Nearly two decades after the region’s leaders signed on to the revival of the East African Community, progress on integration remains a case of one step forward, two steps back.
The past 10 years or so have been particularly significant, having witnessed the geographical expansion of the Community from the initial three members to six, with a combined market of some 150 million people.
Although it has been the cause of unease that threatened several initiatives, a Common External Tariff has for years brought predictability to the region’s external trade and given key sectors a level of protection across national borders. But that is as far as the good news goes.
While the Common Market Protocol promised much, delivery has been staggered as the partner states employ different tactics to circumvent the more uncomfortable of its provisions.
The result has been a disjointed Community where five of the member states have harmonised their financial year while one still holds out.
Citizens can enjoy harmonised calling rates while roaming through four of the states, while they bleed money just to receive calls while transiting through the other two.
Firms cannot deploy staff to Tanzania for short-term technical work, since Dar insists on a work permit. Citizens from elsewhere in the region cannot register businesses in Kenya and Tanzania without entering into partnerships with locals.
Ugandan traders are for instance required to pay for a visa before they can engage in any business in Tanzania. Citizens from other member states have to find innovative ways just to convert their surplus Tanzanian currency into greenbacks.
Kenya is not without blame either. Cross-border traders accuse Kenyan officials of harassment, jailing them and confiscating their stock.
In many ways, the partner states suffer from a common affliction. Jobs are hard to come by and the instinct has been to ring-fence the few available for nationals.
This approach is shortsighted and self-defeating because it undermines growth, and in the end stunts job creation. Firms need skilled workers to drive efficiency and profit, which in turn facilitates expansion that creates a demand for more labour.
It is difficult to imagine where Uganda’s tourism sector would be today without the contribution of skilled Kenyan chefs and floor managers. Or Tanzanian and Rwandan education without the contribution of Ugandan and Kenyan teachers.
Now Uganda and Kenya have raised the CET on steel to 35 per cent while Tanzania remains reluctant to do so. The major risk in such disharmony is that it will negatively impact intra-EAC trade.
Uganda and Kenya will block Tanzanian steel products out of suspicion that they are re-exports of cheap imported steel.
This push and pull does not augur well for regional integration; for the project to survive, the leaders will soon need to reconcile short-term national interest with the long-term vision of the East African Community.