Kenya was benefitting disproportionately from the Community.

In the end, the Community broke up.

Today, those divisions do not exist in such sharp focus. All the countries operate market economies. Tanzania is as capitalist as they come.

East Africa’s list of millionaires has a growing number of Tanzanian on it. Discoveries of huge deposits of oil and gas, and other minerals has made Tanzania attractive to foreign suitors, some of whom have given Kenya the cold shoulder in recent times.

Uganda is no longer the political and economic shambles it was in the 1970s. It is now a key diplomatic player and power broker in the region.

Rwanda occupies a similar diplomatic and strategic position in east and central Africa. Calling it a police state is not only inaccurate, it is also a relic from cold war vocabulary and evidence of uncritical consumption of reports from some media.

The many Kenyans who frequently flock to Rwanda and the businesses that open regularly would beg to differ from Njonjo’s 1970s categorisation.

Which police state would open itself to an influx of professionals and other nationals of other countries like Kenya by abolishing work permit requirements for immigrants?

Which such state would ease entry visa requirements to nationals of other African countries by issuing them at all its entry points?

In any event, homogeneity is not a sine qua non for integration. Actually, integration presupposes diversity.

Mr Njonjo makes a valid point that the EAC cannot survive if it remains a club of political leaders. That is how it was when it collapsed in 1977.

Its present reincarnation is, again, different. True, political leaders have played a big part.

But they are, in large measure, responding to people’s needs and are only formalising what already exists in fact.

People of East Africa have always been integrated. The arbitrary colonial demarcation of boundaries that sometimes placed a single community across three or four countries meant that the region was integrated, albeit unwittingly.

To this historical accident was added choice or necessity. It is amazing to see how many Kenyans and Tanzanians go to Uganda in search of education; how many Kenyan professionals and business people are in Rwanda and Uganda, and how many people from the other countries do business in Kenya.

Among peasants and pastoralists, borders simply do not exist. They cross from one country to the other as they wish and as circumstances dictate.

The suggestion that a referendum is needed to legitimise the East African Community is really redundant as it comes nearly four decades too late.

Ordinary citizens, professionals and business people have already voted for it by their actions. If such a vote is needed, it is perhaps among the political leaders.

But even these have voted by their move to speed up the integration process.

The East African Community project is alive and well as indeed is Mr Njonjo.


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