Happy New Year, East Africa! 2017 was a real roller coaster, serving up optimism and pessimism in equal measure.
Plans by Kenya and Rwanda to ease travel provided hope that the dream of free movement of persons within the region and on the continent could still be achieved, in spite of protectionist tendencies fuelled by rising terrorist threats.
Tanzania and Uganda’s groundbreaking at the site of the pipeline that will transport oil from the Albertine Basin to export markets was a good sign for the plans to elevate the Central Corridor to a vibrant regional logistics route.
The region also came out unscathed from two electoral contests that saw Presidents Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya retain office. The two polls, however, highlighted the need for more reforms to make election outcomes less divisive.
In Kenya, the opposition boycotted the August 26 repeat polls and in Rwanda some aspirants were barred from contesting on controversial grounds.
Despite a hesitant economic growth, East Africa was still spared the shocks that economies like Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia, which are reliant on commodities, experienced. And from a security perspective, collaboration between national agencies saw a marked decline in transnational crime like terrorism (with the exception of Somalia), poaching and human trafficking. For these and more, there is enough to be thankful for.
There were also some downers, foremost being integration quest, which seems to take one step forward and two steps backward. Rwanda has been having frosty relations its neighbours Burundi and Uganda.
This polarity appears to be of a political nature, something that can be easily bridged by the leaders talking more with each other.
That is quite unlike the situation between Kenya and Tanzania, where competition for economic benefits ranging from the oil pipeline to herders crossing borders have awakened us to the need for a community-based approach when drafting integration policies.
Second, the internal strife in South Sudan and to some extent Burundi has exposed weaknesses in the Community’s agreements as far as being a brother’s keeper is concerned.
While internal issues of a country are sovereign, the EAC should at least have a benchmark on governance that is expected of a member state and its leadership.
Otherwise it is foolhardy to think of the ultimate pillar of the integration, the political federation, when some member states are not governable in the first place.
Third, the moves by three Presidents Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Pierre Nkurunziza in Burundi to prolong their stay in office came with trampling on human rights and institutions like the media and civil society.
Of concern was that the constitutions were changed for them rather than to address potential crises. The fourth was the now perennial problem of food insecurity, where a country like Kenya, the region’s biggest economy, cannot feed itself and has to rely on expensive imports.
These downers provide what could be the high points for 2018 – a peaceful South Sudan, a region pushing in concert towards prosperity, a leadership embracing democracy, less reliance on food relief and a neutered terrorism threat.