The summer of 1969 witnessed two historic flights – one scientific, the other religious. On July 20, a small module named the Eagle detached from its parent spacecraft, Apollo 11, and landed on the moon. Commander Neil Armstrong stepped out and made his famous “one small step for a man, giant leap for mankind.” He was followed by the module pilot Edwin Aldrine and after physically exploring the moon’s surface for over two hours, they rejoined pilot Michael Collins on the main craft and flew back to Earth.
In Rome, officials were putting final touches to an earthly flight which the Vatican chief of finance Archbishop Paul Marcinkus described as more complicated than flying to the moon. Pope Paul VI had overcome stiff political, religious and racial resistance in the developed world to make the first pontifical visit to Africa.
On July 1, a brand-new East African Airways (EAA) Super VC10 (then flying under code Shephard One) touched down at Entebbe Airport, where Paul VI kissed the ground and was welcomed by five regional presidents, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Gregoire Kayibanda of Rwanda, Michel Micombero of Burundi and Milton Obote of Uganda.
Representatives of Nigeria’s then warring big two, President Yakub Gowon and Biafra’s Emeka Ojukwu co-attended peacefully. The Entebbe landing put an end to a regional local saying describing an impossibility as hosting the Pope.
The two trips were similar in a way: The one to the moon was motivated to show America’s superiority after the Soviet Union, beat them in sending a man in space in 1961, making Commander-in-Chief John Kennedy command his forces to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade. The second trip was motivated to show that Africa had matured in Christianity, when Kampala Archbishop Emmanuel Nsubuga had the "audacity to ask Pope Paul to visit Uganda.
Today, the original three East African Community (EAC) states, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, are excited because of another first - hosting the (football) Africa Cup of Nations 2027. It differs a bit from hosting the Pope 54 years earlier. That time they jointly owned an airline which they just deployed to bring their distinguished guest.
The shot of the Pope historically emerging from your branded vessel would be a marketer’s dream today. Now, EAC’s aviation sector remains unviable, fragmented, for we can’t even have a unified airspace as national carriers limp around losing money. If EAA existed, it would be a natural official carrier and even key sponsor of Afcon 2027.
When the successful joint bid was announced just over a week ago, reactions were mixed. In Uganda, the government’s own newspaper editorial reminded us of the corruption-ridden 2007 Commonwealth Conference, when the country hosted Queen Elizabeth II, and said hosting big events usually leave us smelling not so good. From Kenya, we saw unkind social media memes, one saying the only sport their country is suited to host is motor rallying because it requires bad roads.
But we should be positive, as we have four years to be inspired by Afcon to salvage the confidence in the EAC idea. A prioritised list of ailing initiatives can be drawn, and they get handled. Whatever is making the declaration of a unified airspace seem like rocket science can be addressed, so flying stops being a preserve of a few, especially policy makers whose tickets are paid by taxpayers who don’t fly. Then there is the single currency that they had excited us about. There are also unilateral deals member states make with outsiders that weaken the EAC integration spirit. And then the mounting non-tariff barriers to trade.
This is not to say individual countries are not making serious advances, but separately. Tanzania is electrifying the railway; Kenya is a regional Silicon Valley; Uganda is ahead in making not only electric vehicles, but it is launching a diesel three-in-one trike for the rural communities which generates electricity, irrigates many acres and carries a tonne of produce using only one litre over 25 kilometres.
But if EAC states don’t intentionally coordinate their development initiatives, there may not be much to write home about hosting Afcon 27.
It could in fact pale in comparison to Idi Amin’s hosting the OAU summit in 1975, when he hosted nearly 50 heads of state, who also attended his second wedding to his fifth (official) wife, Sarah. He said he staged the wedding again “due to public demand”.
Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail:[email protected].