Is free movement of labour good for breaking strikes?

Tuesday December 5 2017

Kenya-Tanzania border crossing in Namanga.

Kenya-Tanzania border crossing in Namanga. Kenya has allowed East Africans to live and work in the country without needing to apply for a work permit. PHOTO | NMG 

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On Tuesday, President Uhuru Kenyatta upped the East African game.

He announced that citizens from all African are now eligible to apply for visas on arrival in Kenya, a move made by Rwanda some years ago.

The clincher was the revelation that other East Africans would now need only an identity card to live and work in Kenya – and to live and work legally without first having to obtain a work permit in Kenya if married to a son or daughter of the soil.

Recently, Rwanda jumped into the deep end, announcing that all citizens from every country in the world could now get visas upon arrival.

It became the seventh country in the world to adopt that policy. Interestingly, of those countries, five are African – Seychelles, Madagascar, Togo, Mozambique, and Rwanda.

While many African countries still maintain primitive visa rules, especially for other Africans, there is a clutch of them who are world leaders.

There are many potential risks Rwanda and Kenya have opened themselves to, but the pay-offs are many more.

For the East African integration project, the Kenya announcement is the most radical since the collapse of the first EAC in 1977.

In the colonial period, and during EAC 1, what Kenya has done now was pretty much the everyday reality. As a young man, Uganda’s 1970s military dictator Idi Amin, was a soldier in the Kings African Rifles, where he had a reputation as an enforcer cracking stubborn Kenyan skulls.

One of our uncles worked all his life in Kenya as a policeman, and rose high in the ranks.

When we were little, if you had told us that you needed permission as a Ugandan to work and live in Kenya, we would have looked at you blankly.

Uhuru’s move is disruptive in many ways. With industrial action increasing in, particularly, Kenya and Uganda, in the long run Kenya could reduce labour disruptions if a significant section of its education or health services are staffed by other East Africans.

But it is in the economy that the jackpot will come. Business people and professionals with money – and corrupt politicians and bureaucrats who have stashed their cash under mattresses and want to invest it away from home – have had the barrier to moving it to Kenya reduced drastically.

A South Sudanese who thinks the madness in Juba is not about to end, or a Ugandan who feels the uncertainty brought on by President Yoweri Museveni’s president-for-life pursuit pose too big a threat to their fortune, could safely put it in real estate in Kenya, knowing their ability to become resident and manage this investment is no longer hostage to the renewal of a work or residence permit every two years.

At another level, this is a battle over conference tourism and business between Nairobi and Kigali, and also a play aimed to bolster their national airlines, Kenya Airways and RwandAir.

Rwanda had almost cornered the market, and one couldn’t but wonder why the rest of the EAC hadn’t woken up to the fact that a policy race to the top had been unleashed by Kigali. I am licking my chops, waiting for the next move. From Kampala?

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. [email protected]