3 December 2012

East Africa: Gradual Integration Is Right Way Forward


ACCORDING to the Treaty of the revived East African Community (EAC), monetary union is a stage just a heartbeat away from achieving "ultimately political federation" of the region.

The preceding steps are a Customs Union and Common Market, a phase member states are still fine tuning, two years after they came together.

President Jakaya Kikwete has now advised the bloc to approach monetary union with care. Addressing the third meeting of the first session of the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) in Arusha, last week, President Kikwete cautioned that the former EAC collapsed at the monetary union stage.

That was after partner states decided in 1963 each country to adopt its own currency instead of the EA shillings that Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda had marched to independence sharing. It is clear that Dr Kikwete, an economist, was not speaking just as the President of the United Republic of Tanzania, but as a student of the long and triumphant, but at times tortured history of East African regional integration.

In his long political career, President Kikwete also served as minister for finance and as minister for foreign affairs, two key portfolios in matters of international relations and co-operation.

I think one of the mistakes with the current East African integration process is to try and ignore, gloss over or sweep under the carpet the past mistakes that led to the breakup of the former EAC. Respected East African Political Scientist, Prof Dani Wadada Nabudere held all along that the former EAC did not collapse because Mwalimu Julius Nyerere refused to recognize Dictator Idi Amin as the legitimate Ugandan head of state.

Also, the EAC did not breakup in 1977 because Tanzania was socialist and Kenya capitalist. According to Prof Nabudere the real reason for the breakup was the massive imbalance in trade, which for historical reasons favoured Kenya! In real terms, nothing has changed much since then.

Even within the Common Market protocol, Kenya has remained the bulwark of trade protectionism, instituting poisonous blocks and hurdles to free trade while attempting to cheat on rules of origin so as to act as a transient importer/exporter without having to pay taxes in clear violation of the Common Market protocol.

Uganda and Rwanda on the other hand, are seen, rightly or wrongly as ravenous expansionists, who sponsor the civil war in eastern DR Congo. Of course they deny the charges. But the fact that they live with the charges hanging over their heads, is enough to chill the spines of the other partners who would not want to get into a monetary union only to end up paying for the cost of the two countries' military adventurism in foreign lands.

I would compare monetary union to a merger of two or more companies. No company would want to merge with another outfit whose dealings are not very transparent. There would absolutely be no deal without utmost trust. We have to face facts. We cannot eat the cake and have it at the same time.

The actions of some of the East African partner states do not point to concerted efforts for marching to a common destiny. We can either be East Africans and approach issues with a common outlook and perspective or remain the individual nation states that we are. But we cannot be both.

In a way, the steps to political federation in East Africa were put upside down in the treaty. We can understand the business and economic bias of the architects of the treaty. But you cannot have political expedience issuing out of economic convenience. It is just the other way round unless the political health is taken for granted, which is currently not the case.

I have argued elsewhere before that those responsible for wrecking the former EAC owe East Africans an apology. They acted unilaterally and toasted champagne when the former common institutions for East African cooperation were brought to a halt one after the other.

So we cannot now hurtle along like headless chicken. Kwame Nkrumah said: "Seek ye first the political kingdom and everything else shall be added unto you." We in East Africa are saying: "Seek ye first the economic empires and political bliss shall follow suit." It cannot work.

Politics is the master art and science of leadership. If the politics is wrong, the entire socio-economic fabric shall be even horrible. Nkrumah of course parodied the words of Jesus in: "Seek ye first the Kingdom of Heaven and everything else shall be added unto you."

In politics as in religion, the important lesson is faith. Do we as states and as individuals always have faith in the actions of the other East Africans? I am afraid such is not the case and to ignore those sentiments is to thwart and dart our own hopes for common destiny, however vocal a few champions of the cause might be.

It is not always good to cry over spilt milk but not to look at where one stumbled, is not the same as to avoid falling in future. East Africa matured tragically backwards when the former community collapsed. In fact, it would have today been the region for inspiration and where to draw lessons from for the now troubled European Community monetary union.

On the contrary, the financial bubbles of the EC now provide more than stark warning and lessons to East Africans on the dangers of rushing into monetary union. What happened in Europe was that the weaker economies were all along struggling to cope with the pace of the stronger economies like Germany and France. But the cost of living became unbearable as fiscal policies simply crumbled.

We were all witness to the chaos that ensued but the austerity measures couldn't be relaxed. It has been a bitter prescription for remedying the economies of countries like Greece and Ireland, with more others threatened, some stable economies like Spain and Italy.

At least, Greeks with skills and better education are planning to migrate northwards to Germany in search of better prospects and future. Monetary union in East Africa gone bad would have the same impact but reverse effect.

Instead of more people moving to Kenya, it would be the Kenyans fanning out to other East African countries. Free movement of goods and labour within the region is based on the assumption that it would be mutual and reciprocal. If it becomes one-way-traffic, that of course would lead to serious problems.

The 2007 post election violence in Kenya was not so much as a result of thwarted hopes at the ballot box, but an excuse to vent anger over domination of the country's economic life by one ethnic community. No one would want that scenario exported to the rest of East Africa.

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