columnBy Eddie M. Balaba
Earlier this week, I was a delegate at the 8th COMESA Business Forum held at Kampala's grandly named "Common wealth Speke Resort Munyonyo" in Uganda.
The theme of forum was not to be out done by the venue; it was equally grand. "Enhancing intra-COMESA trade through Micro, Small and Medium Enterprise Development"!
I am certain that the people who conceive these things mean well but by God, aren't they always a mouthful?
For the most part the forum was interesting. Interesting much like watching figure-skating or synchronised diving in the Olympics or better still, competitive water polo; fun, yes we would all agree but rather pointless!
To the uninitiated, these kinds of conferences are popular among bureaucrats and government officials for one thing; the opportunity to collect per-diem.
Case in point; given the theme mentioned above it was rather bemusing to find the conference hall full of mainly officials from the COMESA secretariat and other regional bodies, government officials, central bankers among others.
The ratio of people from the business community to bureaucrats was close to one to ten (1:10)!
This made me question the whole notion of policy driven regional integration initiatives.
While it is true that some kind of 'ground rules' are required to push the integration agenda forward, is it nearly enough to merely invest in formulating all these legal frameworks and protocols if the intended recipients still have cold feet?
In 1973, Norwegian policy makers negotiated successfully to join the European Union only to be rebuffed by voters at referendum who opted to stay out of the EU. This was a great demonstration of how far national policy can be removed from the reality and needs on the ground.
Regional blocs have emerged all around the world hot on the hills of the European Union that was heralded as the shining light until the recent public debt crisis among some of its leading members such as Greece and Spain.
From MERCOSUR in the South America to EFTA in northern Europe and ASEAN in South East Asia, regional integration is the buzzword.
The deliberate effort of most countries to be a part of one regional bloc or another seems to be a direct affront to the Westphalian sovereignty that thrived around the world till the end of the second world war.
Until then, the supremacy of national interests was ingrained in most political discourse.
As the name suggests Westphalian sovereignty traces its roots to the 'Peace of Westphalia' signed in 1648. These were a series of treaties signed to end two unresolved wars in central Europe involving the Holy Roman Empire, the kingdom of France, the kingdom of Spain, the Swedish empire and the Dutch republic among others.
They were signed in Osnabruck and Munster in Westphalia, present day Germany.
Like multi-party politics in the seventies and eighties, regional integration has taken Africa by storm from the mid nineties. To-date, apart from the all encompassing African union, the average African country has a choice of at least three regional blocs to subscribe to.
Rwanda for one has at least five, namely; EAC, COMESA, CEMAC and CEPGL.
I have no doubt that each organisation has its merits but I can't help visualising the image of a child in a sweet shop destructed by the multitude of choices!
Once the choice has been made on which blocs to join, how then does a tiny country like Rwanda go about leveraging influence in these multiple regional blocs? I do not envy the minister for regional cooperation, their work is clearly cut out and it cannot be all peaches and scented flowers.
Perhaps a referendum like the one held in Norway in 1973 would help. This time though Rwandans would have to vote Yes or No on whether to join each of the possible regional blocs!
The uncertainty surrounding which regional bloc to join may explain Tanzania's lukewarm attitude to advancing the EAC agenda. They are deeply committed to SADC and may not have the appetite for jostling for influence with Uganda and Kenya.
Together the three oversaw the fractious disintegration of the short-lived East African Union in the late seventies.
Another telling sign within the region could be that of our neighbours to west.
The DRC is a member of SADC, CEMAC and COMESA but remains as isolated as ever. It seems that to enjoy the juicy fruit in your neighbour's orchard, you need to first tend to your own patch to a reasonable standard.
As we embrace the mood of regional integration that is in the air, we need to do so judiciously and systematically with the blessing of the 'muturage' as it is the citizenry that has to live with the 'badge' of being a member of this bloc or the other.
Let us learn from the experiences of others, no need to re-invent the wheel.
While the EU promoted hard core political bargaining, ASEAN opted for the 'softly, softly' approach. The 'ASEAN' way insisted on comprise and this often led to impasse but nonetheless those decisions that were made, often held and remain binding even up to date.
In the EU, members like Greece and Spain are threatening to quit because they can't have it their way as regards budget cuts. Germany on the other hand is bearing the financial burden of their excesses!
That to me does not sound like a union of equals. It seems more like a marriage of convenience!
I hope Rwanda is seeking 'marriages for love' and not convenience in our choices for regional partners.