The East African heads of state are set to sign a protocol on the establishment of the EAC Common Market when they converge in Arusha on the 20th of this month for the 10th anniversary celebrations of regional bloc.
The signing of the protocol will be a culmination of intense behind-the-scene haggling, and is expected to usher in a much touted era of robust free trade between the member states.
The signing of the Common Market Protocol will mark yet another giant leap towards the full integration of EAC member countries.
The first bold step took place in January 2005 when the Custom Union was signed. Once the protocol comes into force, the EAC nations will be a striking distance away from having a political federation which is expected to come into being once the five partner states append their signatures to a monetary union pact.
Among the benefits to reap from the Common Market is an extended single market and investment area for the residents of the region. More specifically, the regime promises free movement of capital and labour, something that has won praise as it is expected to see optimal utilisation of human, natural resources and capital.
Rwanda is especially set to reap bountifully from the Common Market as labour and capital and new investments are three crucial ingredients it badly needs to attain its ambitious vision 2020.
The competition that will come with the integration of the markets is also expected to lead to lowered commodity prices as well as give consumers a variety of goods and services to choose from.
But even as we look forward to this turning point, not everybody is excited about a free trade area within the East African region.
Over a week ago, Ugandan manufacturers tried unsuccessfully to lobby the East African Business Council to push for the extension of the signing of the Common Market Protocol by another five years.
Their fear is that the Kenyan exports which are attracting a five percent duty currently are going to be allowed in, duty free, at the dawn of the New Year (2010).
The manufacturers claimed that this has come too soon for them and they want to be given more time to put their acts together.
And there have many such incidents mainly informed by the fear that the protocols like the Customs Union and now the Common Market – will only work to tilt the trading ground in favour of certain countries in the EAC bloc.
Granted, the process of having the Common Market Protocol is now in full throttle and no amount of shouting and street protests are going to stop it.
For one, the success of Common Market and eventually the political federation if and when it comes into being will succeed not because partner states have put pen to paper to ratify it, but rather because the idea has been bought into by the citizens of the five countries that make the EAC.
It is therefore imperative that these apparent suspicions and mistrusts are addressed or they will turn out to be a chink on EAC’s shoulder.
So, what to do? While the issues raised to argue the case for the extension of the signing of the common market cannot be dismissed as being unfounded and bereft of substance, they seem to be more out of fear which needs to be dispelled.
Maybe it may help for those raising the concerns to be made to understand that the whole idea of the Common Market is to encourage competitiveness in the commodity as well as in the services markets. And as far as competition goes, you can be ready for it today as you can be ready for it five years from now.
But since the aim of the Common Market is not to strangle infant domestic industries, respective governments may consider giving stimulus packages to such manufacturing firms that they think may suffer “unfair competition” as a result of opening up our geographical boundaries.
Once the Common Market is launched, the East African Business Council should also get down to devising ways of striking a balance between encouraging competitiveness and nurturing of young domestic industries.