On February 27, East African Community leaders met for their first summit of the year. With Covid-19 still hanging out, it was a virtual summit.
The grapevine has it that it was a very recognisable East African affair. Tanzania’s President John Magufuli, was the first to dial in — five minutes early. The rest joined mostly on the dot. They chewed the regional rag for nearly 50 minutes, as they waited for one of the chiefs to join. Predictably, a fed up Magufuli was the first to walk off. The fashionably late big man showed up after an hour. Magufuli didn’t return. His vice president filled in for him.
They managed to squeeze in some business, though, appointing Kenya’s Peter Mutuku Mathuki the next EAC Secretary-General, replacing Burundi’s Libérat Mfumukeko who had a largely hapless tenure. But perhaps more interesting, though it didn’t make headlines, adopted French as one of the bloc’s official languages.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the summit set off a wave of fake news, claiming that the country, which applied to join the EAC in 2019, had been admitted. It hadn’t, but for once it was a piece of fake news that portended good things. The DRC looks likely to be admitted in some form, this year.
With that, Francophone East Africa, if you add DRC’s nearly 90 million people to Rwanda’s and Burundi’s, will be only a few million shy of Anglophone East Africa. While on the one hand it will bring greater divergence in the EAC, it will at the same also introduce greater convergence, as it will create a new giant Swahiliphone bloc.
DRC as a member will also bring something new. The EAC would have by far the largest number of refugees living in a regional bloc where they are members. Uganda is the largest refugee-hosting country in Africa, most of them from South Sudan. On their heels are Congolese refugees who, according to United Nations January 2021 data, are nearly 430,000.
The next three top hosts of Congolese refugees are all in the EAC: 79,406 in Burundi; Tanzania (78,405), and Rwanda (74,613). They will remain refugees, though perhaps not “hard”, but “soft” ones, allowing them to seep a little more into their host societies as EAC citizens, much the same way South Sudanese have done in Uganda and Kenya.
Can’t wait to see how the region will change. Will there follow a French edition of The EastAfrican — at least online? What will broadcasters with a strong East African bent like Kenya’s Citizen TV and NTV do? Potentially over 100 million eye balls are not something to ignore. Will the Congolese drink Tusker, Bell, or Nile beer if more of it flows to their pubs in a more open regional market?
There are large silent Congolese communities in cities like Nairobi, most of them in the arts and culture industry. Emboldened by EAC membership, they could come out more assertively. What goes for East African sound is set to expand dramatically.
And, inevitably, expect more East Africans to go to the DRC to trade in or steal one of the commodities that is increasingly scarce in the EAC — timber.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]