14 May 2016

East Africa: EA Whispers


A recent article by a Kenyan columnist proposing the country's break-up into ethnic enclaves attracted much criticism, but this is a subject that perhaps requires greater scrutiny.

A lot of the criticism against David Ndii's article was simply based on protection of the status quo and nothing more. Indeed, there is nothing sacrosanct about the modern state, especially the African version that was simply the product of European haggling at the Berlin Conference of 1884-85. Africa's interests were never considered, nor its diversity of naturally-emerging nation states.

Modern ideas of sovereignty and self-determination have increasingly underpinned the idea that the modern nation-state ought to be a voluntary coming together of peoples who share a common identity and vision. The break-up of the former Soviet Union, and closer home the secession of Eritrea from Ethiopia and South Sudan from Sudan, serve to drive the point that nationhood cannot be enforced by military means. Where this is attempted, the result can only be tragic civil war and discontent.

East Africa being a Third World region with limited resources, a break-up of countries into their ethnic components may serve to create economically unviable units. While this may sound politically attractive, it would in fact result in greater problems as leaders of small fiefdoms acquire the trappings of state and attempt to use resources to match that standard. This is a problem that Kenyans are only too aware of, with governors living large amid excruciating poverty.

Indeed, part of the rationale for an eventual East African political federation - the ultimate prize that regional efforts aim to achieve - is to bury the ethnic competition within our partner states in a larger entity. The thinking is that this will kill destructive competition between Hutu and Tutsi, Dinka and Nuer, and Kikuyu and Luo.

While there is some merit in this argument, this stand is not without weaknesses. For instance, East Africa has done little to stop the crisis in Burundi, or to directly influence the course of events in South Sudan. Given nationalistic sentiments and mutual suspicions between partner states as evidenced by problems in achieving a fully functional Common Market, each of the East African countries will want to maintain significant autonomy within a future federated entity.

If a federation of partner states cannot be a panacea to harmful ethnic competition, we must then look for new ways of countering this growing evil. If not, the destruction of the basic fabric of partner states will harm regional integration and make it ineffective.

The alternative is that the petty inter-ethnic squabbles within partner states will gain traction at the regional level as matters of resources and representation become increasingly important at the regional level. This is not a far-fetched thought, as a recent case involving Burundi shows. The Speaker of the country's parliament wrote to the Speaker of the East African Legislative Assembly seeking to cease the membership of four members from that country. Fortunately, EALA stood its ground and rejected that request. This, nevertheless, showed how ethnic and partisan differences can be played out on the regional stage.

It may be prudent, then, to go along with David Ndii's thesis at a regional level, but with some modification. As the process of political federation is initiated, national borders between East African countries can be disregarded. Smaller, more viable entities can then be created that cut across these borders - along the lines of Tanzania's regions or Kenya's former provinces. These can then become the basic units of the new East African Federation.

Such a move will spell the death-knell for the European-mediated nation-state, creating a more acceptable delineation of nation-states within a larger East African framework. The people at the grassroots will have their desired autonomy, yet still benefit from membership of a larger economic and political framework that can better articulate their interests at the international level.

If this is done, there will be little incentive for secessionist tendencies or inter-ethnic competition within the new political federation. No ethnicity will be significant enough to influence events except in concert with other groups and units in the federation. At the local level, however, each entity will have sufficient power over its own resources, and any competition can only be between its own elites.

Moreover, the larger federation will provide a flood of opportunities, dispersing each group far and wide from its home base. This will drastically reduce the motivation for destructive competition arising from limited opportunities.

First, however, is for East Africans to open their eyes to possibilities beyond their current political set-ups.

East Africa

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