“East Africans, tear down these walls”

In a speech commemorating the 750th anniversary of Berlin on June 12, 1987, American President Ronald Reagan challenged Mikhail Gorbachev, the then General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, to tear down the Berlin wall. “…Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” he said. The Berlin wall was erected by the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) effectively separating the Communist Eastern Bloc from the Capitalist Western Bloc. 
Transport companies are tearing through these “walls” . (Photo A. Senyonga)
Transport companies are tearing through these “walls” . (Photo A. Senyonga)

In a speech commemorating the 750th anniversary of Berlin on June 12, 1987, American President Ronald Reagan challenged Mikhail Gorbachev, the then General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, to tear down the Berlin wall. “…Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” he said.

The Berlin wall was erected by the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) effectively separating the Communist Eastern Bloc from the Capitalist Western Bloc.

The infamous wall is said to have been constructed from 45,000 separate sections of reinforced concrete, each 3.6 metres high, and 1.2 metres wide. The wall was reinforced by mesh fencing, signal fencing, anti-vehicle trenches, barbed wire, dogs, beds of nails, and over 116 watch towers.

Some commentators have argued that although the wall came down 20 years ago, there is still talk in Germany of cultural differences between East and West Germans, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “The wall in the head.”

The situation in the East African Community clearly reveals numerous “walls” that have continued to divide us and delay the process of total integration.

Ironically, the first major walls that disorganised East Africans were designed in Berlin. The Berlin Conference of 1884-85, bequeathed to us arbitrary borders that have mainly served as reasons for kicking off pointless wars.

Even where there have been no wars, brothers begun to think of themselves as strangers. We now have Ugandan Luos, Kenyan Luos and Tanzanian Luos.

The Bafumbira of Uganda do not want to be considered Rwandans while a Burundian will have a hard time convincing you that his language is different from Kinyarwanda.

Ten years ago, the East African Community was revived with a target of a political federation where we are all expected to live in one country under one leadership. To the contrary, some of the leaders that we expect to unite us into the proposed one East African country have instead done all in their might to divide us.

In Uganda, the current leadership has seen the original pre-1986 districts rising from 39 to over 90 in a space of 23 years.

How are such people expected to appreciate the bigger EAC when the smaller Uganda they live in has become more fragmented? Instead of breaking the colonial walls to free the Ugandans, more walls are being erected in form of smaller districts.

The post election violence that Kenyans experienced during December of 2007 until early January was a result of the country’s fragmentation along ethnic lines. A clearly stolen election turned into a moment of settling ethnic scores.

The ODM machine saw it as a chance to wrest power from PNU (and its GEMA alliance) that were perceived to be enjoying a disproportionate share of state power.

Some of the country’s politicians are still concerned with positioning themselves as the patron saints of their tribes; a trend that almost certainly results into civil unrest. These tribal chiefs invest time and energy in creating more walls. Maverick William Ruto is alleged to be one such fellow.

The ‘wall’ between Tanzanians and the Kenyans also serves to delay the prosperity of the EAC. Tanzanians are often accused by the Kenyans of delaying the integration process while at the same time they (Kenyans) keep silent about the Migingo Island saga.

In Tanzania, the general elections are at best another chance for the people of Zanzibar to bring up secession demands. The Tanzanians, who love to remind anyone in earshot of how they helped to topple Field Marshall Idi Amin in Uganda, are yet to deal with the ‘minor’ problem of Albino killings in their country.

In Uganda the Northern Luo tribes have endured a deadly civil war that exposed them to injustices from the national army and the oxymoronically named Lord’s Resistance Army for a period of more than 20 years. Of all things, this war has largely served to deepen the country’s north-south socio-political divide.

Here in Rwanda, the Belgians, and the rogue politicians of yesteryears also invested time in propagating ethnic walls that led to the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi that claimed the lives of more than a million people.

The current leadership now has the burden of fighting against genocide ideology. 

People like Mwalimu Julius Nyerere did a good job in bringing down the tribal walls in Tanzania. The business sector has also done a good job in breaking down these walls. Companies like KCB and Nakumatt are trying to become more and more East African.

The buses that have eased cross-border travel have also done a good job. Musicians like Jose Chameleon who sing in Swahili have gone a long way in helping us to feel more East African.

The challenge for all East Africans now is to heed Reagan’s call and seek ways of tearing down the various walls that hold us in mental bondage.

ssenyonga@gmail.com