Many people rushed to Kampala for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting -journalists, delegates and other world leaders particularly those from Commonwealth nations. The previous meeting had been held in Malta. I did not want to be told but to witness the events unfold upclose.
The meeting’s greatness was derived from the fact that it brought together 53 world leaders plus the Queen of England who is actually the head of the Commonwealth.
Kampala City consequently received a new lease of life with most roads repaired, buildings painted and street lights and CCTV cameras installed. Many new world class hotels were constructed and a fleet of over 200 new BMWs was also acquired to transport the guests.
Even the traffic officers were given brand new white suits for a uniform!
The meeting went as planned without any hitch. It was officially opened by the Queen of England, Elizabeth II and was well attended. Prominently absent was Comrade Mugabe who pulled Zimbabwe out of the Commonwealth.
Pakistan was eventually suspended because of the prevailing state of emergency declared by President Pervez Musharraf.
Closer home, our president, Gen Paul Kagame attended the Commonwealth Business forum as one of the key speakers and as an observer at the main Chogm event. It was here that he made a historical announcement. President Kagame declared that it was no longer necessary for East Africans working in Rwanda to obtain work permits to work here.
This may seem a light statement to some but in my view it was a very fundamental one that may even be a crucial part of our leader’s legacy. The revelation by President Kagame truly shows his foresightedness (a rare quality for most African leaders).
I have spent days thinking about the outcome of the work permit waiver not just to the economy of Rwanda but to the East African region as a whole. We should not forget that Rwanda together with Burundi did join the East African Community recently.
By allowing East Africans to work without work permits, Rwanda has gone ahead of the other East African nations by embracing and tapping the labour resource of the region. Imagine job adverts that no longer start with, “Applicant must be a Rwandan citizen…” Now we shall have, “Applicant should be an East African citizen.”
What this implies is that workers will feel like they are now a part of the bigger East African community. After effectively eliminating ethnic perceptions, the president has now opened the way for an East African perception towards work. The European Union has grown strong because of the laws allowing citizens of member countries to work freely in any part of Europe.
The US, Australia, Canada and several European nations have boosted their development by attracting skilled labour from other countries. Some have called it brain drain; others say it’s market forces of labour at play. It is no crime if Rwanda also takes this path.
The 1994 Rwanda Genocide greatly affected the labour demographics of Rwanda. Many professionals were killed. This led to a huge deficit of professionals to spur the country’s development. By easing the work requirements for East Africans, this problem is bound to be eased.
Another important issue is the fact that Rwanda has applied to join the East African Community. Since Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are already Commonwealth members, Rwanda needs to attract some (Anglophone) professionals from the three countries.
One journalist described the Commonwealth as a group of English speaking, cricket and rugby playing nations. This implies that by removing work permit requirements, Rwanda will attract the best English, cricket and rugby teachers among others.
Many Ugandans, Kenyans and Tanzanians are already working in Rwanda and so this development will only make them feel more at home. No more pressure of a work permit that is close to expiring. With this new feel-at-home attitude, many will start investing in Rwanda as well.
After working in Rwanda for some time, these East Africans will have a thing or two to take back home to Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi. They can go home and teach other fellow East Africans that one can work in an environment that is corruption-free and more organised. And that is Rwanda.
I really commend President Kagame for being foresighted and fast tracking the integration of the East African Federation process in a more practical way. The next step should be the easing of cross-border movements. I can now envisage a very successful East African Community, where we work and live as East Africans, brothers and sisters.