Until recently, the East African integration agenda was faltering. The push-and-pull between partner states was leading to isolation of some and bad blood between others.
The implementation of trade and infrastructure projects seemed to widen the cracks as the partners competed for investment.
The Northern Corridor partner states came up with integrated projects linking not only their physical but also their communication and financial infrastructure. Tanzania and Burundi looked isolated.
Then the John Magufuli administration came to power and refocused attention to Dar es Salaam, with an elaborate infrastructure programme that got more than a cursory look from the Northern Corridor partners — Uganda and Rwanda. Kenya looked isolated.
At the national level, protectionism was taking root and each partner was increasingly looking inward.
Kenya has not had a breakthrough in its quest to get the region to sign on the Economic Partnership Agreement that would give it duty-free access to the European Union, as the other states see little benefit for themselves from the deal.
The relations between Kenya and Tanzania have been rocky, resulting in trade spats emanating from tariff and non-tariff barriers that they keep erecting in each other’s way. Kenya’s exports to Tanzania last year plunged to a 10-year low, thanks to these disputes.
Diplomatic disquiet between Uganda and Rwanda was bubbling under the surface due to the treatment by Kampala of Rwandan citizens travelling across the border, and Kigali’s fears that Uganda harbours elements bent on destabilising Rwanda.
Kampala’s refusal in January to adopt the Single African Air Transport Market agreement and to specifically grant Kigali Fifth Freedom rights over Entebbe International Airport did not help matters.
While the EAC was meant to fast-track regional projects to accelerate integration and improve the livelihoods of the citizens, ego trips and national interests have for long taken centre stage.
But the presidents have shown leadership and sought to return the integration agenda on the table. At the EAC Heads of State Summit in Kampala in February, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and Dr Magufuli closed ranks and asked their ministers to iron out the “small vexing” matters that were derailing trade and integration.
As a result, Tanzania is planning its first-ever trade expo in Nairobi to promote goods and services ranging from tourism to technology and agriculture. This is a bright spot in the two states’ chequered history.
Presidents Yoweri Museveni and Paul Kagame, met in Entebbe recently and announced that they were working together.
While these efforts are bearing fruit, there is still a lot of ground to be covered. Many issues stick out: Important protocols are pending ratification, trade processes remain unresolved and diplomatic rows simmer between Uganda and Rwanda and Rwanda and Burundi.
The time has come for the region to get the integration agenda back on track. This can only be done if the leadership adopts common positions on matters that benefit the region’s citizens.