The East African Community summit that took place in the Burundian capital Bujumbura at the end of November, revealed that the political leadership in the member countries is more optimistic about the federation than its citizens.
The summit also reveals that there is a lot of political will to see that the federation is achieved by 2015.
But it yet again brought out the underlying challenges that the community is facing, further justifying the call from observers that the step toward forming one state should be greeted with “cautious optimism.”
The optimism seems warranted because the EAC leaders have shown a consensus that trade and private sector investments are crucial inputs to sustained growth and development.
But some caution regarding what to expect from the EAC is hardly surprising, as the collapse in 1977 of an earlier effort at regional integration, suggests that the road ahead is not smooth, with numerous barriers left that must be overcome.
The EAC observers argue that factors that led to the collapse of the bloc in the 1970s are playing out differently at the moment and efforts to form a federation are being carried out under very different set of political and economic circumstances.
They point out that the fast growth of Uganda and Tanzania in comparison to Kenya over the past 20 years, has not only narrowed the gap between them and their larger neighbour, but it has given these nations confidence in their competitive abilities.
On the political front, all three countries are much closer politically than they were 30 years ago.
Changes in the economic structures of these countries and a growing middle class that has increasingly sophisticated product demands, suggest that the benefits from trade may be greater than earlier when the commodity structures of all these countries were mainly agricultural. “These three reasons may give us confidence that
“This time is different when it comes to the gains that each country can capture from deeper regional integration,” Prof Ethan Kapsteine, in a paper on the future of the integration, said.
While the observers say the integration this time is different, research shows that the citizens are sceptical and doubt that the changes are significant enough to give greater confidence that the East African integration will promote trade, investment and job creation in the years ahead.
Reports from experts hired to look into integration issues and the recommendations from the council of ministers that provide a road map for the way forward, have been largely adopted by political leaders.
The reports, however, show that citizens have a feeling that democratic deficits and lack of accountability that exists in some countries may be replicated at the regional level.
The fears and concerns registered by the populace were categorised into political, economic, legal and socio- cultural, among others.
From a political perspective, the East Africans are scared of losing their sovereignty. And since the 2015 political federation means creating one single state, it means partner nations should prepare to cede some political powers.
On legal grounds, the people insist that there are many disparities in governance, probably the reason why Tanzania, the largest of all the states is slow in signing most policies as developed by the states.
“I believe these are very pertinent issues and we should take them very seriously. When Burundi and Rwanda joined the community, there was a special programme for bringing them on board,” Ms Dora Byamukama, a Ugandan representative in East African Legislative Assembly, says.
There is a fear that with the limited land in some states, some people may lose the little space they have.
The fear to lose land therefore continues to be a sensitive issue and as the experts reported, “a potential source of conflict” when the countries finally federate.
The question of land grabbing has been expressed mostly by Tanzania despite several assurances from Uganda and Kenya that this would not happen. “That is far-fetched. Who will leave Uganda to go and take land in Kisumu?” Prof Ephraim Kamuntu, Uganda’s Tourism Minister, asks.
Last year, Kenya said that the fear of land grabbing and worries over domination and exploitation were undermining the realisation of unification.
Kenya has been depicted as the most developed and frequent reports of appropriation of public land have sent the wrong signals to members.
Speaker Rebecca Kadaga thinks such fears are laughable. “The land fears being advanced are surely unfounded,” she says, adding that unless states cede some of their sovereign powers, the need to federate will be hampered.
However, with no clear signal sent to the populace from the top leadership to defuse fears and challenges identified, political integration might take a while. The success of the federation will ultimately depend on the political goodwill of the leaders. However, Tanzania actions are worrying observers.
Early this month, the country sparked fears over its commitment to the community when it did not only fail to attend two crucial meetings in Bujumbura, but also refused to sign the defence protocol.
The pact mandates neighbours to provide support to a member at war.
The East African reports that Tanzania fears to be dragged into wars which its neighbours have had— some on the basis of their leaders’ personal difference.
However, being a member of Southern African Development Community (SADC), Tanzania is at a crossroads, as each protocol requires it to assist a member who is at war with a non-member country. SADC is a southern African inter-governmental organisation that aims at social-economic participation.
Tanzanian MP Hamisi Kiwangale says the population must be consulted on the political federation, “but if technical experts think the results will be negative, and then, what is the rush for a federation?” he asks, adding that Tanzania must not rush into the federation.
Dr Azaveli Lwaitama, from Dar-es-Salaam University, wants other states to wait for Tanzania because unless that happens, whatever their dreams are the integration will never happen.
“Do not allow yourself to begin thinking of by-passing the campaigns but go for public debates, liaison and alignments which are based on evidence rather than thinking you can use the political class.”
EALA representative from Tanzania Said Bilal says his country got the goodwill to federate with other countries, but the masses must be involved. “It is not a refusal, we have to include everyone on board and avoid the rush.”
However, Ms Kadaga, says Tanzania is not being fair to other countries. “But what rushing are they talking about? Our presidents set a deadline and we have failed to achieve it— until now, what we are asking is what could have gone wrong,” she says.
Although Burundi put its best foot forward in terms of overall collaboration in the way it handled the entire meeting last week, a section of its leaders and citizen think they are not ready.
At the meeting, some Tanzanian and Burundian lawmakers said the federation could be far from reach since its initial stages are already facing serious challenges ranging from failure by states to commit to the agreed positions, which undermines the whole process.
Ms Leontine Nzeyimana, a Burundian MP and a member of a parliamentary committee that oversees the community, says she does not know what a political federation is and she is equally sure her people do not know it.
“Burundians do not know what a political federation is.
They do not know the sense of the community. When we went to Arusha, there was no employee from Burundi working at the secretariat,” Ms Nzeyimana says.
Ms Kalinga Rhamadhan, a Burundian MP, says her country was perceived unfit when it joined with problems of insecurity that were feared would destabilise the whole community.
A committee led by former Kenyan Attorney-General Amos Wako consulted East Africans and had recommended that a referendum be held in September 2009 to decide on a federal President and Parliament by 2013.
According to the report, the East African federation should have been launched in 2010 with the presidents holding rotational presidency and the first elections for a new federal president and Parliament would take place between January and March 2013.
The progress so far
Under Article 5 of the provisions of the treaty establishing the EAC, it was agreed that integration should be in phases and move systematically through the Customs Union, which commenced in 2005, as the first phase of integration.
The region attained a fully-fledged Customs Union in January 2010, after a five-year transition period and it was followed by the Common Market which commenced in July 2010 to facilitate free movement of goods, capital, labour, services and persons within the region.
A monetary union is expected to come into force in 2012 as the third phase while a political federation would be into force by 2015, as the final phase in the integration process.
By reviving the community, political leaders believe that since the world has become a global village with markets inter-linked and matters of politics and security becoming a world concern, there is need to form a regional body.
However, some have already shown little effort enacting the necessary laws, for example, immigration laws to enhance the performance of the already signed phase of common market and customs union.
The elimination of non-tariff barriers among partner states, which was to be achieved in five years, remains a challenge that can only be overcome when human resource personnel such as immigration officers and police facilitate one’s easiness in movement.
The Ugandan representative to the regional Parliament, Mr Mike Ssebalu, thinks partner states do not need to halt the common market because it has flaws.
“We can consolidate it as we deal with other phases into the eventual integration,” Mr Ssebalu says. He, however, says the regional manufacturers have already started benefiting from the common market.
He gives examples of Mukwano Industries, Roofings Limited and Tororo Cement whose, products are found almost in all the capitals of the partner states.
“There are also some professionals who are allowed to move although others still find it hard,” Mr Ssebalu says.
EAC Secretary General Richard Sezibera says this is the right time to work faster to achieve a single customs territory, implement the common market and conclude negotiations on a monetary union.
Dr Sezibera says there is need to deposit additional commitments on the movement of workers. “I also call upon everyone to work towards harmonising education services and mutual recognition of academic and professional qualifications,” he says.
With the regional market now boasting at least 130 million people, with markets open especially for locally manufactured goods which have a certificate to that effect, the race to political federation is now what all East Africans should embrace despite fears.