The official reactions that saw Kenya quickly dissociate from the xenophobic statements Tuesday by Kenyan legislator Charles Njagua Kanyi aka Jaguar, and Tanzania’s summoning of Kenya’s diplomatic representative in Dar es Salaam, all conform to a well-established, almost reflex procedure.
Whether East Africans and other foreigners should pay much attention to them is another question.
Mr Kanyi, the MP for Starehe in the capital Nairobi, was arrested by police on Wednesday over public statements the previous day in which he told foreign traders operating in Nairobi to pack up and leave Kenya or risk forcible removal.
Kanyi communicated his thoughts in a video that shocked sane minds and has since gone viral on social media.
In statements that were as shocking as they were dramatic, Mr Kanyi also gave Kenya’s interior minister 24 hours to deport all Chinese engaged in menial labour in the country and foreigners doing business in his constituency.
Given the wider implications for Kenya as an investment destination and a member of the global community, the denials and condemnations were swift.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs regretted Mr Kanyi’s abuse of freedom of speech to dehumanise foreign communities while inciting his constituents.
Coming just months before the region marks the 20th anniversary of the revival of the East African Community, the MP’s sentiments raise poignant questions about the bloc.
How come such sentiments are even possible and can actually be popular after two decades of clawing our way back towards a socially and economically integrated East Africa? And what makes them resonate with a not insignificant number of people across the region?
It is all very well to condemn statements such as Mr Kanyi’s, especially when they come from leaders. But the leaders are simply a mirror of the society they represent and the truth is that the actions of some governments in the region speak even louder than the words of a reckless politician.
In moments of nationalistic fervour, we have seen governments actually remove from employment and deport citizens from the Community’s partner states.
In that sense, Mr Kanyi’s utterances fall into a well-established pattern and represent the thoughts that many might harbour but lack the courage to state in public.
Periodically, the business community have to live with economic xenophobia under which a member state, for whatever reason, can choose to block select goods from another state. Sugar and rice are common pawns in this tit for tat.
Even as the MP was speaking, Kenya and Tanzania were still trying to unravel longstanding trade disputes while Ugandan goods still do have not access to the Rwandan market.
Mr Kanyi and his ilk must be condemned. It is important for leaders to tame their tongues. Once again trade, political and diplomatic differences threaten the fibre of regional integration.
But condemning the inflammatory statements of individuals is not going to change much until citizens see the governments translate into action policies that promise economic freedom and mobility into action.