3 June 2010

East Africa: Challenges for Integration


A formal interest in the unfolding events in the realm of international politics brings to the immediate fore two overlapping if not mutually inclusive tendencies: On the one hand, there is an increasing drive towards a robust revitalisation and a steady proliferation of regional integration efforts[1]; on the other - particularly within the historical framework of post-Cold War era - there is the erratic and sometimes violent fracturing of national entities into irredentist sub-national claims, variably shaped by the potential for internecine conflicts.

Whichever of these historical trends captures the real spirit of the time remains a moot question. It is moot because the riptide of globalisation-fragmentation of national entities increasingly seems to go hand in hand. It is, however, necessary to observe that the two tendencies are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In fact, in one way or another, they enjoy mutual interpenetration, particularly in a sense that betrays strategic overlap and mutual embeddedness. To be sure, they all serve the social forces, the strategic interests of which either conflate or repel each other as these inform the historical character and logic of neo-liberal globalisation.

The grudging though steady return of and compulsion towards regionalistic thinking among the political elite in the Eastern Africa region is undoubtedly one very important trend in contemporary international relations. On a worldwide scale/level it rides on the wave often and is increasingly being referred to as the new regionalism.[2] This wave is mainly, if not exclusively, characterised by an ever-increasing:

- geographic scope

- demographic diversity

- historical fluidity and

- a complex mixture and variety of driving forces and actors in the re-integration project.

We need to understand this process as a critical response to and a possible principle of order, in a world precariously globalising under the impetus of a mono-hegemonic sway of neo-liberalism. This is now changing. And the Obama presidency may usher in a new era of multilateralism and multi-polarity which might introduce a brand new element in the process, character and social content of regional integration in general and East African Community integration in particular.

Appreciating the historical import of the new forms of regionalism in general and East African re-integration in particular, requires that we take a fresh but decisive look beyond simple state-centric notions of regional integration and instead strive to bring other non-state actors into a more innovative focus and analysis; an analysis that should inform a deeper appreciation of the significance of the role that non-state actors should play in giving the historic drive towards regionalisation a truly local rationale and historical impetus.

We have in mind a wide range of heterogeneous linkages and interactions among commercial and sub-national actors. Their individual or combined agenda for regional compacts may not always sit well with the mundane aspirations of the popular masses of the geographic region in question. To be sure, it all depends on where we feel comfortable to place the milestone. Our point of departure, however, is that the complexity and over-determination of the processes of contemporary regionalisation calls for the relearning of old lessons, reassessment of analytical perspectives, the re-invention of political-economic players and an ever-changing balance of social/historical forces.

The East African regionalisation experience is taking shape and, at the same time, experiencing all manner of hiccups within a historical context that is extremely complex: The cumulative crisis of capitalism is characterised by the creeping in of multipolarity in international relations as a welcome sequel to the Bush-era militaristic uni-polarisation of world politics.

The process is accompanied by the decline of US hegemony and the associated discrediting of the Washington consensus. The accompanying grudging retreat of the market forces is more than likely to provide an occasion for regional authoritarian states moving into the vacuum, occasioning the resurgence of state interventionism, which is more than likely to monopolise and re-bureaucratise the regional integration agenda and process. This would be unfortunate. But the signals are there for many of us to see. Should this materialise, it would amount to the irony equivalent to giving Dracula the keys to the bloodbank of our popular sovereignty.

Recent intergovernmental experience does not provide us with any hope for a bottom-up integration process. There are no good and appreciable examples of how to construct a regionalisation agenda from a popular foundation. If anything, the impetus to a regionalisation process that cannot produce a truly people-driven regionalisation agenda but instead a deliberate up-scaling of tribal fragmentations - at the national level - that keeps some of our leaders in the region in power. Ordinary people in the East African region, despite colonial effort to create an extractive market in the region did not exhibit the kind of intra-regional hostility characterising the present-day top-down regionalisation efforts that make Migingo and Vanga interstate conflicts deny us any hope of ever becoming a strong and proud regional compact. We need less of such incidences if we are to look forward to a successful regionalisation.


The contemporary wave of regionalistic tendencies in international relations need no longer be understood as distinct and peremptory alternatives to the national projects with their patriotic/nationalistic overtones. To be sure, it is better explained as an instrument supplementing, enhancing or protecting the role of the nation state and the attendant governmental capacity in a world of unequal interdependence, rather than supplanting or negating the yet-to-be-exhausted spirit of national sovereignty and the attendant competing patriotic claims on it.

The conceptual toolbox for understanding regionalism or regionalisation is adorned with a wide range of notions and analytical instruments; each one capturing the different nuances of the process and thereby raising some of the most nagging questions such like: As nation states, in their proto-typic characterisation, continue to experience a strategic deficit in the capacity to effectively engage with the challenges of the national question of national democratic construction, are they, at the same time, being called upon to 'pool sovereignty', or are they being required to expand their jurisdictional limits in order to accommodate and possibly neutralise the adverse effects neo-liberal character of globalisation?

Are we merely being called upon to upscale the strategic implications of the unfinished agenda of the national question at the present national level discourse, or are we being driven by the lure of a fad the historical implications of which we still have to fathom? Whatever the case might be, it is important to ask: Which social forces are driving either of the tendencies? Is regionalism supplanting, supplementing or substituting multilateralism at the global level?

Answers to the above questions, exhaustive as they might seek to be, will still beg for more.

As a result one may proceed to ask: On what levels or for what reasons are regionalistic impulses stimulated. Is it:

- At intrastate or extra-state levels?

- At national, sub-national or at international levels?

- As response to external challenges or driven by domestic demands.

- In pursuit of Regionalism or as an act of regionalisation?

- For regional coherence or regional identity?

- For purposes of International cooperation or in pursuit of regional integration?

- The instrument of state strategy or driven by market forces or

- Re-drawing of tribal boundaries for larger conflation of ethnic hegemonic projects by regional leaders who have exhausted ethnic-hegemonic practices at the national levels?

It is crucial, at this stage, to distinguish processes underlying regional initiatives from those associated with and informing the act of regionalisation. The distinction, though ambiguously tenuous and uncertain in its descriptive capacity, is important in several ways; the most important one being that of explicating the intriguing and complex dynamics of contemporary variety of regional groups and the political-economic terrain of the geographical spaces they occupy.

Regionalism, for purposes of this presentation, is a state-driven project tendentiously designed to reorganise a particular regional space along agreed-upon economic and political interests. It is mainly driven by the configuration and balance of forces in the individual nation states.

In a more specific sense, it refers to a body of values and objectives that are aimed at initiating, sustaining or modifying the commonwealth of a people occupying a particular regional space.[3][ By nature, it embodies the urge by any set of actors to reorganise their political-economic lives around the geopolitical demands of a given regional space. It's a product of instrumental state policies geared towards a strategic enlargement of national sovereignty in favour of broader and collective interests of the collaborating nation states and in the image of the ruling interests. Regionalisation on the other hand implies the vicarious act of convergence and integration of non-state interests in the areas of culture, market and cross-borderer civic /interactions into the regional project. Further it stands for a broader concentration and release of national and sub-national energies around regional political economic interests, ranging from environmental conservation and manpower development to trade.

In order to avoid the uncritical use of rigid theoretical postulates geared towards explaining the logic and historical dynamics behind the steady growth and expansion of regional organisations, it is necessary to maintain some measure of practical open-mindedness. This will facilitate methodological accommodation of the state-society dynamics necessary for explaining new forms of regionalisations; particularly those that provide the much needed platform for constructive engagement with forces of undemocratic globalisation sited in the WTO, Davos, G8, etc. This, it is always hoped, will help stem the tide of marginalisation of any given region and its political-economic institutions and at the same time undermine the centre-periphery structures located within the framework of the unevenly globalising world.


From a Functionalist theoretical perspective, dominant during the inter-War period, and which arose from a strong concern about the obsolescence of the State as a leading force in social organisation, in general and as a critical driving force in international relations in particular, the East African variant of regionalism has tended to place on front burner self-interest of nation-states that realists see as a motivating factor.

Instead of focusing on common interests and needs shared by states in general but also by non-state actors in a process of regional integration, functionalism places a distinct premium on civic interconnections and wirings of non-state constituencies across national boundaries. Triggered by the strategic erosion of state sovereignty and the increasing weight of sub-national interests, its roots can be traced back to the liberal/idealist tradition that started with Kant and went as far as Woodrow Wilson's 'Fourteen Points' speech. (Rosamond, 2000)

As a pioneer in globalisation theory and strategy, functionalism argued that the benefits of functional agencies among nation states would be the basis of attracting loyalty of the citizens of the various states to the integration agenda. Until then, states had built authority structures upon a principle of territorialism. Such state state-theories were built upon assumptions that identified the scope of authority with territory (Held 1996, Scholte: 1993, 2000, 2001). Aided by methodological territorialism (Scholte 1993), Functionalism proposed to build a form of authority based in functions and needs, which linked authority with civic needs built around supra-territorial concepts of authority. Such authority transcended the typical conflation of the constitutive state authorities.

According to functionalism, regional integration - the collective governance and material interdependence (Mitrany, 1933:101) between states - develops its own internal dynamic as states integrate in limited functional, technical, civic and/or economic areas. At the moment we have, at the state level, international agencies would meet human needs, aided by cross-boarder exchanges. It assumed that the benefits rendered by the cross-boarder functional agencies would attract and stimulate the participation of respective populations in a given region and, at the same time, expand the common areas of integration. There are strong assumptions underpinning functionalism:

1) That the process of integration takes place within a framework of human freedom

2) That knowledge and expertise are currently available to meet the needs for which the functional agencies are built

3) That states will not sabotage the process.

Complementary to functionalist perspective of regional integration is neofunctionalism, which, in practice, reintroduces territorialism in the functional theory but downplays its global dimension. It can be said that, in this particular respect that neofunctionalism is simultaneously a theory and a strategy of regional integration, building on the work of David Mitrany which focuses on the process of integration among states, i.e. regional integration; initially starting with the integration of limited functional or economic areas and gradually and systematically expanding into domains that promise a more binding glue to the integration process. It so happens that the partially integrated states tend to experience increasing momentum for further rounds of integration in related areas. This 'invisible hand' of integration phenomenon was termed 'spill-over' by the neofunctionalist school. Although integration can be resisted, it becomes harder to stop integration's reach as it progresses.[1]

According to neofunctionalists, there are two kinds of spill-over: Functional and political. Functional spill-over is the interconnection of various economic sectors or issue-areas, and the integration in one policy-area spilling over into others. Political spill-over is the creation of supranational governance models, as far-reaching as the European Union.


East Africa as a region is characterised by the following features:

Historical and natural factors endow it with a high level of integration in several areas and in a pattern decisively influenced by the colonial interests of western capitalist expansion.

Initially and particularly in the pre-colonial era the region was relatively symmetrical in economic terms. Colonialism, neo-colonialism and now neo-liberalism have, as was to be expected, subjected the region to the usual unequal economic underdevelopment - concentrating powerful economic institutions and production and distribution activities in such sectors as agriculture, manufacturing, trade, transport and communication in national economies enjoying the most favourable conditions for extractive-capitalist exploitation.

The region is rich in cross-border cultural/ethnic commonalties that pre-dispose it towards a natural gravitation towards closer integration of the most vital spheres of life.

The use and exploitation of Lake Victoria promises potential benefits of cooperation among the riparian regional communities but also portends conflicts around the international use of the attendant resources.

The East African Community Phase I was a colonial project. The colonial history of the Eastern African states is rather heterogeneous. Whereas it was constructed on a relatively terra firma of linguistic relatedness, ethnic and sub-ethnic cross-boarder relationships and singularity of colonial agenda, it leaned, at the same time and with a precarious weight, on a hollow reed marked by the underlying pre-colonial social formations around proto-nationalist tendencies. The post-World War One dispensation that ushered in and provided for a unified British control of the regional (colonial, territorial and mandatory) entities gave the region a foretaste of an externally driven experimentation with regional integration. A host of common services provided the relatively solid ground on which the regional body built its fledgling political and economic institutions.

Built on unequal sovereignty and subjected to unequal colonial-capitalist under-development, the regional economy gravitated around Kenya's one-upmanship in the institutional consolidation of market forces and substitutive industrial development. If colonial interests had been the political-economic site for the institutional organisation of the East African Community Phase I, the same interests, though strategically morphed into a new imperialist instrument would, later on, turn into a prime site for the reorganisation of the balance of social forces required to sustain and, if possible, outlast the historical limitations of the colonial project.

Thus the post-colonial efforts aimed at the deepening of the East African community agenda became a strategic victim of social class-formation manoeuvres by the sub-national elites, cutting their milk teeth in primitive accumulation of political-economic resources. Wrestling with the unique character of the challenges of national ruling class formation necessitated the need to operate within the narrow framework of a sheltered home turf under the sovereignty of a nation state. In Kenya where a powerful ruling class was already cutting its milk teeth, consolidating tribal hegemony around Kenyatta's presidency, the threat to a deeper regionalisation gained in reality and imminence.

Much later, the post-colonial dynamics of regionalisation in East Africa would later be over-determined by a host of factors ranging from:

- The institutional crystallisation of the hegemonic authority of the neocolonial agents as an emerging social class mandated to re-organise the postcolonial political economy in favour of continued dependency on metropolitan interests

- Domestication of ideological reflexes of the cold war

- Emergence of neopatrimonial states in the region as internal cleavages began to threaten, with considerable seriousness, the status quo built on the proto-hegemonic rule of the first generation leadership.

Together, these factors produced the historical conditions under which the East African Community Phase II found its provenance. Over-politicisation of the regionalisation agenda and unrealistic reliance on Westphalian anachronism pre-disposed individual state elites towards an obsession with the politics of absolute sovereignty which detracted from a strategic appreciation of synergy that would drive the regional economy under its own flag of interdependence.

The left-leaning governments of Tanzania and Uganda under Mwalimu Julius Nyerere and Milton Obote respectively provided a convenient handle for the Kenyan based rightwing clique caballed around Charles Njonjo of Kenya to scuttle the project before it could claim local-community ownership. For Kenya to play its strategic role for Western monopoly capital, seeking to extend and consolidate a stronghold over a wider market from a safe ideological distance, it was strategically necessary to isolate it from the ideologically unwieldy, if not potentially hostile, East African community by dismantling the cooperation and having an easy time controlling member states individually, using Kenya as a strategic base. The upshot was that the East African Community phase II was condemned to die in the hands Kenya's rightwing agents of neocolonial interests; so that the 1st Republican rule under Kenyatta would leave an indelible hegemonic mark on the Kenyan postcolonial history.

The return of regionalism in East Africa - in the way of East African Community Phase III - has been materialising under a completely different international dispensation. For many observers, it hit the ground with deliberate pace that, for all practical purposes, reflected a powerful unity around a widely shared commitment to and justifiable nostalgia for a worthwhile project, previously undermined in its infancy by neocolonial machinations and now pressing for a third round of historical legitimation.

Yet, deep in the recess of popular memory of the East African people, East African Community Phase II had bequeathed member countries a seriously anaemic legacy: Mistrust, uneven economic development, a new configuration of strategic interest of an increasingly uni-polarising world around hegemonic United States of America. Tanzania's role as a frontline state, in the interim, had already drawn the East African country away from its erstwhile neighbours and, as a result, launched it on gravitational path towards the South as an emerging political-economic centre of gravity in Africa. As a SADC member, Tanzania is negotiating its return to the East African Community Phase III, wearing a tentative phase and with an understandable schizophrenic bearing: On the one hand it seems to relish the prospect of benefiting from updated historical ties with the neighbouring states; yet the legacy of a frontline state role, born of heroic engagement with decolonisation behind its southern boarders, beguilingly draws it into the SADC arrangement - yet not necessarily away from a close collaboration with her East African neighbours. To be sure, it has been a relationship dogged more by strategic neglect rather than rancour. Sceptics may, however, cavil. With the cold wind of neoliberalism blowing over the process of re-integration and as regionalism emerges forcefully as an integral part of the world trading environment, there has been an on-rush of market-friendly actors; each competing for a piece of the action through which the defining features of the East African community project will be etched in the historical consciousness of the people of the region.

It is important to take note of the fact that during both the East African Community Phases I and II, the level of integration was unevenly high in a limited number of areas - particularly in transport, migrant labour, trade, education etc. In these and other areas critical to the regional political economy, Kenyan actors in most of the above areas were dominant and therefore the region could best be analysed along centre-periphery lines. The structural pattern of Kenyan dominance developed mainly out of the colonial unequal underdevelopment of the region. The resulting unmistakable display of economic capacity differences led to asymmetrical integration of the national economies into the then unviable regional project.

Over time, three main categories of external forces have shaped the regional political economy and regionalism in East Africa: During, the colonial period it was the work of colonial capitalist expansion organising cheap labour and the colonial market for industrial goods from the metropolitan economy. Immediately after independence and particularly at the height of the Cold War, the superpowers and their local agents played a leading role in giving political-economic content to the neo-colonial regionalism agenda; and at the return to the new regionalism, the multilateral financial institutions and bilateral donors and the power sites of the Global North have insinuated their neoliberal interest into the regionalism project. The veneer of a rich and popular dialogue that is purported to have accompanied the East African states' recapture of domestic policy terrain alongside other non-state actors lost it gloss even before the regional project got off the ground. Regionalisation from below remained a far cry from what was actually happening. Even the superficial engagement of the East African Business Community can hardly justify the community's claim of a popular rebirth.

The fundamental principles and objectives driving the process of East African regionalisation are as sound as they are aimed at addressing some of the problems which caused the demise of East African Common Services Organisation (1961-66) and the East African Community Phase II (1967-1977). The areas designated for cooperation such as:

- Trade liberalisation and development

- Investment and industrial development

- Standardisation, quality assurance, metrology and testing

- Monetary and financial cooperation

- Infrastructure and services

- Development of human resources

- Science and technology

- Agriculture and food sovereignty

- Environment and natural resources management

- Tourism and wildlife management

- The private sector and civil society

- Legal and judicial affairs

- Enhancing the role of women in socio-economic activities

- Free movement of persons, labour, services, right of establishment and residence etc

- Regional customs union

lend themselves to easy implementation, provided that the organisation of the Community and the functional distribution of its organs are brought to proper alignment with the historic challenges facing the peoples of the region.

For instance, the proposed Sectoral Councils, as the main vehicles for the implementation and monitoring of the regional development programmes, need not mimic the SADC arrangement, particularly given the unique history of the East African regionalisation effort. More innovative thinking needs to inform their composition and functioning in order for them to facilitate effective multi-jurisdictional regional processes. Only then will the day-to-day business of the community be conducted against an institutional backdrop of institutional arrangements that are intrinsically subject to constant negotiations by and re-invention of popular forces in the East African societies.

Such popular forces can only add value to the regional project if they can risk taking value position on the tricky issues of privatisation, liberalisation and the giving of free reign to the market forces that are itching to re-colonise the regional space. Again, only then and then alone can the Northern muscle-flexing through the totems of post-modern colonisation be kept within harmless limits. If they remain a direct replication of the national governance structures, they will have difficulties shaking off some of the national sovereignty overhangs that are more than likely to arrest the process of regionalisation and consign it into the national political muddle of merely enlarged national state bureaucracies and thereby upset the East African project. In fact, the people of East Africa are yet to witness the practice of political and institutional imagination in the materialisation of some of the critical organs of the community. The community must remain alive, drawing its breath from the vital organs of its grassroots communities.

In constituting one of the cardinal organs of the community - the Regional Legislative Assembly, one or two of the member states have been treating their citizens to a charade reminiscent of medieval feudal lords rewarding their satraps with undeserved sinecures under a thin veneer of popular consensus among party-political actors. For Kenya one can have solace in the realisation that 'if one's only tool is a rungu[4], everything would seem to look like the head of an enemy'. A less partisan approach to nominating individuals with the desired credentials would have signalised the kind of good will with which the national political elites accord the regional project.


Intractable challenges face the community. In order to translate the fundamental principles and objectives informing the re-integration of the East African countries into a viable community of regional economic interests, member countries will need to overcome the temptation to over-bureaucratise the re-integration effort at the expense of the imperative and principle of subsidiarity. Membership overlaps between COMESA (Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa) and SADC, like in the case of Uganda, withdrawal of Tanzania from COMESA in favour of SADC and the intensifying competition between the two treaties will soon shake out into an unpredictable re-alignment of regional and sub-regional forces, rendering their coexistence a precarious eventuality. But before this happens, a much more transparent and popular conversation needs to precede the re-integration process. The entailed discourses cannot be the monopoly of state bureaucrats and their partisan reflexes. Non-state actors need effective engagement with the process.

Several years of effort to avoid membership overlap in order to find a clear division of labour and possibly improve the framework for intergovernmental cooperation in the region have come up against intractable challenges; most of it touching on collective reluctance to cede some non-critical elements of national sovereignty to the imperative of regional solidarity, leave alone federation.

To what extent the newly reborn East African Community will embed its institutional and strategic interests sustainably within the COMESA framework, particularly with Tanzanian's sentimental gravitation towards SADC, remains a litmus test for organisational viability of the regional body.

Unlike SADC which has been organisationally restructuring its confederational operations around sector protocols that are supposed to guide the direction that its future regionalisation will take, COMESA and its East African community subset seem to be lagging behind. Even in even in a creative mimicking of SADC's experiences, the shared watercourse systems protocol around Lake Victoria, through a regional/local ownership of LAVEMP- a World Bank funded programme, aimed at addressing sustainability problems afflicting development efforts by the riparian communities, is still saddled with a myriad of teething problems.

There is no doubt that a high economic growth scenario is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a sustainable regional development. If this condition were to be met, it would be necessary that the results of such high economic growth be available for the majority of the people of the region, without any artificial bureaucratic manipulation. The alternative would be marked by increasing polarisation, not only between intra-state sections of society, but also between member states.

Interestingly, though, civil society entities located in and engaging with the member states are reaching out for common agenda across national boundaries and forming networks and regional platforms which are in need of the required capacity to address pressing regional social development issues.

The Law Societies of the member countries, the business community, civil society networks eg., the still-born NGOSEA and many other cognate initiatives are pertinent cases in point.

Base societal forces are also seeking institutional engagement with the regionalisation process. Entry-points are far and apart. The few opportunities that occasionally open themselves up are many times clogged by bureaucratic state-centric procedures that leave little room for civic engagement with the process of regionalisation.

The East African Communities organisation for Management of Lake Victoria Resources (ECOVIC), an international NGO based in Mwanza, was launched in 1998. At local governmental level, regional cooperation is being improved through activities of Lake Victoria Regional Local Authorities Co-operation (LVRLVC). Trade unions in the three countries, however, remain oblivious to the regional labour issues and are hardly waking up to the challenges associated with trans-boundary labour issues and problems, particularly those that chain labour against mobile capital.

Regional sites of democratic action from where to engage critically with WTO, Debt problems, MAI, Free Trade Agreement (FTA) etc, (as the latter are busy writing the constitution of a single world economy in the true image of the interest of the corporate North) are just beginning to take shape in the efforts of a few NGO networks beginning to address some of the sticky issues emerging from the Coutonou (ACP-EU) process. A strategic conflation of such engagements on both national and regional sites will need to be stimulated and strengthened in order to drive the process of regionalisation from below and in full awareness of the precarious agenda of free-market zealotry.

With the broad masses of the people getting bored with the antics of the democracy discourse and their national governments increasingly losing control of the institutional levers of sovereignty, their only hope for a dignified citizenship may seem to be tantalisingly embedded in the ambiguous folds of a regional concertation of national and sub-national interests. This will bring the agenda of cross-cultural competence into high relief, consigning the debilitating tribal fetishes, which have become dangerous pegs on which the backward forces in the individual nation states hang their hegemonic flags, into a regional irrelevance; and thereby provide an opportunity for the emergence of a progressive and economically powerful humanity around the shores of Lake Victoria and along that of the Indian Ocean.

Edward Oyugi is executive director of the Social Development Network


[1] Regionalisation in a Globalising World, a comparative perspective on Forms, Actors and Processes, edited by Michael Schulz, Fredrik Doderbaum and Joakim Ojendal.London, 2001

[2] Ibd, 2001

[3] For a more informed discussion on the topic, see Marianne H. Marchand: North American Regionalisms and Regionalisation in Regionalisation in a Globalizing World, London 2001


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