Little did they know that they would end up victims of a bitter dispute between South Sudanese rivals – and that they would have no recourse to a fair legal process or lawyers.
Their plight, no doubt, has put a damper on regional integration initiatives that seek to encourage cross-border movement of labour – at least insofar as South Sudan is concerned. And although this may be one of the worst cases of its nature to have happened, it is by no means the only one in the region.
What makes this case particularly bad is that the Kenyan government appears to have abandoned the four men to their fate. This is quite unlike the high-profile game that was played to let prominent Kenyans off the hook at The Hague. But then, who is supposed to look after the interests of citizens being mistreated in a partner state?
Even though South Sudan is yet to take its place in many regional initiatives, the country is now a full member of the Community after being admitted and depositing the instruments of ratification with the EAC. And while the instability in the country has been worrying, the effect of civil war in the country is likely to continue being felt throughout the region for years to come.
At the time its membership was being considered, it was argued that the rest of the region could exert greater influence on events in the country once it had been accepted into the fold.
When the region is considered as one large territory, disputes between combatants – principally the Dinka and Nuer – would be subsumed within the bigger entity. With more opportunities across the region, so went the argument, there will be less fights over resources within member states.
Moreover, the region would have greater leverage over countries that were member, so went the argument. What was not appreciated is that deep-seated hostilities require a lot more than simple membership of a regional body to resolve.
The lesson that is now emerging, too, is that it can be painful for the rest of the region when new members are not made to accept any minimum standards of governance and the rule of law – especially in dealing with citizens of other member states.
With integration, it is expected that countries would experience greater movement of not just goods but also persons. Students, businessmen, tourists, and others are facilitated to move more easily to other partner states. The least they expect is to be singled out and harassed, intimidated, and denied due process for any trial.
While each member state has its own weaknesses when it comes to good governance, any mistreatment is usually not extended to foreigners unless they engage in political or subversive activities. But it is now evident that this line can be quite thin, and that conflict may not sometimes differentiate between combatants and foreigners.
Yet, by its very nature, integration causes a greater mix of nationalities among those countries that are integrating. Which then calls for minimum standards of how to treat each other’s citizens – some sort of multilateral agreement or protocol under the EAC to ensure that citizens are accorded their rights wherever they go.
This is particularly important when we consider the volatility of the entire region. When Kenya imploded in 2007-08, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was suspected of sending troops to back incumbent president Mwai Kibaki, which could easily have sparked a backlash against Ugandans. Fortunately, the dispute ended with a power-sharing agreement between Kibaki and his main opponent Raila Odinga.
And while xenophobia is not widespread in the region, there have been expulsions of the citizens of other Community member states, which defeats the very logic of integration.
Can an East African citizen possibly be considered an illegal immigrant, given the current level of integration? Why are there still non-tariff barriers limiting the movement of persons across borders?
It's time, then, for the Community’s Organs such as the East African Legislative Assembly and the East African Court of Justice to put their heads together.
What is needed is a mechanism for ensuring that citizens can get justice outside local courts that may be compromised, especially in countries going through turmoil. That way, everyone can go about their business with some peace of mind.