MWANGI: Wrong turn for integration, so what next?

MWANGI: Wrong turn for integration, so what next?

The East African Community Heads of State Summit was for the umpteenth time postponed earlier this month, the latest reminder of the indifference and lack of enthusiasm with which matters to do with integration are being increasingly handled in the region’s capitals.

Gone are the days, it seems, when the EAC heads of state would congregate at the slightest opportunity, quickly sorting out any pending matters, releasing communiqués and smiling for the cameras. Times are hard, not just within the partner states but even – it appears – in inter-state relations. And the genie is out of the bottle, so there’s little need for any more pretence that all is well.

While the leaders of the partner states have largely kept their differences out of the public limelight, these have often spilled out into the open. It’s no secret that relations have often been strained – as when Tanzania and Rwanda traded accusations a couple of years ago, or when the dispute between Kenya and Uganda over Migingo Island first broke out. Such disputes, however, are usually more often than not handled diplomatically or simply brushed aside.

A lot of disputes have also revolved around trade issues, with countries employing non-tariff barriers against each other. This has made it virtually impossible for the Common Market to function as was originally envisioned. While the region’s heads of state are usually quick to tackle any NTBs and related matters, these are usually quickly replaced – to be tackled once again at the next summit.

It is this kind of behaviour that betrays a lack of seriousness by partner states in conforming to agreed protocols and moving the integration process forward. Finally, it appears, everyone has realised that the differing national interests that hold back the integration agenda are so deeply rooted as to turn the whole process into a vicious circle that leads nowhere. Such a realisation can only lead to lacklustre commitment and lip service.

Over the past few years, the uncompromising positions of different countries in the regional bloc have become quite apparent. Top on the list is the matter of an economic partnership agreement with the European Union – a generally one-sided trade agreement meant to promote Europe’s access to the region’s resources cheaply while granting goods from the EU preferential access into the regional market.

Kenya has been particularly insistent that the rest of East Africa agree to this skewed trade arrangement. Apart from Rwanda that accepted to go along with Kenya, the rest of East Africa has been more hesitant – especially Tanzania. It is this matter that is said to have initially led to postponement of the Summit from November last year so as to try and first hammer out a consensus. No agreement has been forthcoming on the matter so far.

But there are a number of other areas where the EAC partner states have similarly failed to see eye to eye. These include issues to do with work permits, opening up land ownership to citizens of other partner states, a single tourist visa, and national identity cards. It is these disagreements that led to the application of the principle of variable geometry, by which some countries have pushed ahead of others in implementing integration measures that they felt were being unduly delayed.

The lack of seriousness in tackling these issues by national leaders has been accompanied by general ignorance on matters to do with integration on the part of the general population. Thus, the integration process has failed to gain strength at the grassroots level, remaining merely at the presidential and bureaucratic levels. This makes it particularly shaky.

The dilution of the ideals of integration is gradually becoming evident in other ways as well that are not immediately discernible to the man in the street. All along, for example, the ultimate goal of the East African integration process has been political federation – that is, until sometime last year when this was quietly changed to “political confederation.”

The decision to integrate did not involve the people, and neither have the current quiet moves to “diminish” integration involved the common citizenry. Given recent events, however, it seems quite obvious that regional integration is at a crossroads. Whether it will recover or will quietly disintegrate remains to be seen.

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Story By Isaac Mwangi
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