If it benefits ‘common’ men and women, hail this Market

Monday July 5 2010



This week the East African Common Market came into effect.

The EAC partners — Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda — are now supposed to do away with all barriers to trade and allow free movement of workers, capital and services.

However, Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki is, happily, impatient.

On Tuesday, he announced a waiver of work permit and passport fees for all East Africans.

Thus Kenya joined Rwanda, which scrapped work permit requirements for all East Africans nearly three years ago.

But not all East Africans are impressed.

Their response has been that the East African Common Market will benefit only fat cat traders and professionals — like lawyers.

I was asked pointedly what would be in this common market “thing for the ordinary man and woman on the street”.

Now, some of the best examples of ordinary people benefitting are very controversial.

We shall pick one, nevertheless. But if you are the prudish type, don’t read beyond this point.

The Nairobi-published The Star (it was called Nairobi Star until a few months ago) has some very interesting classified adverts page.

In its issue of July 1, for example, under the “Personal” column, one ad was offering an exotic massage at a parlour with a “big mama”.

Another advertised “beautiful girls from Botswana, South Africa and India”. There was one for “Arab, Ethiopian and Indian girls”.

In this issue, there were no ads for Russian girls.

But there was, according to journalists who track these things, a very popular category— “Ugandan and Rwandese” girls.

What does this have to do with the East African common market.

According to NGOs who work on human trafficking, the middle men who are agents in Nairobi’s rest, recreation, and relaxation (RRR) industry, make good money from Ugandan and Rwandan escorts.

Many women who work in the RRR industry don’t operate at the street level.

The penalty for prostitution, as well as doing business as a foreigner without a work permit, would too high.

The free movement of people and services means that Ugandan and Rwandan prostitutes can work more openly on Kenya’s streets in future.

Either they will get out of the flats in Nairobi’s suburbs from where agents get clients for them, and trade directly, or they will demand a higher cut of the fees paid by clients.

Just as is happening with the World Cup, whenever you have big conferences where many men with money are attending, or huge testotorone-fuelled events, there is a huge demand — and supply — of prostitutes.

The high tourist seasons in Kenya are famous for attracting Ugandan prostitutes who return home fairly wealthy — thanks to the exchange rate between the Kenyan and Uganda shilling.

So the Common Market will radically change the RRR industry, increase the margins that prostitutes take home.

We could very quickly see a sharp growth of the sin market and the development of Bangkok-style areas in East Africa.

Unfortunately, along with this, we shall most definitely witness dramatic changes in the spread of diseases, and the Police – who extort loads of money from prostitutes — could be sucked deeper into organised crime that the RRR industry is notorious for fuelling.

If we look out only for how much money big businesses will make, we shall miss 60 per cent of the Common Market story.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Group’s executive director for Africa & Digital Media; E-mail [email protected]