Partners or Competitors? The road to East African integration

Partners or Competitors? The road to East African integration
East African Community (EAC) Heads of State: From top left; Yoweri Museveni, Paul Kagame, Uhuru Kenyatta - From bottom left; Pierre Nkurunziza, John Magufuli and Salva Kiir.

Kampala, Uganda | By Michael Wandati | Two decades after the region’s leaders signed on to the revival of the East African Community (EAC), it has been planned that the Community will merge in joining forces to work and transact business as one. Are these plans coming as soon as we expect? And why am I not feeling EAC’s growth in my pocket despite the region significantly being praised throughout the continent and among international partners over its economic and regional performance?

Well, these are some of revealing questions that run in everyone’s mind when the prospects to form a single currency by 2024 or deliver a rich, peaceful continent criss-crossed by high-speed trains by 2063 are made — especially in this current environment with prolonged political differences between the bigwig leaders, perceptions around unfair distribution of the benefits, and costs of regional integration; that have all halted the momentum, undermining regional integration process.

The East African countries that include; Uganda, Kenya Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan that joined in September 2016, them coming together, there have been tremendous euphoria that the merger will build equitable and balanced economies, productive political and social standards which will eventually strengthen cooperation, from the socio-economic and political standpoint both in the individual countries, the continent, and the world at large.

The master plan since the formation of the EAC, has been to have a free movement of people within the community, intra-trade to grow significantly — having common services like universities, airlines, railways and other infrastructures, has always been the dream. Sadly though, the community’s terms of endearment has begun to unravel, only to collapse further.

Cross-border relations

Currently, it is hard to travel from let’s say Kenya to Uganda, Rwanda or Tanzania and vice versa, without loosened travel restrictions at the colonial and post-colonial border points. You either have to break through the barrier under the flimsy guise of a ‘fee’ or by openly bribing here and there to have the immigration officials pass you through, or risk being denied entry/exit visa or even arrested for lack of unnecessary requirements.

Accusations and counter accusations between Rwanda and Uganda has escalated since February 2019, when Rwanda closed the Gatuna border post in Kabale district, one of the busiest crossing between Rwanda and Uganda, reportedly to “allow completion of the one-stop border post,” and issued a travel advisory, restricting its citizens from crossing into Uganda for alleged safety reasons.

Rwanda accused Uganda of hosting rebels opposed to its government and subjecting its citizens to illegal arrests and torture. Uganda on the other hand accused Kigali of acts of espionage and unfair trade practices. It is clear that Uganda and Rwanda have both breached the provisions of the East African Community Treaty, particularly on Free Movement and Common Market Protocol. The impasse between the two nations leaves me to wonder, is East Africa’s prior history of disintegration resurfacing?

Partners or Competitors? The road to East African integration
Uganda and Rwanda are embroiled in an ongoing diplomatic row that has seen major border crossings between the countries closed since late February 2019. COURTESY PHOTO/Alice McCool/Al Jazeera

President Paul Kagame’s rift with his counterpart President Yoweri Museveni is personal. Mr Museveni fought his way to power in the 1980s with the help of Rwandan refugees; Mr Kagame, who grew up in a Ugandan refugee camp, was his military intelligence chief. Later, as Presidents, the former comrades launched two wars in Congo, and then fell out over the loot. By 2000 their soldiers were firing and killing each other, 600km from home.

Close neighbours Kenya and Tanzania have been silent on the rift between Museveni and Kagame; there’s been no follow-up by Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta despite having separately met President Kagame and President Museveni to hopefully tackle the simmering diplomatic row between the two leaders.

Trade embargo and lack of regional quality standards

Rivalry between Kenya and Tanzania, the two largest members, is more straightforward. Commerce between the two nations is hobbled by a trade war.

Although both are meant to be in a common market, Tanzania imposed 25 per cent import duty on Kenyan-made confectioneries such as chocolate, ice cream, biscuits and sweets, citing use of imported industrial sugar.

Kenya in retaliation imposed 25 per cent duty on Tanzanian’s products like flour which it says are produced from imported wheat.

Partners or Competitors? The road to East African integration
Despite some small bilateral relations glitches, Kenya and Tanzania pursue similar foreign policy objectives in a variety of international forums, including the United Nations, the AU, and the East African Community (EAC).

Tanzania under the leadership of President John Magufuli, is slowly sliding towards protectionism, also objects to proposed trade deal between the EAC and the European Union (EU), which Kenya has always been keen on.

There is lack of a common anti-counterfeit and quality standards within East Africa, making the region open to cartels. Fraudulent operators are taking advantage of the existence of domestically produced fake and substandard goods, lack of levelled playing field in the market as well as a wrong view of a free-market economy, organized counterfeit dealers and poverty which encourages a preference for the low-priced fake goods within East Africa.

Meanwhile, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) 2016 report, counterfeits and fake products business globally, transacted nearly $0.5 trillion in monetary value, representing 2.5 per cent of global trade in 2016.

Just recently, the in-coming Uganda’s Minister of East African Affairs, Gen. Kahinda Otafiire while explaining the purpose of unity, numbers and working together during Eishaazi ry’lgara in Bushenyi district, blamed the delay of the East African Community (EAC) integration on selfishness.

“What is affecting the federation is because every country is seeking sovereignty,” Otafiire said.

Read Also: East African integration crucial for survival – Museveni

“Some leaders have failed to realize what they can gain from the EAC as a bloc and have focused much on individual country’s interests. The countries in the region will remain beggars and poor if they do not advance EAC further to spur the region’s economic growth through an expanded market,” Otafiire warned.

Transport and infrastructure development

As the only EAC countries with coastlines, both Kenya and Tanzania vie for investment in infrastructure: in 2016 Uganda decided to route an oil pipeline through Tanzania, to Kenya’s chagrin. Unless such infrastructural conflicts are effectively resolved, regional integration will keep stalling.

As diplomatic relations remain dicey in the region, also to note, four of East Africa’s six members (Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and South Sudan) are led by ex-rebels, some with competing interests in the Congolese borderlands to the west — some leaders are getting ahead of themselves: deepening rifts have put integration in jeopardy.

The above listed four member states of EAC – are landlocked and intra-area trade is still far below potential. Linkages of infrastructure; roads, railways, airports, seaports, and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) are not seamlessly linked for easy movement of people and trade.

When mechanisms are put in place and well implemented, East Africans should travel freely in the shortest time possible, avoiding the tiresome long journeys accompanied by strict rules and regulations imposed across our porous borders.

Transportation networks joining the East African countries are not up to the standards we expect despite the government’s efforts. For long, we have had our roads turned to parking lots due to the many motorists and the poor road construction plans in the region.

Partners or Competitors? The road to East African integration
A cargo train is launched to operate on the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) line constructed by the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) and financed by Chinese government in Kenya’s coastal city of Mombasa, May 30, 2017.

Lands dedicated/gazetted as road reserves have been encroached by gluttonous leaders and the super-rich elites who have looted their own countries to create an elite global haven. They afterward move their money, their children, their assets and themselves wherever they wish, picking and choosing which countries’ laws they wish to live by.

Read Also: I am not about to tell Rwandans to go to Uganda – Paul Kagame

Thanks to the Chinese contractors though, for building highways and bridges that snakes through to different inland destinations, there has been a great boost for business transactions and movement across.

However, these infrastructure developments should be stretched regionally without delay, joining the entire East African transport networks; roads and railway (Standard Gauge Railway) for speedy delivery of people, goods, and services with ease. The airports have worked magic for travelers across East Africa as its quick due to the many airlines and flights scheduled every day.

Increased tax revenue

Doing business across has not been made easy as the importation and exportation duties are still highly taxed. For example when you import a car from the port of Mombasa, Kenya to Uganda, the clearance fees and charges by the revenue authority are still high.

We need to lower duty tariffs for East Africans as a community so as to make profits. For better trade, EAC partner states should agree to eliminate taxes like excise duty.

Cross-border traders cry foul, accusing partner states officials of harassment, bribe requests, jailing them and confiscating their stock which all amounts to loses.

Labour and Employment – Working in East Africa

Socially, it’s evident that East Africa as a bloc is not yet to the level we expect as its citizens. Government institutions do not allow foreign labourers to freely work without a working permit despite being an East African; this is costly for a common person seeking employment.

Regional measures should be put in place and harmonized, so that one can be employed and treated equally with the available job opportunities within any other EAC country without prejudice and discrimination.

Doing this, will enable people to move and share their foreign ideas and cultures into other member states. At least, we have students who cross the borders in search of quality education in foreign colleges and universities so as to gain international experience despite for the fact that available jobs are ring-fenced for nationals and who-knows-you or who-you-know methodology — stunting job creation.

The East African currency values

The currency denominations we use in East Africa differ in values. EAC should hastily adopt a single currency; thereafter, formulate monetary policies to strengthen the single legal tender — making its value the same within the community, rattling into the currency market. This will help counter the drastic depreciation of our domestic currencies against other regional and international currencies.

For instance, a 1,000 Kenyan shilling note can do a shopping to feed a small family for some days. It is different in Uganda as the same amount can hardly buy breakfast for one person.

Partners or Competitors? The road to East African integration
Promoting economic growth in the East African region, its a guarantee that it will increase employment and reduce poverty

According to East Africa Food Security Outlook for February to September 2018, conflict and the impacts of drought continue to drive very high assistance needs in East Africa, one therefore needs a stable and well paying job to cater for self and other family members.

Why should one bleed money just to make a phone call or browse the internet while roaming in East Africa? Citizens should enjoy harmonized calling rates and data bundles when roaming/transiting through the six member states.

Regional security

My security as a person when travelling across East Africa is at stake. I say so because we have seen sporadic terrorists threats, and attacks in the region with the recent one being in Kenya, and also brutal battery, tear-gas or arrests by uniformed/plain clothes security officers in Uganda especially when you find yourself in the political cross-fire; police trying to disperse crowds of loyal peaceful demonstrators.

Partners or Competitors? The road to East African integration
An armed police officer drags a man by his boxers for allegedly demonstrating after Qualicel and Nabukeera closed their shops. Traders were protesting over the closure of the shops after the landlord used welding to seal them off at night. The buildings were under contention over who rightfully owned them. PHOTO BY ABUBAKER LUBOWA

The security personnel deployed at various police check points has been sleeping on the job. Just recently when I was travelling from Nairobi, Kenya to Kampala, Uganda, I was surprised that there was no checking on passengers’ luggage when boarding the bus. This was to show an opening where terrorists would use this as an advantage to get weapons and explosives transported with ease so as to carry attacks on us later.

The borders should be secured so as not to allow any person entering a country with weapons of such intentions. But this is only achieved by the concurrence of both countries to have a thorough check before boarding any transportation means.

Power and leadership

East Africans are ruled by majority of leaders who are only after self-interests. Corrupt and power hungry is what they are made of. This is so because we have some leaders in power that do not want to vacate the lucrative leadership positions for other potential contenders with new ideas. They prefer to rule with an iron fist.

It’s high time as East Africans, we revolutionize this despotic kind of rule, and give opportunities to other able leaders who have the ability to change and improve the existing systems to the next level.

We have many educated but unemployed youth out there that need a chance to move freely in other neighboring countries to work, and transact business across — the inter-marriage of developmental ideas will boost EAC economies greatly.

In conclusion, East African leaders have the duty to unite the citizens of the East African Community bloc by opening barriers/channels, and providing equal opportunities to member states, so as to boost the region’s economic growth through an expanded common market — because we have the resources and great ideas required for development.