The opening of the Arusha, Nairobi road Wednesday marks an important milestone in East African regional cooperation. Roads are like the blood vessels in people and just as no animal can live without blood running through its body, similarly no geographical entity can flourish without reliable roads to connect its various parts.
Needless to belabour our minds again, the 240 kilometre Arusha to Nairobi road is one of the busiest stretches in the region, important for intraregional travel, trade and tourism. In fact, it was historically one of the best segments of road in the region but it was simply overwhelmed by axle weight to the point that it nearly degenerated into a mud segment before the African Development Bank stepped in to rescue the situation.
But, the road has also taken rather too long to build. Eight years for 240 kilometres means a generation to build a thousand kilometres, which would be unacceptable and unbearable for the development of the region. Therefore, as our leaders converge at the Athi River Export Processing Zone (EPZ) for the road's opening ceremony, it is also important to take stock of what went wrong to serve as a lesson in future.
Surely, there was no problem with the project's core financing. Was it then the case of a bad contractor? If that were the case, then it would mean there is a serious problem with the procurement system and regimen within the East African Community (EAC) Secretariat. All said however, it is important that the road should boost the East African deeper integration spirit.
About two years ago, I happened to be among regional journalists who visited several border posts for firsthand experience on how officials implemented the East African Common Market Protocol. It was clear during that trip that there was confusion and even outright ignorance of the key aspects of the treaty by national revenue officials, immigration officers and even police officers.
Truck drivers from Tanzania complained of too many road blocks, corruption and arbitrary fines and penalties on the road from Namanga to Nairobi, the exact stretch of the road that has been widened and rebuilt. If the new road won't facilitate free and faster movement of goods and people within the region, then it is quite possible that the investment will be another "white elephant"Â in terms of the spirit of deeper integration, including common values and culture of doing business.
This road should also facilitate the cultural integration of East Africans. I must be frank here. Tanzania has opened up a lot to the inflow of other East Africans to the country unlike the other partner states. There is still a lot trade protectionism, especially in Kenya, ironically the country with many of its nationals who have fanned out to the rest of the region.
That said however, the road should enhance East Africa's security too. There has been a hike in terrorist attacks in Kenya of late, with the terrorists going directly for the symbols of state authority. I think it is the light of that changed tactic that terrorists are now attacking soldiers and policemen more, a switch from the earlier strategy of attacking civilians, which was intended to seed panic in members of the general public.
Tanzania has remained largely peaceful but not sleepy. I know the stakes are going to rise as the country joins the peace effort in DR Congo as part of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) force. The road to Nairobi therefore, has its risky side but East Africans should again resolve as a people to not give in to terrorism. It is the only way to keep East African co operation healthy and meaningful.