Saturday March 22 2014

One man’s reflections on Charles Njonjo’s viewpoint on the East African Community

By Harold Acemah

It is not often that I am taken aback by the irrational ideas and actions of Africa’s political elite, past and present, but a couple of weeks ago I was amazed to read in The EastAfrican newspaper of March 8-14, 2014, a long opinion by the self-styled “Sir Charles Njonjo” titled: “Call a referendum to make the East African Community legal or disband it”.

Mwalimu Julius Nyerere (RIP) must have turned and chuckled in his grave and exclaimed “Ala!” as he often did when he heard something weird like Njonjo’s argument that, “a referendum on East African unity is urgently required to properly legitimise the project among the people of all the current and proposed member countries”.

This is the same Njonjo who with Mr Bruce McKenzie, Kenya’s then Minister of Agriculture in the 1960s, did more to cause the collapse of the original EAC than the usual culprits. Njonjo was President Jomo Kenyatta’s Attorney General and right-hand man. Thank God, there were not many of his ilk during the 1960s when Africa was blessed with a reasonable number of civilised, decent, intelligent and patriotic leaders.

He was a black Kenyan, but hated and despised everything black. The story is told that one day he was flying from London to Nairobi aboard East African Airways and the flight was so comfortable that he assumed the man in charge, Captain Newman, was a mzungu. When Njonjo asked to meet and congratulate Captain Newman, he was shocked and disappointed to discover that the captain was a Ugandan who routinely beat the bazungu at their own game!

During the 1970s when President Kenyatta’s health was deteriorating, Njonjo rushed through the Bunge or Parliament of Kenya an obnoxious law which prohibited any talk about Mzee Kenyatta’s health; anybody caught committing the crime of discussing Mzee’s possible death was liable to many years of imprisonment with hard labour!

Njonjo’s despicable antics of the 1960s and 1970s are laughable today, just as the NRM regime’s public order and management law, anti-pornography law, patriotism Bill and many other absurd and evil deeds are laughable.

His appeal for “a plebiscite across the region on the principle of unity so that all citizens of member nations (of EAC) can politically legitimise or reject it” reveals his ignorance of the people-centered and driven process which culminated in the signing of the Treaty for East African Cooperation by Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda in 1999. In this regard, Njonjo’s call for a referendum should be dismissed with the contempt it deserves!

He added: “Today’s version of the East African Community anticipates the inclusion of nations such as Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan. Kenya, for example, has certain critical political differences with Rwanda.

While we are a democracy – no matter how imperfect – Rwanda is almost a police state. It would be unfortunate to enter into a partnership that is not derived from shared values on issues such as political pluralism, human rights and, say, the involvement of the military in political and civilian affairs generally.”

Njonjo does not seem to be aware that Burundi and Rwanda are already full members of EAC and have indeed been so for many years; the current Secretary General of EAC, Dr Richard Sezibera, is a Rwandan.

He further argues that, “In similar vein, while Kenya passed a constitution three years ago that is highly progressive in terms of protecting the basic rights and freedoms of citizens; the opposite has been taking place in Uganda. The passing of the so-called anti-gay legislation there is retrogressive.”

“Similarly, we are faced with the ridiculous situation where while the Ugandan president admits Migingo Island is Kenyan, he insists it is in Ugandan waters!”

On the question of monetary union, he argued that “the idea of a single currency is particularly premature” but a common East African Shilling was used for decades (until mid-1960s) by Kenya, Tanganyika, Uganda, Zanzibar and Aden, now Yemen. If anything the idea of a single EAC currency is not only viable, but long overdue.

One important lesson which all East Africans learnt from the collapse of the first EAC in 1977 was that we were all better off with the Community than without it. As of now, Kenya with the biggest manufacturing sector in the region is the principal beneficiary of the large EAC market.

I hope rational and patriotic Kenyans do not buy Njonjo’s anti-EAC propaganda.

I don’t know what Njonjo’s motives are, but my gut feeling is that this man who undermined and wrecked the first EAC is, once again, up to his old tricks! Kenyans and East Africans of goodwill must not allow this good for nothing fellow to weaken and destroy the new and promising EAC.

I am sure most Kenyans would prefer Njonjo to shut up and go wherever he can rest in eternal peace!

Africa was partitioned without our consent by European powers at the Berlin Conference in 1884/5. In the spirit of African unity, the time has come for Africans to erase the boundaries which were drawn by Europeans in the 19th century to divide and rule Africa.

No sane African leader should cry for the retention of these artificial boundaries or demand a referendum on a superfluous question. Long live East African Community! Long live African Unity!

Mr Acemah is a political scientist, consultant and a retired career diplomat.