29 November 2002

East Africa: Optimism Marks EAC Day

As the presidents of the three East African Community (EAC) countries gather for the EAC's fourth summit and the inaugural EAC Day, hope for wider and deeper cooperation between the countries is justified, analysts say.

"The groundwork has been laid and it will take time to carry it out on the level of implementation, but I think there is room for optimism," Michael Okema, a Dar es Salaam-based political scientist, told IRIN. "The forces that were keeping the EAC apart are no longer there," he added.

The previous EAC collapsed in 1977 after a complete disintegration of relations between the three East African countries - Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. At that time, however, Kenya and Tanzania were pursuing diametrically opposed political ideologies - capitalism and socialism, respectively - and Uganda was suffering under Idi Amin's dictatorship.

With a combined population of some 83 million and a natural wealth that includes fertile land, minerals, hydroelectric potential, proponents of the organisation believe that the EAC represents an ideal opportunity for collective development.

"The EAC intends to reinforce the East African ideology within the vision of a fully integrated East Africa that will continue to be one, its people interacting and moving freely within the region," a recent brief, issued by the EAC secretariat states.

Much in line with other interstate bodies, the EAC will look for cooperation in many areas, including trade, investment, industrial development, monetary and fiscal policy, infrastructure, science and technology, and agriculture.

Development towards regional integration is planned to begin with the introduction of a customs union as the entry point of the Community, followed by a common market and, subsequently, a monetary union and ultimately a political federation of East African states.

At the moment, however, efforts are being concentrated on the development of the customs union, which is due to be in place by the end of November 2003.

"The countries are focusing on the customs union because there are all sorts of issues that can't be addressed until the customs union is in place," explains Stergomena Tax, from the Economic and Social Research Fund (ESRF), in the Tanzanian commercial capital, Dar es Salaam.

Tax cited the manufacturing sector, as an example of an area where there would be inequalities between the countries, as Tanzania and Uganda were "lagging behind" Kenya, and decisions would have to be made over compensating those who would lose out under a proposed customs union.

Although still a long way off, analysts also see political ambition lying in the way of total integration.

"I think a problem will arise among the political elites of the three countries, because, naturally, the political elite of one country will want to dominate, but not be dominated," Okema predicts. "In the East African Legislative Assembly, however, they do have a forum to hammer out their differences."

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