By Isaac Mwangi,
East African News Agency
There’s trouble in Kasese… where are the eminent persons hiding?
Arusha(EANA) – Why is there such a lukewarm reception to integration issues by the region’s citizens? Why do nationalistic sentiments seem to rise every so often and strain relations between sister states that have publicly declared their intention to integrate? Why is it that the average citizen on the streets of any town in East Africa cannot tell you the name of the person heading the East African Community Secretariat, the body charged with spearheading the integration agenda?
These and many other questions would probably have more than one simple answer. Whatever initiatives exist to involve people and encourage them to participate have failed dismally. From the decision making to execution, the regional body runs like an exclusive private member’s club. Political leaders and bureaucrats hold sway, to the exclusion of the ordinary citizenry.
Yet, integration cannot be complete without involvement of the people themselves. While allowing transnational corporations to get a wider market is part of the deal, that is not itself sufficient to draw the support of ordinary people and communities. Yet, going by some of the statements that came out of a media workshop of professionals from five partner states (excluding South Sudan), there is little concerted effort at getting the views and support of citizens into the process.
Part of the problem has been weak communication on the goings-on regarding the regional integration agenda. For instance, workshop participants were surprised to learn that one of the four pillars of integration – Political Federation – has quietly metamorphosed into Political Confederation.
When the integration project was mooted, there were four broad areas that were identified: Customs Union, Common Market, Monetary Union and Political Federation. The region is still struggling to fully implement the Common Market Protocol due to the numerous non-tariff barriers that member states have erected against each other. This has effectively stalled progress on the Money Union – which is meant to lead to a single central bank and East African currency in 2024 – since it is not practical to have a single currency regime without open borders that allow the free movement of capital, labour, goods and services.
While there was never a timeline to achieve political federation, it was always clear that this would be difficult given current circumstances in each of the partner states. Not only would such an initiative go against nationalistic sentiments, the systems of governance and accountability differ wildly.
While Kenya has quickly developed a vibrant media and political culture over the past two decades, for instance, political intolerance and media suppression is very much alive in the rest of East Africa. A federation would have to agree not just on standards of human rights and accountable government, but also destroy the hopes of dictators who want to be in power indefinitely.
And so, the latest masterstroke has been to exercise pragmatism and dilute the political aim to one of a loose confederation of states. This will allow cooperation on areas such as the economy, education, and labour – without any country having to lose its political sovereignty.
While that change is not necessarily bad, it betrays a tendency by leaders to sit round a table and discuss matters of grave importance for millions of people without any reference to them. Key aspects of integration should perhaps be the subject of national referenda in the partner states, or at least be subjected to open debate in the regional and national legislatures.
Wide participation and engagement of citizens at all levels is what can create “ownership”, so that integration ceases to be viewed as a project imposed from above and becomes a reality among ordinary people. This lack of participation is worsened by the lack of dissemination of basic information by the EAC secretariat.
Another interesting piece of information that came out of the Nairobi workshop is that the region now has a Committee of Eminent Persons. This is a team of people who are meant to help resolve the region’s crises by engaging the leadership at the highest levels. Why such good news would remain hidden is a complete mystery.
Debatable, too, is the reason why the members of this committee want to stay in the shadows. While one could make an intelligent guess about who some of the members are, the sensitivity of their work has apparently encouraged them to remain anonymous. But, really, how will they resolve issues in anonymity? We haven’t heard them speak about Burundi, or Kasese, or South Sudan, or anything else.
Is this how East Africa hopes to integrate? It will have to be back to the drawing board – and perhaps inject some life into the communication team as well.