When the East African Community (EAC) was formed in 1967, it was viewed as an advanced mode of regional economic integration than the then European Economic Community.
We had transformed the East African Common Services Organisation into a formidable engine of regional economic integration running common railways and harbours services; postal and telecommunications services; East African Airways and many other services.
Indeed, at that point in time one could travel from Nairobi to Kampala overnight by train without experiencing the nuisance of border crossing.
Moving towards a common monetary system and a free trade area seemed like just a matter of time on the eve of the break up of the community in 1978. It is fair to ask "what really happened?"
The answer is simple. The folly of politicians. The failure to focus on the bigger picture rather than withdrawing into the cocoon of narrow nationalism.
We soon started investing into similar economic activities from one country to the other, with the misleading gospel of import substitution industrialisation apparently pushed to drive economic development in each country.
The historical limits of this form of socio-economic transformation was a sure recipe for economic stagnation in the whole region by the beginning of the 1980s.
Nay! It was a calamity in the whole of Africa inviting the Bretton Woods institutions to read the riot act to Sub Saharan Africa in the famous "Accelerated Development in sub-Saharan Africa: An Agenda for Action," replete with the now discredited Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs).
The first item on the agenda was to order the state to stop meddling in the economy and to leave the driving seat to the private sector. The state had to govern and govern well, period.
All the three East African governments became substantially alienated from their people in most of the 1980s and 1990s.
Suspicion of some disquiet among the people invited stringent political authoritarianism punctuated by righteous political ideologies where the ruler always knew everything.
Economic decay went hand-in-hand with political decay. Indicators of economic growth in the whole of East Africa in the 1990s was nothing to write home about. But the people did not sit pretty.
In 1998, 20 years after the collapse of the community, Presidents Daniel arap Moi of Kenya, Benjamin Mkapa of Tanzania and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda woke up to recognise that reviving the EAC was a good idea after all. This was not out of their sheer benevolence. Popular pressures, including in the mass media, compelled them in this direction.
Separately, the three countries seemed to be heading to the doldrums. Together they perhaps would salvage the admirable achievements of the first EAC days and blaze a new trail for a brighter future for East Africa. Hope was kindled. And sometimes hope alone and goodwill can open doors to new economic opportunities.
Since the restoration of the community, three more countries have joined: Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan. The last two are like reluctant brides, in love with the would-be husband but reluctant to enter marriage full throttle. How long will the husband keep guessing about the future?
Nature, science tells us, always abhors a vacuum. The new reformist government of Felix Tshisekedi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has set its eyes on joining the EAC sooner rather than later perhaps to fill the vacuum that the reluctant brides seem to have created.
The DR Congo would perhaps bring more potential into the EAC than any of its older members in terms of natural resources, opportunities for investments, outreach into Francophone Africa and a formidable home market in a truly integrated East African Community.
If I were the bureaucrats in Arusha I would work over time to spread a red carpet for DR Congo's entry into the Community yesterday rather than today. The talk about "emerging blue economy" in East Africa needs to bring into centre stage the DR Congo as a key player.
The potential for hydro electric power in the DR Congo is enough to sort out all our energy problems, including electricity powered locomotives.
Lest we forget, the original EAC had perhaps taken the blue economy seriously without actually speaking loudly about it. It was recognised that railways alone were not enough to integrate East Africa transport wise.
With the collapse of the East African Community in 1978, Kenya Ports Authority, for example, completely turned its back on Lake Victoria, forgetting that "harbours" on that lake were once part and parcel of the transportation system that brought East Africa together.
When President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga recently initiated the revitalisation of the Kisumu port, we found two ships and five boats, originally belonging to the East African Railways and Harbours, resting peacefully at the bottom of the Nyanza Gulf! They had sank as a result of sheer neglect: A perfect example of economic decay.
Astronomy is the science that sailors once used to identify their destinations before the invention of the compass. The first lesson was very simple: Know the destination by the position of the stars in the sky. Should you decide to go South, identify where Southern Cross is, fix your eyes on it, and follow it assiduously. You will not get lost.
Have we identified our Southern Cross in our quest for a prosperous, dynamic and developmental East African Community that will raise the economies of our region to a developed status within the next 30 years?
If Singapore did it, why can't we? We need a clear time action plan, convincing enough to rally the energies of our people to pursue a common cause, to achieve the East African Community we all are yearning for.
Prof Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o is the governor of Kisumu County in Kenya. E-mail: [email protected]