Now, why did the Great Debate avoid the ‘R’ word?

Saturday February 16 2013


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

The much-anticipated Kenya presidential debate was held last Monday, notching up record TV ratings at home, and becoming the most trending subject worldwide on the social media site Twitter.

This first round of the debate was notably local, but it did get East African when one of the moderators asked the candidates about Migingo Island.

The candidates looked flat-footed by this question on what must be the smallest, but now best known island in Lake Victoria.

Migingo had led an obscure life for ages, until about five years ago when Uganda suddenly laid claim to it. Until then Migingo, which is barely bigger than a football pitch but is home to hundreds of fisher folk, had lived as a Kenyan island.

Tempers flared, policemen were dispatched, and Kenyan politicians loudly denounced the Ugandan land grab. Joint committees were set up to resolve the ownership, and as Uganda’s claim looked seriously untenable, President Yoweri Museveni sought to exit from the storm with one of his most famous fudges. He said the island belonged to Kenya, yes, but the water and fish around it belonged to Uganda.

All the candidates chose to stick to safe answers, saying Kenya’s sovereignty has to be protected, and they would resolve the Migingo issue diplomatically with Kampala.


Not so Paul Muite. Taking a militant line, he said Uganda didn’t have much of a navy to speak of, so he would send an armada to knock sense into the heads of its big men. Muite will not be getting an invitation to State House Kampala any time soon.

What was familiar about that near-absence of East African issues from the Kenya presidential debates is that it mirrored the trend in the other East African Community countries.

East Africa is still not talked about much except when the leaders are meeting in a summit, or during conferences on regional integration.

This is striking, because Uganda is Kenya’s leading export market, buying more goods from it than the UK and US combined. Tanzania is third.

On the other hand, Kenya is the leading importer of Ugandan and Tanzanian goods.

So why is regional trade not very sexy?

It is the reason marrying the girl or boy next door is not glamorous enough. The neighbour’s son or daughter is safe, but you look unadventurous marrying them.

African nationalism sometimes produces a very convoluted sense of insecurity. Economic integration and regional trade is partly a rejection of our former colonial masters, providing an alternative universe where they don’t call the shots.

But being successful by exporting to Uganda or Kenya does not confer sufficient prestige, because you cannot confidently claim that your economy and companies are “world class.”

We therefore waste a lot of time and money seeking elusive triumphs in European and North American markets, or acknowledgement of our potential from the captains of Western industry.

The saving grace is that we are not stupid enough to stop trading with each other. In our conflicted state, we still manage to do even more business with each other every passing year.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Group’s executive editor for Africa & Digital Media. E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @cobbo3