Kigali — While the EU battles the euro crisis and security of its member states wobbles, East Africa is becoming ever more community-minded. A common market is developing. Considerations of a universal monetary unit are serious. And some can even foresee the formation of a political federation.
The East African Community was founded in 1999, comprising just Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. In 2007, Rwanda and Burundi joined. By 2010, a common market protocol was officially launched, though the organization has yet to effectively implement it. No matter, the EAC is ploughing ahead with plans for simultaneous expansion and cohesion.
Last week in the capital city of Arusha, the EAC headquarters opened its doors to the public.
"We are striving to establish a common market," said organization secretary-general Richard Sezibera. While acknowledging the sluggishness of the process, the Rwandan diplomat was keen to highlight some of the EAC's "great achievements". For starters, the free movement of persons, goods and capital within the five member states.
But some visitors to the open house needed convincing.
"What are the advantages of a common market if I need a residence or work permit in order to study or earn a living in Tanzania?" wondered Odette Uwamariya, a university student in Arusha.
A local journalist remarked: "The average citizen in various member states is not even aware of the organization's existence."
Sezibera praised the fact that shares of commercial companies from Kenya - the largest economy in the community - are now sold in other countries in the region.
Yet some students and professors sitting in the room questioned if the economic integration was not solely benefitting Kenya, being the main producer of industrial goods and an important source of qualified workforce in the region.
"The competition is not our Kenyan, Ugandan, Rwandan or Burundian neighbours," explained Sezibera. "The competition is China, the United States, Japan... We must unite in order to be competitive."
Common but not carefree
Denouncing the EAC's lack of cohesion, a student reminded the audience that some member states often suffer from food shortages while their neighbours have surpluses that they won't export.
For example, last year when the worst food crisis in Kenyan history plagued the country's north, surplus crops rotted in neighbouring Tanzania. In response, the secretary-general admitted that the common market had limitations, but said steps had been taken to remove them.
Sezibera also indicated that Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya had signed an agreement enabling their respective citizens to move freely across the four countries, using only their national identification cards. Tanzania has yet to ratify the text which, according to Sezibera, will be initially implemented between Kenya and Rwanda.
It is in this context that the EAC member states are currently negotiating the creation of a monetary union, which is a "complex process", as Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza said at the organization's April 2011 summit in Dar es Salaam.
The European Central Bank is acting as an advisor in the plans, though that does not assure everyone. "The Europeans were unable to prevent the severe crisis that their region is currently experiencing," said Kenyan journalist Nicodemus Onyango. " What kind of miraculous solution can they possibly offer to East Africa?"
In a recent interview with Radio Netherlands, Tanzanian opposition figure and economist Ibrahim Lipumba exhorted the negotiators to have more patience. "Our economic institutions are not cohesive," he said.
"Our countries should first focus on establishing democracy. A political federation without democratic foundations would be a source of political unrest and chaos," Lipumba cautioned. He added: "A leader who does not respect the constitution of his own country would not respect that of a Federation of East African States."
A United States?
The dream of some EAC founders transcends a common market and a monetary union. It goes as far as a political federation. In other words, it could become "the United States of East Africa", which some have pronounced for 2016.
Faustine Kapama, a Tanzanian journalist at the open house, was sceptical. "Some member states are still torn by internal conflicts, with ongoing tensions between various tribal and ethnics communities. There can be no real political federation until such internal issues are resolved," he said.
The EAC currently counts over 130 million citizens and spans over 1.8 million square kilometres. Those numbers may soon rise. Somalia and South Sudan have applied for membership to the regional organization.