MWANGI: Want economic power? Seek ye first the political kingdom
If there is one area where East Africa has failed dismally in its efforts at integration and harmonization of systems and ideas, it’s in the political sphere. It is a spectacular failure for that will affect the region in ways that most people cannot imagine, leading to greater poverty and desperation all round.
Indeed, most efforts at integration have focused on economic aspects: Getting rid of non-tariff barriers, easing the movement of goods and services, removing restrictions on the flow of skilled labour across borders, and generally trying to ensure the smooth operation of the Customs Union and Common Market protocols.
The third pillar of the regional integration agenda – the Monetary Union protocol, has already come a cropper. Beyond the signing and ratification of the relevant instruments for this protocol by the partner states, hardly anything has been done.
The institutions that were to be set up are yet to be initiated, three-and-a-half years after the signing of the protocol by the heads of state at Kampala in November 2013. Neither has there been any word forthcoming about the fate of the Monetary Union from the East African Community headquarters or the heads of state summit.
After the pomp and fanfare, all went quiet.
The question then arises: After the initial steps towards integration of basic economic aspects, why has it proved difficult to move this noble agenda into the more difficult areas, such as monetary union? Even when it comes to the basic issues of the Common Market, why are there constant impediments to integration?
The diagnosis is quite easy. Simply, there is great lip service but a serious lack of political goodwill in advancing the regional integration agenda. Any serious steps, then, will have to await a political solution. This is why, for instance, new non-tariff barriers are quickly introduced by partner states to replace those that have been resolved, creating an endless chain that amounts to nothing but kids play.
Indeed, it has proved impossible to do much regarding Monetary Union for the simple reason that a such a project must be built on a functioning Common Market as a prerequisite. Yet, the region continues to prevaricate when it comes to matters such as the free movement of labour and land ownership rights across the Community. So long as such matters remain unresolved, any talk about Monetary Union will remain hogwash.
Perhaps in recognition of the seeming impossibility of attaining the aspirations of East African integration in full, the final pillar of this enterprise was quietly changed from political federation to political confederation.
Essentially, this means that the partner states no longer wish to come together as one country in some sort of federation, but rather to remain a much looser grouping of countries with close trade and other ties.
If one was to set up an accurate barometer of integration, it would have to take into account the political situation in each country, how close the partner states are in terms of their political experience as well as systems, and national and inter-state political disputes.
It is not enough to point out how a few companies or businessmen are setting up branches in neighbouring countries. Nor are handshakes by senior government officials evidence of success in integration. It is the political capital that counts most.
As matters stand, there is a big deficit on the political balance sheet, so to speak. The Big Man syndrome, by which Africa has gone to waste in order to meet the insatiable appetites of some of its leaders, seems to be making a major comeback into the region.
Existing and creeping dictatorial tendencies are not difficult to discern in virtually all member states of the EAC. And there is little, if any, effort to cultivate a common political culture in the region.
While other blocs all over the world are coming together and pushing their agendas forward in an increasingly competitive world, political short-sightedness is clearly undermining potential gains in East Africa. The focus of the integration agenda must therefore shift from isolated moves aimed at minor economic gains to radical rethinking of the political landscape.
The longer our leaders fail to realise the importance of working as a team to achieve the political and subsequently economic aspirations of their citizens, the longer they will continue to play ping-pong with East Africans, prolonging poverty and misery in our midst.
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