Let’s make it prestigious to be East African

Sometimes my mind goes into an ‘Alice in wonderland’ mode, wandering off to places afar, toying with utopian ideas such as banning national identities like Rwanda did with ethnic classifications, to allow for the creation of truly integrated nationals with an East African identity.

My friend, a brilliant Rwandan I have had the opportunity to mentor in the past, just concluded her studies in Europe and wants to come back home but she needs to do so after obtaining a job; so she’s been applying to several jobs within the East African region.

“It is frustrating how most of the jobs I am qualified for seem to be ‘ring-fenced’ for so called ‘nationals’ or ‘locals’ of the country in which the employer operates; I was always under the impression, we are all nationals by virtue of our countries being EAC member states? It’s not prestigious being East African.”

Her observation is a deep-rooted barrier. EAC employers that segregate labour based on nationality are a shame to the spirt of regional integration. Our integration is yet to reach a point where being a national of an EAC Member state is a clearance ticket to benefit from opportunities across the region.

As a result, my Rwandan friend can’t apply for a job she’s qualified for in Kenya or Burundi because she’s regarded a ‘foreigner’ in those countries in spite of her being a national of an EAC member state;so, where does this leave free movement of labour?

It is not just people facing these barriers; goods too, making one question the essence of the single customs union. Just the other day, Kenya filed a complaint to EAC Secretariat accusing Tanzania of harassing Kenyan goods crossing into its (Tanzanian) territory.

For some time now,Kenya and Tanzania have been locked in some trade disputes with past spats including Kenya’s ban on liquefied petroleum gas from Tanzania, which saw Dar retaliate by blocking Kenyan milk and its products, and cigarettes.

But even as Kenya accuses Tanzania of bad conduct, Kenyan politicians have been fueling a campaign against so called ‘cheap imports from Uganda’ including eggs and sugar that they claim had caused ‘local products’ to lose market. The idea that being in EAC makes nationals and goods/services any member state ‘local’ seems to have failed to register.

Without free movement of persons, free movement of goods is nearly impossible and the absence of both, renders the EAC customs union a white elephant ambition.

Britain’s Brexit project should teach us that the cost of regional disintegrating is way higher than that of integration therefore we can’t give up no matter how tough the going gets, sometimes, the fact is, regional integration has more benefits than bilateral integration.

However, it is also factual that stronger bilateral ties among member states can be a firm pillar of deeper regional integration. You can’t integrate with someone you don’t like. Strong bilateral ties among member states form a firm foundation for a more sustainable and integrated economic bloc.

This is why I am happy when I see efforts by Tanzanian and Kenyan authorities working to fix their differences and give free trade and movement a chance.

I was equally happy to see, this week, Kenya and Uganda meeting to fix outstanding issues that were straining their bilateral trade relations, in the process hurting many livelihoods that depend on it.

And yes, I am firmly on my knees, praying to see the same happen to resolve the seriously damaged bilateral relations between Rwanda and Uganda which have seen the freedom of Rwandans to travel to Uganda curtailed, for their own security, across the border.

President Paul Kagame’s remarks at the opening of a retreat of the Council of Ministers and Heads of Organs and Institutions of EAC in Kigali, Thursday, offered not only leadership but also inspired hope.

He said: “We have to urgently unblock obstacles in ongoing projects, and allow ourselves to finish the good work we have started together. Many of these require little more than political will. Even small triumphs generate so much goodwill, and increase the trust of our people in the East Africa Community.

So why deprive ourselves of success that we need, and that is within our reach?” 

It is a question with great food for thought and should provoke all of us to critically think about the future of our East African Community in context of everything that is ongoing.

Email: kenagutamba@gmail.com

The views expressed in this article  are of the author.