East Africa: An EU in East Africa?

Photo: EAC
Tanzania has been cautioned against pulling out of the East African Community.

Passport-free travel, a common market, and a single currency. Sound like the EU? It's Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, and they're being warned to take things slowly.

Traveling without a passport or visa, which is a right within the European Union, may soon be possible for around 135 million people in East Africa. Since January 1, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda have allowed their citizens to travel freely across the three countries. At border control stations, an identity card, whether for work, school or voting, is all that's required. Travelers no longer suffer high visa costs and nerve-wracking administrative processes.

That's because Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda are members of the East African Community (EAC). Their goal: more inter-African trade through a common market with unified immigration and custom laws. "We must deepen trade amongst each other," said Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta, current EAC chair. "This way our private sectors will develop the strength, resilience and stature needed to take on the world."

Safety concerns

A September 2013 terror attack in Nairobi, Kenya added to fears of terrorism

Burundi and Tanzania also belong to the EAC. At this point, both countries have kept their borders closed due to fears of terrorist attacks by members of the Somali al-Shabaab militia. Tanzania is the only country bordering all four EAC countries, says Samuel Sitta, Tanzania's minister for East African Cooperation.

Sitta criticizes that technical requirements for free travel have not yet been mastered: As before, border control machines cannot read all passports. "Fragile arrangements are a security threat," he said. "Our region has no peace, and as we speak, there is war in South Sudan."

Tanzanian security forces believe members and sympathizers of al-Shabaab would be able to obtain identity cards and travel within EAC countries. Some are even thought to be current EAC citizens. With new freedom to travel comes an increased risk of attacks and assassinations.

Boom times?

Security concerns are also rife in Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. There, however, the fears are trumped by potential trade benefits. Freedom of movement for workers, goods, services and capital have awoken hope for more investments in the region: streets, rail lines and power grids.

"The infrastructure has been a challenge obviously," economist Martin Otieno told DW from Nairobi. "But what we've seen in recent years is that governments have renewed their commitment to making the free movement of goods, people, commerce, trade and investment much easier." Otieno added that it's the private sector which is the chief driver of regional integration and which is now pressing governments to hold to their promises.

The five states of the EAC are now working on their next large-scale project: They want to establish a currency union like the eurozone, with the hope that it would strengthen the economies and make East Africa more attractive to foreign investors. Governments signed a framework agreement in December 2013 in Uganda's capital, Kampala, with the currency zone to be implemented within ten years.

Don't rush it

However, each country must meet specific criteria, such as inflation targets. Countries will have to establish independent institutions to manage the currency. A look toward Europe is helpful - but only to an extent.

IMF chief Christine Lagarde meets with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta

On a trip to Kenya in January, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Christine Lagarde, advised countries to look at Europe's experience - but to "hasten slowly" and "not rush."

"Make sure you learn from our mistakes," she said, adding that East Africans can even teach Europeans how to do things correctly.

Stumbling blocks on the road to integration, the IMF chief said, include non-tariff trade barriers such as import quotas or export restrictions. But differences in member economies can also pose a problem. The extent of the strain a currency zone can be forced to endure is something Europe learned only recently during its - still lingering - debt crisis.

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