The cowboys are fighting, the cows are busy partying

Saturday November 9 2013


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Last week, Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete calmed fears about the future of the East African Community that have been in the air since the start of July.

It all became public when Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta, and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame began schmoozing and summiteering about grand plans and regional infrastructure — a single tourist visa, railways, power, ports — without Kikwete and Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza.

The Ugandan, Kenyan and Rwanda chiefs soon became known as the “Coalition of the Willing” or CoW. A lawyer friend in Kampala called them the “CoW Boys” (as distinct from cowboys, which we shall use below to refer to all five presidents).

Angry words were exchanged, particularly after Kikwete suggested that Kagame’s government should talk to the FDLR rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the remnants of the forces that committed the 1994 genocide in Rwanda in which nearly one million people were killed.

The EastAfricanistas fretted, fearing that the EAC was going up in smoke as the first one did in 1977.

However, the most revealing moment in all this came last week. Former Kenya prime minister Raila Odinga offered to mediate among the leaders and save the EAC.

What Raila was unwittingly acknowledging was that all the tension over the EAC was between the cowboys (the leaders, including Kikwete and Nkurunzinza), not among the cows (the people).

It all told us something that didn’t exist when EAC I collapsed. At that time, as far as formal institutions go, we had only the common structures of state parties. Today, the EAC is different — the cowboys hold their big summits, but the cows too assemble at their shared watering holes.

The one area in which there was the most reactionary nationalism in Africa in general in the past, was in the media. Today, a media house like Nation Media Group operates in all the EAC partner states, except Burundi.

But it is what the public doesn’t see that is striking. NMG operates on one Internet structure, runs on one “switchboard,” and one financial software across the region. It is not alone, that is the way several of the companies that operate across borders in the EAC roll.

Then the real takeoff of private tertiary school education in Uganda came from an influx of Kenya enrolment. All of 70 per cent of the high-paying patients at a smart but little-known specialist eye hospital in the eastern Uganda town of Tororo, are Kenyan.

An international school like St Andrews Turi near Nakuru has become the veritable school of the children of the East African elite.

There are more expensive Ugandan, Rwandan, and Tanzanian cars parked there on visitation day than at any EAC summit or meeting of the East African Legislative Assembly.

My lawyer friend made a profound point: East Africa’s cowboys need the cows. East Africa’s cows, however, don’t need the cowboys. They will do just fine with regular herdsmen.

Paradoxically, one reason all these East African cows are able to share kraals is because the cowboys opened up the pastures and set them free — especially former Kenya president Mwai Kibaki, and President Kagame.

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