After months of despair during which East African regional integration increasingly appeared to be in peril, the past couple of weeks have given cause for optimism.
President John Magufuli played back-to-back host to his Kenyan and Ugandan peers in what were described as private visits at Chato home in Geita region.
The visits were so warm that at the end of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s visit, the Tanzanian leader, noticing his admiration of his peacocks, decided to gift him four of the colourful birds.
President Yoweri Museveni, seen as being on a briefing mission, arrived in Chato straight from Luanda, where he had attended a meeting that tried to broker rapprochement between Kampala and Kigali, among other issues affecting the Great Lakes region.
Beyond the camaraderie and the difficult situation between Uganda and Rwanda that refuses to go away, there has been some tangible movement.
Tanzania this week opened the door for Ugandan sugar while Ugandan cane growers, facing potential ruin from a glut, struck a deal to export the surplus to struggling millers in western Kenya.
Ignoring a past of tit-for-tat, Kenya this week returned to Tanzania a haul of gold and cash that had been illegally smuggled across the border.
While these might well be random events, they are important because they demonstrate both the rationale and product of regional integration in practical, rather than sentimental terms.
They also show what can happen when the leaders–whose actions have been at odds with the aspirations of ordinary folk –choose to be pragmatic rather than temperamental.
Uganda, which has struggled to convince its neighbours that it actually has a domestic sugar surplus, was initially unwilling to let its growers sell the surplus cane to Kenya, which was offering higher prices than local millers.
Yet without money to offset growers’ losses, it is open trade in a raw commodity that has saved it the burden while helping the Kenyan millers access to a critical input.
If Kenya, whose exports to Tanzania have on many occasions run into improvised obstacles, had chosen to turn a blind eye to the illegal haul of gold in its territory, regional criminal networks would have been emboldened and incentivised to try and maintain adversarial politics at the regional level.
In the past, this newspaper has argued that business rather than politics should be allowed to lead the regional integration project. The latest developments, and the popular perception that it is the region’s leaders and their vested interests were the main obstacles to integration, bear out that argument.
Chances are that, faced with transient challenges, the leaders could actually try to claw back these promising developments. But that would be foolhardy, as it negates the contribution to economic velocity and supply-side stability in basic commodities that open commerce brings to the region.
It would be overly optimistic to imagine that there will not be differences among the region’s leaders every now and then. What should not be allowed is for these to morph into a curb on the flow of business.