No more gold diggers, East Africa needs statesmen

11Sep 2016
Isaac Mwangi
Guardian On Sunday
Ea Whispers
No more gold diggers, East Africa needs statesmen

WITH Sudan formally depositing the instruments of ratification of the East African Community Treaty, the question arises again of what is to be expected as minimum standards for one to become a member of the regional organization.

The time has come to debate tough questions that leaders have kept on postponing. Questions about the region’s standards and response to extrajudicial killings, electoral fraud, ethnic cleansing, dictatorship, judicial independence, freedom of the press, rights of the people over their own resources vis-à-vis the interests of multinational corporations.

When it comes to South Sudan, much of East Africa’s attention has been fixed on the young country’s vast natural resources, especially oil. After many years of conflict with the north followed by civil war, South Sudan also offers enormous opportunities for firms interested in participating in the work of reconstruction.

This is what makes it so attractive: The fact that there is virtually no infrastructure and everything needs to be built up from scratch.

Political will and vision is required for the region to move beyond this narrow perspective. Indeed, it is already become evident that economic ambition without a workable political blueprint will only lead to disaster. The deaths and losses that have befallen East African firms venturing into South Sudan need not have happened.

Such a vision demands that East Africans must have certain basic areas of concurrence. Lack of agreement cripples the integration agenda and leaves it a shell, a mere talking shop. It makes integration a project that benefits billionaires to the exclusion of ordinary citizens.

There have been regular complaints of harassment and even killings of non-South Sudanese nationals in Juba and elsewhere, never mind that the country was seeking membership of the EAC. Similarly, South Sudanese fleeing their country are treated as refugees, regardless of the prevailing situation that this is now a member state of the region, meaning its citizens can move freely across the region for whatever reason.

At this point in time, the regional integration project has stalled at a critical phase, when it should be moving speedily toward its third pillar of Monetary Union.

The first two pillars, a Customs Union and Common Market, have been beset by problems, preventing movement toward the East African Monetary Union despite signing of the protocol at the EAC heads of state summit held in Kampala in November 2013.

Despite numerous efforts over the past couple of decades, we are still struggling with non-tariff barriers, mistrust, and lack of political goodwill. The near-hopelessness of the situation is clear when one sees how non-tariff barriers are quickly replaced by others following successive rounds of negotiations. An endless game.

Given this history, the entry of war-torn South Sudan, coupled with the instability in Burundi, could now mean that progress toward monetary union and eventual political federation will have to be shelved indefinitely. A decision to bring Somalia on board – its application for membership is still going through the process – will obviously complicate matters still further.

Having a common central bank and single currency regime requires political stability, macroeconomic convergence, and free movement of labour and capital across the region.

Short of this, we shall be long on political theatrics but short on tangible achievements. And that’s exactly where we seem headed.
Kenya, being the regional economic giant, has capitalised on the emerging opportunities in a big way. From truckers to banks, the national airline, and all sort of consultancies, Kenyan companies have been moving to South Sudan in search of new markets. Ugandans, too, have not been left behind in trying to get a bit of the action.

But this attention on economic gain, while understandable, masks a greater problem for South Sudan and the region. Economic integration is only one aspect of interaction between nations, albeit an important one. It is a level of integration that benefits industrialists, but hardly trickles down to the hoi polloi – the Wanjikus and mama Ntilies for whom putting food on the table is a daily struggle.

In fact, the common people are so preoccupied with their problems of subsistence that they hardly have time to think about grandiose ideas of integration and regional programmes. It will take a conscious effort to bring them on board and show the benefits of the whole project.

For that to happen, the benchmark must be set on those issues that endanger the very lives of common people. These concerns will also offer guidelines – beyond greedy economic interests – on countries that are truly ready for inclusion in an