In the race for regional integration for the five East African counties, finding an economic common ground in form of a common market and currency will enable easier movement of goods and services within the region.
It will also spur regional economic growth and potential spin off benefits for East Africans. But that is not where the development of a seamless or close to seamless regional bloc begins.
Like in many other cases in the world, the speed and momentum at which regional integration moves for political and economic leaders on one side and the ordinary citizens of the bloc on the other hand rarely coincide.
As with the case with the EAC, the political leaders have set the agenda and providing an opportunity for the economists to draw their blueprints and dream for a perfect common market.
However, for the common man to take advantage and put themselves in a position where they can reap the benefits of regional integration, they should first be able to develop a proper regional construct that identifies them as the roving citizen who can have his Nairobi cake and eat it too in Kigali.
The development of a proper East African construct would begin with a breaking down of psychological barriers that place a neighbouring country in light of a historical event or otherwise, which then in one’s mind becomes the bonafide perception of such a country.
In a recent macabre overreaction to an otherwise innocent analysis of the behaviour of Kenyan politicians in this paper, a Kenyan letter writer proceeded to bash a Rwandese colleague for insinuating that Kenyan politicians are greedy and in a woeful rejoinder reminded the Rwandan to remember that his country had gone through a genocide, a much worse thing than greedy politicians! Clearly, the two would not wait to outdo each other in trying to point out each other’s cardinal sins in attempt to ‘brand’ the other as much worse than their own.
It reeks of the biblical story of Jesus and the prostitute; “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
The respective EAC countries have had their love-hate moments with each other. During the infamous invasion of Tanzania by Idi Amin, there was no love lost between Ugandans and Tanzanians.
That eventually culminated into the 1979 liberation which was ably supported by the Tanzanian army that toppled Idi Amin and sent him to exile and subsequently leaving a bad reputation for Swahili in Uganda as the language of robbers. In most of the eighties, Ugandans were treated like second class citizens in Kenya, when their country was synonymous with guns and AIDS.
Ugandans in exile were hunted down and deported at the slightest opportunity even when the Museveni regime had brought relative political stability. Likewise, Rwandans in Uganda have had to endure denigrating treatment.
But as we have come to learn, a country’s collective suffering may leave a bad scar but is not necessarily a label that defines a being.
Today, some Kenyans are still refugees in Uganda because of tribal violence in 2008 in Kenya something that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago when Kenya was the beacon of peace and democracy in the region.
While Rwanda is now the model of peace and reconciliation, Kenya is struggling with the realties of trying those who incited violence in 2008 especially if most of them willed some political power and a proportional tribal voting bloc that is necessary to maintain the precarious balance of power.
Now, Ugandans come to Rwanda to seek jobs from the same people they scoured scorn on, let alone having to receive lessons on the fight against corruption and economic development in general.
To develop a proper regional construct, East Africans need to rid themselves of these old parochial attitudes towards each other. No country is born to be violent, peaceful, genocidal, war-some, or HIV prone. Peace or violence are not commodities that can be bought with money.
They are constructed and worked upon everyday such that a decade’s work can come apart due to one reckless decision.
Therefore, nobody should take advantage of their neighbour’s bad fortune, since most of the time, the respective citizens of countries have nothing to do with the mess that their leaders deliver them into. Recently during the Migingo Island saga, the reckless insinuation towards Uganda from Kenya politicians and press towards Uganda and vice versa, would never have revealed that actually Uganda is Kenya’s largest trading partner.
Shrewd citizens of the community have been making major steps. Kenyans and Ugandans are taking advantage of job opportunities in Rwanda for example.
Smart Rwanda businesses are opening their brands to new possibilities by exploiting their reduced tariffs due to the regional common market in other EAC countries. Bus companies have reduced a journey for Juba in Southern Sudan to Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania or Bujumbura in Burundi to Mombasa in Kenya to a comfortable trans-border one ticket affair.
Uganda’s government owned television station has found it necessary to address the country’s lack of appreciation of Swahili by screening a musical program in which Ugandans are encouraged to practice the language and play catch up with the region.
And apparently, our dear Congolese colleagues, at least going by the evening bar banter, are setting up English training schools in Kigali, which by the way is a clear indicator that the region is open for business not only to the members of the house but to anyone who is astute enough.
Therefore, as the East African drive gets into high gear, it is important for those who want to have a piece of the pie to open their minds. Instead of chirruping how Kenya is going bonkers over politics, take time to read their newspapers, available on the Kigali streets or on the internet, to understand how and while at it, pick a few brilliant ideas for your business, consultancy or studies.
Even through Kenya is the main route for oil products, Kenyans should now take a close interest in Rwanda’s methane gas project and Uganda’s massive oil prospects. Tanzanians should take note that their country is trying to develop a cheaper alternative route for inward bound goods than Mombasa to Rwanda and Uganda.
The East African Community presents an assortment of new possibilities, but only to those with open unassuming minds.