Politics and policy
Policymakers grapple with cultural shocks as East Africa focuses on social integration
Although he swears that he previously lived Nairobi and even sampled Kenya’s diverse cultures before ascension to power, Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza has a stunning attachment to his native culture.
That is how he chose to distinguish himself among his peers during his one-year tenure as chairman of East African Community’s heads of state summit, which ended last November.
When Mr Nkurunziza showed up with his entourage at Southern Sun Hotel in Nairobi last year to launch Trade Mark East Africa, it was a startling script for the occasion.
In place of a military parade that is normally reserved for visiting heads of state and dignitaries, it was the age-old Royal Drums of Burundi (karyenda) that rent the air that day, much to the delight of most guests.
To crown the occasion, a legion of translators, among them renowned playwright John Sibi Okumu, known locally for his mastery of English and French, were at hand to facilitate communication at official level.
While Mr Nkurunziza would eventually address the gathering in English, the speech appeared to address the symptoms of cultural shocks that policymakers have to grapple with.
“A lot of negative talks have been circulating about EAC integration. People say that big countries will swallow small ones. I don’t like to hear that talk because it is not correct”, he said.
As a starting point, the karyenda is sacred in Burundi. Such performances have traditionally been associated with ceremonies such as births, funerals, and coronations of kings.
Yet they popped up at a ceremony organised to launch an organisation that seeks to unlock economic potential of the region by eliminating non-tariff barriers to trade, highlighting the central role that culture is expected to pay in the regional integration.
It was probably a wake-up call to integration architects to start paying closer attention to culture in their future plans. Experts reckon that the region is a melting pot of cultures; that a degree of uniformity is crucial in creating regional traits.
Such traits will deepen regional integration and determine a common consumption taste that can be ascribed to the whole region as a single market, experts say.
“I think governments should have started by integrating the diverse cultures of the region first, then economic and political integration would be spontaneous,” Dr Tobias Arudo, a lecturer at Kenyatta University’s philosophy and religious studies department told the Business Daily earlier. But cultural integration can only start from the grassroots, with people not government institutions.
Yet in the past 10 years, the five governments, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Burundi and Rwanda, have been merging their economies in the hope that their people share similar aspirations.
The governments have relied on the East African treaty, which recognises only state institutions in the integration, consigning citizens to the periphery until the last stage when they’ll be required to approve political federation in a referendum.
Lately, however, it appears government officials are reading and responding to tell-tale signs correctly as studies trace the numerous non-tariff barriers in the region to differences in cultures of East Africans at community and national levels.
Although they maintain that unity in diversity is the utmost goal, government officials say a degree of social convergence was necessary to cement economic stages of integration. “The cultural and social aspects of the integration may not have received as much prominence as economic and political aspect but they are recognised by the EAC treaty as central theme,” says Mrs Agnes Sila, director of social affairs at Kenya’s EAC ministry.
She cites the recently launched Swahili Commission and cultural festivals featuring music and sports as some of the progress on the social and cultural front. “We are holding our meeting in Arusha this week to come up with calendar for integrating the remaining aspects of our cultures,” she told the Business Daily.
By creating cultural harmony, policymakers hope to build trust among hundreds of ethnic communities, economic and political players involved in the regional integration.
On their own, governments usually have nothing to sell and can therefore not be the source of numerous non-tariff barriers that are troubling the region. In most cases, it is the private sector, which uses politicians to erect trade barriers against perceived rivals, creating multiple barriers in the region.
Other countries have taken the cue. Three years since it committed its country to regional integration, the Government of Rwanda says it is going back to its citizens to gauge their feelings about a process that will radically alter their social, cultural and economic orientation.
“We have launched a perception survey to find out what our citizens think of what we are doing,” George Kayonga, Rwanda’s East African Community PS said in Nairobi last week.
The country – seen as a front runner in the reforms towards setting up a regional market economy – says the survey will guide its future plans. If the survey reveals negative attitude, it will form ground for an aggressive campaign to educate its people on integration.
Otherwise, the tiniest EAC member by geographical size, intends to entrench EAC agenda in its development plans, starting by mainstreaming it in the country’s medium-term development plans and finally, in its Vision 2020, Mr Kayonga said.
While membership to EAC was initially associated with market expansion and wider political space (envisaged federation), it is the disruptive social and cultural changes evolving out of increased interaction with neighbours that states ought to have prepared their citizens for. Rwanda, a french-speaking nation (francophone) , has lately been recruiting a growing number of teachers of English from Kenya in one of the signals that the country will have a radically different cultural outlook in the coming few years.
The neighbouring Burundi, another francophone member of the EAC bloc, also faces the same dilemma. Probably due to language barrier, just a handful of the citizens are bothered about regional integration.
“Few of our people initially followed what was going on until we started sensitising them to create hope,” said Mr Jeremy Ndayiziga, director general in charge of political and diplomatic affairs at Burundi’s EAC ministry.
“We have started an interesting programme of training in English as part of confidence building,” said Mr Ndayiziga.
Among the founding members of the EAC, Ugandan citizens are increasingly under pressure to learn some Swahili to trade with Tanzanians and Kenyans. Kenyans who have set up shops deep in the Ugandan towns of Kampala and Jinja have also been forced to spruce up their English, which ordinary Ugandans use to communicate with foreigners.
For policymakers in Kenya, the tales of communities such as Maasai and Teso who are also found in Tanzania and Uganda respectively inspire hope that cross-border cultural integration will be easier.
On the ground, however, traders from Uganda who sell mainly maize and horticultural produce at borders points such as Busia and Malaba have discovered that Swahili is the second most important tool of trade after money.
Policymakers cite such regional traits that are evolving naturally out of cultural diffusion as evidence of the ongoing social integration.
For Kenya, where the Constitution places public participation at the heart of everything that the government does, the citizens may still demand a say in social integration.
Under the new constitutional dispensation, nothing can stop them from going to court to challenge the provisions of EAC treaty that currently curtails their participation in regional integration.
A signal to this was given last year when House Speaker Kenneth Marende allowed Treasury to read a “ministerial statement” on the day chosen by EAC for Budget reading.
“My reading of the Constitution is that Kenya must abide by treaties and conventions it signs – but in accordance with provisions of its Constitution,” Mr Marende would say in the groundbreaking ruling that means citizens can challenge provisions of the EAC treaty that limit their participation in the regional integration.