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Open borders will make East Africans wiser, competitive and richer

Friday October 24 2014

About two weeks ago, Presidents Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya opened a two-day East African Business Summit in Kigali, where they unequivocally called on all EAC member states to open up their borders to allow free movement of labour, goods and capital.

The leaders were quoted in the media referring to the continued fear of possible loss of jobs and opportunities by some nationals as “primitive and unfounded”.

President Kenyatta is also cited as urging that “Our people must be East African, we need to open up borders for our citizens to move freely.” President Kagame is quoted as saying: “To increase trade, it is not only as a result of exporting raw materials but on [the] basis of value addition. For the rest of the world we sell raw and unprocessed materials.

This is primitive, in the same way people are looking at not allowing free movement of labour.…” As someone who has already started benefiting from open borders, especially between Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya, I cannot agree with the two presidents more.

To start with, unlike in the past, it’s possible for nationals of Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya to travel on an identity card withing the three countries. This is profoundly beneficial to the less fortunate citizens who either don’t have a passport or cannot afford one as they can easily travel to any of the three countries without difficulty.

With regard to free movement of labour, it’s possible for some to fear loss of jobs, especially since the five EAC countries are not at the same level of development. And this might be a well founded fear.

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Reflectively, however, I believe that what will increase the competitiveness of the EAC citizens isn’t fear of peers or even isolation but exposure to competition and increased opportunities in access to education, especially that which is aligned with the labour market in the region.

From experience, free movement of labour, for example between Kenya and Rwanda, has only made some of our businesses more profitable and competitive since we can hire from more than one market and start professional joint ventures without restrictions.
In the research and consulting world, for example, the removal of work permits has only made professionals in different fields far more competitive and valuable since they can now serve a larger market.

Put differently, opening up of borders will make East Africans wiser and richer because, through the fear of the “other,” citizens in each state will double their efforts of making themselves better at what they do to increase their competitiveness and marketability. Bear in mind nothing drives human beings’ capacity to improve and succeed better than the fear of failure.

There is also a fear that opening up borders for goods and capital to move freely will cripple young industries or businesses in some countries. But with doubling globalisation before our eyes, protectionism isn’t the answer but putting in place laws that ensure that when businesses and companies set up shop anywhere in the EAC, citizens’ rights are not violated; that such companies pay taxes and do not discriminate.

In a broader sense, however, the real benefit of opening up borders doesn’t lie in the free movement of labour, goods and services per se but in the effect of such actions. From available evidence, regions that allow free movement of labour, goods, services and capital are far more peaceful, secure and successful than those that don’t.

‘Islands of peace’

In fact, part of what has contributed to the phenomenon of “the islands of peace,” or regions that are more peaceful and successful — such as the European Union — are largely a consequence of free movement of goods, services, capital and labour.

With such movements, it’s possible, for instance, to predict peace and security in any region by measuring the volume of goods, capital and labour across borders.

What such movements do is to develop shared investment and interest for all the peoples involved, including the elite, to protect and preserve the status quo.

Thus, to close off borders is to keep citizens in perpetual fear, backwardness, mediocrity and poverty as they are denied the opportunity to come face to face with what may stir their internal drive to succeed.

Dr Christopher Kayumba, PhD, is a senior lecturer at the School of Journalism, the University of Rwanda, and managing consultant at MGC Consult Ltd.

E-mail: [email protected]; Twitter: CKayumba