In the wider scope of things, Mr. Raila Ondinga’s recent outbursts at a bilateral trade deal between Kenya and Uganda can justifiably be described as ‘dog whistle politics’ whose coded message only resonated with a small section of people opposed to regional integration.
The majority of East Africans who are in favour of a truly functional common market should take it upon themselves to reject such opportunistic and nationalistic politics that are likely to encumber the future success of the current drive to regional integration.
Let me employ an anecdote of five pygmies who were hungry and weak after walking close to one hundred miles in search of food when they suddenly found a mango tree with four large ripe fruits on low lying branches.
On realising that none of them was tall enough to harvest the mangoes in spite of them dangling from low lying branches, the pygmies convened a meeting and devised a life saving solution.
It was agreed that four pygmies would form a human tower by climbing on each other’s shoulders; the pygmy at the summit would be high enough to harvest the fruits and throw them to the fifth pygmy waiting on the ground.
Once all four fruits had been successfully harvested, the five pygmies regrouped under the mango tree shade and shared the mangoes to regain energy to cover the reminder of their journey, energised from the fresh sweet juices.
You could pick several morals from this tale but perhaps the most important in this context is for East Africa’s five partner states to realise that they’re all ‘pygmies’ who need each other’s shoulder to harvest fruits from even the lowest of branches.
Ours are small markets and they need each other to thrive. After combining all five economies, a population of 145 milion people and GDP US$110 billion is still inadequate, reason why we have to be friends with other blocs such as Comesa and Ecowas.
So, someone should tell Odinga and his likeminded supporters that none of East Africa’s ‘pygmies’ is tall enough to stand alone.
Kenya produces sugar, alright, but its local production is not enough to satisfy home consumption demand and not even Uganda’s extra-production can singlehandedly fill Kenya’s void so why Raila is riled by Ugandan sugar exports is quite mind-boggling.
Moreover, the deal also created a highway for Kenya’s dairy products to the Ugandan market but I’m yet to hear any complaints from Ugandan local dairy producers, if any, they haven’t been loud enough to be heard.
Early this week, Cimerwa, Rwanda’s sole cement producer, unveiled a new high capacity plant that will produce more cement than the country can consume in a year and hopes to export the surplus to neigbouring markets in the region.
But it’s not as easy as it sounds; Cimerwa’s cement on the home market is often elbowed by inexpensive cement imports from Uganda and Tanzania.
Rwanda could choose to pass nationalistic policies to protect Cimerwa from regional competition but that would be against the spirit of a Common Market Protocol that we signed about six years ago; so our local manufacturers must devise ways to make their products competitive.
So, shortly after unveiling its plant, Cimerwa also announced that it would be slashing prices of its products in order to improve their competitiveness on the market.
Three months ago, Mount Meru Soyco limited, Rwanda’s only edible oil producer, was also forced to slash its prices to capture the attention of local buyers, who in spite of being patriotic, can’t resist an opportunity to save money by buying cheaper oil imported from the region.
Think about it; Kenya is East Africa’s China with a more advanced manufacturing base whose products dominate the region’s market stalls and all four other EAC members import more than they export to Kenya, and in Uganda’s case, a few extra spoons of sugar won’t change that status-quo.
Here’s my worry; when one pays attention to the political rhetoric by opposition politicians in this region, you note that East African integration is at the bottom of their manifestos or simply absent.
So we have a problem, a very big problem in the sense that a change in political seasons could bring us leaders with more nationalistic ideologies, ideologies that could have propelled them to power but could set us several steps back on this long journey.
For East Africa’s incumbent governments to safeguard gains they have collectively achieved on both trade corridors, there’s a need to build consensus across the region that gets East Africans to accept that regionalization, not nationalization, is what we all need.