Kenya and Tanzania seem to have fallen into a time machine that has taken them back to the scuffling of the 1970s and 1980s.
In the past week, Tanzania slashed Kenya Airways flights from Nairobi to Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar and Kilimanjaro by nearly 70 per cent.
That action comes on the back of a Kenyan decision late last year to ban Tanzanian tour vans from dropping or picking up tourists visiting the country at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
The two countries have over the years squabbled over milk imports from Kenya, levies on trucks crossing the border, and a range of other issues.
In the same week that Tanzania came down with the decision on KQ, the Tanzanian parliament approved a stringent new law aimed at curbing foreign employment. The Bill requires firms to satisfy the authorities that no local can do the job before employing a foreigner.
The BBC said the move reflects growing resentment towards foreign workers in Tanzania, and the media in Dar es Salaam quoted Member of Parliament Esther Bulaya saying it did not “make sense to see a Chinese driving a commuter bus” in Tanzania.
Analysts see the Bill affecting not just Chinese, but East Africans too — especially, you guessed right, Kenyans.
Critics of Tanzania see these kinds of actions as representing a xenophobic streak, and Tanzanians on the other hand allege that Kenyans are arrogant and have a superiority complex.
There is probably some soul-searching needed in Dar es Salaam, because Tanzania has had these flaps with other East African Community partners: With Rwanda, especially over the eastern DR Congo; and sporadic trade and movement disputes with Uganda at the two countries’ common border too. It’s possible, but it cannot be that everyone else is wrong, and Tanzania is always right.
Yet, whatever the truth, those arguments miss the bigger point. In many ways, the EAC was created precisely because of these kinds of problems, and the plan was it would reduce them and create a region that trades freely and, mostly, grows rich together.
These setbacks are not because no initiatives have been undertaken towards regional integration. Rather, the trouble they are not numerous enough or fast enough to create a critical mass and a pro-EAC constituency in each of the countries large enough that politicians would be too afraid to antagonise it — or, conversely, would bring them more votes than playing the nationalist card.
Kenya and Rwanda probably have the most pro-EAC elite, but to them integration is utilitarian — it brings certain benefits that can be measured in the number of roadblocks removed from roads, increased earnings of their companies that trade in the region, and easier clearance of goods from Mombasa.
They are not good at seeing the soft benefits or the political ones. Ugandans are better at that, but then it means the country is slow on matters that make business sense — it was late lifting work permit requirements for East Africans by six years.
Tanzania, on the other hand, contradictorily wants the soft, political, and economic benefits of integration all without having to integrate.
Well, all is not lost. At least it wants something.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa. Twitter: @cobbo3