The signing by South Sudan of the Treaty of Accession into the East African Community ushers in a new era for East Africa, one full of new opportunities but still fraught with challenges.
South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and his Tanzanian counterpart John Magufuli were scheduled to sign the treaty on 15 April, the latter having been mandated by the recent regional heads of state summit to sign on behalf of the EAC.
Throughout the protracted negotiations that led to the admission of South Sudan into the Community followed by the formal accession, there was no unanimity of opinion regarding the new member. There were essentially two diametrically opposed schools of thought.
The first group - and this is perhaps the larger group - felt that South Sudan was not ready to join the regional bloc and should not be allowed to do so. Matters were not helped by the outbreak of civil war in December 2013 and the numerous lost opportunities at crafting a lasting peace in the country. Many people felt that with the current instability in that country, allowing it to join the Community would be of no benefit.
There is little trade that can take place in war-time, and indeed many traders from the region fled South Sudan when civil war broke out. Efforts to rebuild infrastructure stalled, and firms that had rushed to take advantage of opportunities in the world's youngest state hurriedly closed down.
Why, then, did some people feel that the country's application to join the EAC should be approved despite the fighting and instability? There are those who felt that the region could have a stabilizing influence on South Sudan, bringing it on board and using the leverage obtained to put pressure on the warring parties. In the end, they felt, it would serve the rest of the region better to engage with South Sudan rather than disengage, and the dividends of peace would then lead to the desired economic gains. The greatest attraction, of course, is the vast oil fields in South Sudan.
With this second school of thought having won the day, the task now is to ensure that South Sudan experiences real peace. There are positive developments, despite lingering suspicions between the two camps. East Africa must therefore engage even more closely to ensure that the country does not slide back into anarchy.
This same argument can, of course, be used to fast-track the admission of Somalia into the regional bloc. The only difference, of course, is that unlike the South Sudanese, Somalis aren't just fighting among themselves: Al-Shabaab militants are actively seeking to export terror into the region. The prospect of making movement easier for these terrorists across the length and breadth of East Africa is enough to convince regional leaders to halt Somalia's application, which is still pending, in its tracks.
It is unfortunate that the protocols signed so far by the Community have not been fully implemented. Non-tariff barriers abound, and there has been plenty of foot-dragging by the partner states owing to nationalist and protectionist policies. With South Sudan joining in, that could well present a new set of challenges. This is because the country lags far behind the other partner states in almost all sectors; if protectionism is the name of the game, then surely this northern neighbour needs it more than any other country.
But even before fully implementing the Customs Union and Common Market protocols, it should be remembered that the region has embarked on the third pillar of integration - monetary union. Although the timeframe of having a single currency in 2024 is unlikely to be met, it should be noted that monetary union within an environment of political instability could prove counterproductive.
As matters stand today, the South Sudanese currency is virtually worthless in the rest of the region. The Somali currency is also not worth the paper it is printed on. The question then arises: Is the rest of the region prepared to shoulder the burden of sharing a common currency with countries that are deep in conflict?
From the perspective of human rights and protection of basic freedoms, there is much to be concerned about, too. The political culture of South Sudan - and Somalia as well - is nothing to write home about. East Africa already has enough problems of political intolerance and violence; the new entrants can only add to this undesirable culture.
Whether the rest of East Africa shall influence South Sudan for the better, or vice versa, remains to be seen. What is certain is that we all have to tread very, very carefully.