Rwanda will soon join the rest of the East African Community (EAC) partner states in celebrating the regional bloc’s tenth anniversary.
The celebrations are intended to reinforce the spirit of unity among East Africans.
The importance of regional economic cooperation as a means of accelerating and consolidating economic and social development has long been recognized by African decision-makers.
Sadly, previous regional initiatives in Africa mainly focused on political issues and as such largely did not deliver much to uplift the economic conditions of its members nor ensured sustained growth.
The 2009 report by United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTD), argues that regional integration is critical for addressing the long-standing structural weaknesses which have lowered the long-term growth performance of most countries on the continent, increased their economic vulnerability and undermined efforts to reduce poverty.
This report is topical for three reasons. Firstly, at a time when Africa is experiencing changes in international cooperation, through its involvement in a large number of external partnerships (multilateral, regional and bilateral); it needs to exploit opportunities within the continent which could help it achieve higher economic growth rates.
Secondly, with the current financial and economic crisis affecting African economies through decreases in official development assistance and foreign investments, the intensification of intra-African trade offers a development strategy for trade diversification.
Thirdly, regional integration could lead to the pooling of resources and the enlargement of local markets. Currently, the potential of intra-African trade and investment has not been fully exploited, as seen in the low proportion of intra-African trade to total exports.
Over the last ten years, EAC has made tremendous progress; notably the launching of the Customs Union in 2005 and the enlargement of the Community, with the admission of Rwanda and Burundi in 2007.
This has contributed to great stimulation of investments, trade and overall consolidation of the East African market estimated at 120 million people.
The total intra-EAC trade and total EAC trade with the rest of the world has increased by between 20 per cent and 30 per cent annually. From January 2010, the EAC Customs Union will reach its threshold with all goods traded within the region attracting zero customs duty.
However, the biggest challenge for EAC today is related to the lack of political will on the part of some governments, to enforce the necessary reforms in their respective countries, including making the necessary amendments to their laws and regulations to facilitate regional integration.
As the Community celebrates 10 years, it is imperative that governments reduce impediments to integration.
This includes enforcing measures put in place to address non- tariff barriers and ensuring that the Common Market protocol is signed in November.
Regional integration has profound economic, political and social implications on countries and its citizens. Notably integrated markets else where such as European Union have made movements of the factors of production (labour, capital and services) much easier.
The situation will not be different for East Africans. However actual realization of regional integration will only be a reality if our leaders move beyond words and walk the talk.
The author is a journalist with The New Times