Even before the dust settles in the East African Community about Kenya’s lone quest for an economic pact with the European Union, Nairobi is at it again, seeking to test the bloc’s integration project with direct trade negotiations with the US.
The Cabinet, chaired by President Uhuru Kenyatta, approved the free trade talks with the US last week despite the fact that the EAC Heads of State Summit advocates for joint negotiations. It, therefore, could mean that Kenya has either learnt that the pace at which its neighbours want to move forward is painstakingly slow or it is keen on striking its own deals as it waits for the neighbours to join forces with it.
In Arusha, where the bloc sits to chart the course of regional integration, the slogan has always been “think regionally and act nationally.”
Perhaps Kenya was thinking regionally when it signed the East African Treaty more than 20 years ago to start integrating its market with those of its neighbours.
The same may be said of the national urge to sign (and even implement some of the provisions of) the protocols on customs union, common market and monetary union.
The net result is that Kenya has shackled itself by ceding most of its customs, fiscal, monetary and political policy space to the regional bloc shared with partners that do not necessarily support its priorities.
That is the dilemma that Nairobi faces in its effort to move together with neighbours pursuing different economic priorities.
Being a developing nation, Kenya must sign reciprocal pacts to trade with the EU and the US. However, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan are classified as least developed nations that can access developed markets like the EU and the US without having to sign reciprocal trade deals.
To avoid incessant conflicts, the EAC must review its treaties to ensure that members are free to pursue national interests that are critical to their economies as long as the resulting pacts do not undermine regional integration.
Let the architects of regional integration take the cue from the EAC presidents who publicly agree, in principle, that regional integration is inevitable. However, they have not always agreed on the pace at which national interests may be sacrificed for a regional cause.