For a long time, East Africans have had a lot of expectations from closer economic integration of their countries. The process has been mostly slow, leading to frustration and cynicism about whether the East African Community will ever live up to its promise.
That was until about two years ago when the northern part of the community got fed up with the slow speed and decided to up the pace. Because of that, there is some visible movement in some aspects of integration – certainly in the Northern Corridor.
The fastest moving of these has been the free movement of people.
It has been happening gradually. First, there was the decision to use National Identity Cards as travel documents to cross into each other’s territory. The decision led to cutting the red tape and other difficulties involved in getting a passport in some places.
It reduced expenses and made travel easier and cheaper. The main beneficiaries were ordinary citizens and small-scale business-people.
Rwanda pioneered the removal of work permit requirements for nationals of other East African Community partner states. Kenya soon reciprocated the offer. Uganda is on the way to reforming its work permit requirements.
The result has been increased movement of professional and skilled people across the region. Rwanda certainly gained from the growing availability of skilled workers.
A similar positive movement was registered in the tourism sector with the introduction of a single-tourist visa. Although it is still too early to fully measure its effect, the expectation is that more tourists will visit the region and therefore revenues will be higher.
Last week in Nairobi at a Summit of the Northern Corridor Integration Projects, two new initiatives were taken to further ease the movement of people.
One was the decision to establish a single-airspace bloc. Now, East Africans have long complained about the high cost of air travel in the region that hinders movement between its major cities. That concern has been answered as the single airspace bloc is expected to lead to a reduction in air travel costs.
That should further make it easier for people to move across East Africa, increase trade and tourism and enhance greater professional exchanges.
The second was the creation of one network area by January next year. Rwanda and Kenya have been operating this for the last two months. Uganda will join them by the beginning of next year.
This is expected to significantly reduce mobile telephone roaming charges and make communication easier and cheaper.
Admittedly, it is the aspects of integration that do not require massive financial or infrastructure outlay that are on the fast track. The heavier and more expensive projects will obviously take more time.
Still, even these require a lot of political will, which in the past has been in short supply. Indeed lack of political will has always been given as the most serious impediment to greater integration.
While that may be so in some parts of East Africa even today, in other parts there is so much will that some people cannot cope with it.
Of course, we can expect continued bureaucratic foot-dragging and other forms of obstruction. Those whose hold on certain businesses is threatened by more open and closer integration, or whose power and wealth depend on restricting access to various things will not give in easily.
Even so, there is some momentum towards greater cooperation and a growing tendency towards more openness.
That was not always the case. For long some of our countries were closed to the outside. Rwanda certainly was and there was a certain amount of phobia for outsiders especially among the ruling class.
Rwandans were the poorer for it. We missed out on the benefits of cross fertilization of ideas and commerce.
In Rwanda and in other countries with a similar outlook, various excuses were given to justify this irrational fear. Opening to the outside, it was argued, would lead to meddling in the internal affairs of the country, or to a loss of jobs for nationals, or dilution of culture, and so on.
In reality the fear was a symptom of deep-lying insecurity resulting from ignorance and incompetence.
That fear is receding, especially in the northern part of the East African Community. It is being replaced by a growing confidence and recognition of the benefits of opening up to the outside. In any case, you can’t have integration if you remain closed.
In this sense, the signs from the series of summits of the presidents of Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya concerning the Northern Corridor Integration Projects are promising.
The portion of East African Community agreements regarding free movement of people is continuing apace. Greater attention will now surely be turned to infrastructure projects that will truly link the economies and even politics of the region.
With the will and urgency now in evidence, that cannot be far off.