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Congolese traders, creatives step out and bring your best into EAC

Saturday March 26 2022
Felix Tshisekedi

DR Congo President Felix Tshisekedi. PHOTO | LUDOVIC MARIN | POOL | AFP

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

If all goes to plan, in a few days the Democratic Republic of Congo will get a seat at the East African Community table.

With its almost 94 million people, it would swell the EAC market of nearly 300 million, although many of them don’t have the money to afford more than an egg a day. If you are looking to sell Maasai sheets, Uganda Waragi or airline tickets, you aren’t going to make considerably more money in this expanded market.

But several things will immediately change. Adding Burundi and Rwanda, with DRC, the East African Community will become the largest regional Francophone bloc in Africa. It will also be a dramatic consolidation of Swahiliphone.

Like the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the EAC will now stretch from the Indian to the Atlantic Ocean and, most importantly, give the bloc two new neighbours — Angola, and the Republic of Congo, with the attendant security implications that come with that.

Tanzania will also cease to be the largest EAC country by size, and cede that to DRC. Finally, it will join South Sudan as the second country with a star in its national flag.

None of these things seem particularly life-changing, and some are even frivolous. Very important things like freedom and ease of travel to DRC will not dramatically change, given that it is one of the few countries in Africa that still requires a local “visa” for some types of travel within the country.

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DRC will not improve the atmosphere of liberal enlightenment in the EAC, mired as it is in corruption, and old-style repression of journalists, writers, musicians and other noisy and outspoken types.

What will change immediately is the imagination. It is different when you have to grapple with the idea of a community of nearly 300 million than one of 200 million.

The scope and depth of its culture is immediately more extensive. The diversity of its people wider. Their art bigger. And the new collective EAC society is immensely more complex, requiring a broader mind and thoughtful study in order to make intelligent decisions about it.

Some grand language is also now possible, and we can say things that the “EAC is nearly 25 percent of the African continent,” and that “it will overtake the population of the European Union in less than 15 years,” so they had better be nice to us, or else…

EAC membership should also allow the vast Congolese business and creative community which, over the past 50 years, spread extensively in Kenya, Tanzania, and indeed Rwanda and Burundi. After all these days, many of them are still shy about setting out boldly in the sun, because they are still harassed and extorted by immigration officials and police. They have remained active in safe cultural spaces, and traded away from the main streets.

EAC membership should quickly change that, enabling them to step out more confidently, and bring the best of them along.

Those bewildering Congolese dishes, the music that has been the soundtrack of many defining moments in this region of the past 60-plus years, and the stories of greats like Patrice Lumumba, will cease to be just Congolese. They will become East African too.

It’s worth the wait.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]

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