The news this week has been dominated by stories about the East African Community following a summit of three of its five presidents (the so-called Coalition of the Willing) held in Kigali.
The idea of a large regional trading bloc is a good one. It will help us pool our economies and populations and thus to create economies and efficiencies of scale. Out of this larger entity can come synergies that transform us from five poor and highly indebted countries into one middle income regional bloc.
A well governed and economically viable regional bloc can also help ease the sharp ethnic tensions that occur within the present member states.
The European Union took in the several states that broke away from Yugoslavia and minimised the negative effects of the breakup of that state because whilst the various nationalities that had been bound up in Yugoslavia could not stand to live together in one small room they were quite happy to live together in one big house called the EU.
Economic interdependence should also make the communities, nations and states more likely to co-operate for a win-win than to fight each other in a zero sum win-lose arrangement. Again, the EU comes to mind here because it was established principally as a means of preventing the outbreak of war in Europe after the Second World War.
But as with all good ideas, the devil always lurks in the details. Contrary to well spun tales and the foundation myths in the making, the East African Community is not the idea of some enlightened African revolutionaries.
The idea of an East African Federation comprising of Uganda, Kenya and Tanganyika, was mooted as far back as 1924. Leopold S. Amery, the British Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Colonies, also mooted a federation in a Cabinet White Paper in 1927.
Amery’s proposal to Cabinet led to the reference of the idea to a Cabinet Subcommittee, which in turn recommended the establishment of a Royal Commission (the equivalent of a Commission of Inquiry) into the idea of an East African Federation. The East African Royal Commission was set up in 1953 and it conducted its work over two years.
The problems that faced the idea then still beset it now. First of all then, as now, the East Africa Federation was a top down affair. In those days it was an idea that was being driven by the colonial authorities, these days it is largely driven by Government politicians and technocrats without much real grassroots involvement. There is an East African Anthem that nobody really knows whether by tune or by lyrics.
There are institutions that provide good patronage fodder for failed local politicians but which do not have any appreciable impact in people’s daily lives.
Secondly, to please its presiding interests, the EAC has refused to involve itself in the fundamental questions of governance and sold itself only in terms of being a driver of economic development.
This is a mistake because whilst economic prosperity is important in people’s lives, people are also concerned with matters of security, politics, culture and native identity.
Dr. A.J. Hood, who studied the work of the East African Royal Commission of 1953-1955 and its critics, noted that “Time and again [the African witnesses] challenged the notion that economic progress could stand as a substitute for real constitutional change.
African intellectuals, workers and villagers made it clear that they attached equal, if not greater, importance to achieving political control over the development process as they did to development itself.” I am sure that the descendants of those witnesses still feel the same way.
Thirdly, although some progress appears to have been made in terms of increased membership and tangible projects, we now have clear but largely unexplained cracks beginning to show in the foundations. Tanzania and Burundi now appear to be lagging behind and Tanzania and Rwanda appear to be engaged in an increasingly open cold war.
For an edifice that still largely depends on the co-operation of leaders, one cannot help but think that this is a bad sign, especially since the EAC already suffered a bust up in the 1970’s after Julius Nyerere and Jomo Kenyatta, who allegedly didn’t quite get on, found the perfect excuse of separation in Idi Amin.
If the EAC is going to avoid the pitfalls of the past, it must set about indigenising itself. It must be an answer to the challenges that face the peoples of East Africa and not simply a mimic of foreign regional blocs or a vehicle for foreign or local egotistical interests.