The presidents of Uganda, Tanzania and South Sudan and Kenya met in Kampala this week, with a notable absence of Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza.
But, in what appears to confirm speculation that the integration project is going up in smoke, largely due to bickering among its leadership, we are witnessing a return of the politics of national interests.
After a long process of integration, with major milestones such as free movement of people using national identity cards, we are witnessing a return to instinctive national sentiment.
First, there was the rift between Uganda and Kenya over the oil pipeline project which President Museveni diverted to Tanzania, leaving Kenya bitter. Since, then relations between the two countries have been on tenterhooks.
Then, Rwanda which felt side-lined by Uganda which opted to prioritise the rail route to South Sudan, decided to pull back from the standard gauge railway project with Kenya and Uganda, opting for the Tanzania one and effectively widening the rift.
Most recently, Rwanda and Uganda have locked horns over state security. Kenya’s rocky relations with Tanzania are an open secret and President Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party has accused the Magufuli administration of supporting the opposition, particularly Nasa leader Raila Odinga. Notably, Magufuli skipped Kenyatta’s swearing in ceremony last November.
The ongoing war in South Sudan is not only a source of instability but also fuelling a refugee crisis in the region.
While, the initial plan was to fast-track regional projects to accelerate integration and improve the livelihoods of the citizens, it now appears the regional’s leadership is prioritising ego trips and national interests, failing to act with a sense of urgency to iron out the outstanding issues that undermine the integration agenda. Yet the failure to address these sticking issues might cause the disintegration of EAC in the long term.
Meanwhile, the ordinary citizens continue to feel the pinch. They cannot move freely to seek economic opportunities across the region; they are denied jobs; and parents are unable to send their children to school across the borders.
In the background looms also the involvement of external partners or enemies not keen to see a stronger EAC, and are more than happy to see the integration project crumbling into pieces.
The region does not only have mutual interests in the areas of economic co-operation and faces significant geo-political threats, in particular terrorism and insecurity.
To forge ahead, compromises must be made. The crises are actually an opportunity, and the much-need deeper integration should counterbalance the existing choices.
Without political goodwill, though, integration remains in balance. Politicians come and go, but their citizens and nations remain. As East Africans, we hope for a stable, united and prosperous region; we hope that reason will prevail to resolve the outstanding issues with a sense of urgency for the common good.