KIGALI – The dream that the twenty-first century will be the “African Century” is powerful and intoxicating. It is also becoming reality. As African officials gather in Washington, DC, on August 4-6 for the first US-Africa Leaders Summit, it is worth considering the basis – and the limits – of the continent’s progress.
While conflict and poverty remain serious problems in many African regions, our continent is not only more stable than ever before; it is also experiencing some of the highest economic growth rates anywhere on the planet. Over the past decade, tens of millions of people across Africa have joined the middle class; our cities are expanding rapidly; and our population is the most youthful in the world.
But Africans must not take it for granted that their time has come. Words are cheap, and, despite the continent’s positive momentum, we know that history is littered with squandered dreams – nowhere more so than in Africa.
So there is much that we in Africa must do to seize our opportunity. Building bigger, more integrated sub-regional markets that are deeply embedded in the global economy is one of the most urgent tasks that we are facing. After all, from the European Union to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to the North American Free Trade Agreement, we see how geographic regions can create conditions for shared growth and prosperity by removing barriers to commerce, harmonizing regulatory norms, opening labor markets, and developing common infrastructure.
That is precisely the vision that we are working to realize in our own part of Africa, under the banner of the Northern Corridor Integration Projects. In the past 18 months, Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda, joined by South Sudan and more recently Ethiopia, have launched 14 joint projects that will integrate East Africa more closely and make our region a better, easier place to do business.
There are already concrete results. We have put in place a single tourist visa valid in all three countries. We have established a single customs territory, slashing red tape and removing non-tariff trade barriers. A standard-gauge railway from Mombasa to Kigali and Juba via Kampala is being designed, and financing for the first segment has been secured from Chinese partners.
Taking these steps has required going against decades of entrenched practice. Unfortunately, across Africa, national borders have tended to be chokepoints rather than enablers of intra-continental cooperation on trade, security, labor, and environmental issues. Too often, Africa’s economies exchange goods and coordinate policy among themselves less than they do with countries outside of the continent.
We are determined to change this. Under the Northern Corridor initiative, for example, each of our governments has accepted responsibility for shepherding key projects.
Uganda is securing investors for a new oil refinery and is spearheading the development of regional infrastructure for information and communications technology, which will lead to the elimination of cellular roaming charges among our countries.
Kenya is tasked with developing a regional commodity exchange, improving human resources through education and consultancy services, and building both crude and refined oil pipelines. Kenya is also exploring ways to expand regionally focused power generation and transmission.
Rwanda is charged with aligning immigration laws and promoting freedom of movement for both citizens and visitors. Other coordination duties include regional security (through the East African Standby Force), coordinated airspace management, as well as joint tourism marketing.
We know what success will look like for our region’s citizens. And we know what needs to be done. Progress will be achieved not by building monuments for politicians or holding summits, but by lowering the costs of doing business and raising the incomes of our people.
Bureaucracies move slowly, sometimes because they are institutionally programmed to subvert change. The framework of the Northern Corridor Integration Projects is designed to generate and sustain the political will necessary to get the project done.
The United States has always been an important partner for our countries, but the path to solving our problems is not through handouts from American taxpayers. Only we, together with our business sector, can do the job. As we do so, we look forward to a deeper and more “normal” relationship with the US, focused on what we can do together rather than on what Americans can do for us.
Africa has always had what it takes to rise. Together, we can make it happen.
The writers are Presidents of Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya respectively.