As the East African Community marks its 20th anniversary on November 30, it would take a lot of bravery to assert that all is well.
The Heads of State Summit due on that day has been cancelled and postponed to an unknown date, apparently because one member State had more urgent business to attend.
The postponement of the Summit is a reflection of an existential crisis that began to manifest about two years ago. Since 2017, the annual Summit of the Community’s leaders has been a moving target, whose sitting has not coincided with set dates.
Distressing as that might be for ordinary folk for whom the half-loaf of regional integration still means so much, the present crisis is perhaps only a mirror of the promise and difficult road to a fully-functional regional community. It could also be evidence of the flipside of some of the choices made along the way.
While the early dreamers of East African co-operation were right to see economic integration as the frame over which different aspects of integration could be weaved, fear, rather than bold ambition, has tended to inform what the region’s leaders eventually choose to do.
To some extent, therefore, the roots of the present crisis can be traced to the reluctance by national governments to delegate what are perceived as key aspects of sovereignty to a supra-regional legal and economic regime.
Looking at the present tensions between Rwanda and Uganda for instance, they have largely remained a bilateral matter between the two member states.
One can only imagine the roles a unified security system, an East African Legislative Assembly that makes laws for the region, and a wider mandate for the East African Court of Justice would have played towards bringing the feuding neighbours back to a common script.
The absence of a robust institutional framework has left the EAC at the mercy of the political mood swings of individual leaders. It also allows otherwise small misunderstandings to snowball into much bigger crisis.
The EAC today is a mishmash of divergent political systems and economic policies with the only point of convergence perhaps being the denial of citizens their basic rights.
Lofty ambitions such as a common currency, a regional central bank and open borders remain abeyance. Twenty years down the road, it is not possible for citizens to move among all the partner states on a single document of identity.
It is quite probable that the rush to expand the geographical footprint of the Muungano before a firm foundation had been built by the founding members has contributed to the present state of affairs.
To make the best of a bad situation, the current crisis should be used as a compass to help correct course. The East African Community needs to look itself in the eye and agree on what is working and what is not.
The failure to achieve free trade and movement of persons and friction among the partner states, somehow dilutes the potential dividend from the ongoing rush to build superhighways, railways and ports.
Politically and economically, it is no longer viable to abandon the integration project. The only way of healing the current fissures is more integration.