On integration, EAC can't fake it till it makes it but a little body paint might help

Monday September 25 2023

A cartoon illustration. PHOTO | POOL

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

You could hear the champagne pop and see lots of confetti flying around East Africa last year after the Democratic Republic of the Congo became the seventh member of the East African Community.

With a population of nearly 100 million, Africa’s second-largest nation and one of the world’s mineral-rich countries had many salivating at the prospect of riches to be made in the DRC market. Alas, we are still waiting for the Congo-fuelled East African blossom to come.

Indeed, over a year later in early September, leaders were celebrating the decision by Kenya and DRC to waive the requirements of obtaining visas to their countries for their citizens. Thing is that these requirements shouldn’t even be there. Most other East Africans still have to jump through visa hoops to travel to DRC.

When Burundi and Rwanda became the second-generation members of the EAC in 2007, visa-free access for the original EAC Three was never a story. All of them were already able to travel to Rwanda, especially, and vice versa, without a visa. To understand the visa-half-heartedness of the DRC — and not too long-ago South Sudan — is to see a bigger problem with the EAC itself today.

Read: BUWEMBO: East Africans may abandon EAC, not by rebelling but by ignoring it

Burundi and Rwanda joined the EAC in a euphoric period. In Kenya, the Mwai Kibaki “magic” was beginning to bear fruit, and it was on the way to its day in the sun as the Silicon Savannah. The northern war Uganda against the brutal Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Movement had definitively ended, and in 2007 the unthinkable happened – there were peace talks between Kampala and the LRA.


In an audacious move for the time, Uganda had sent troops to Somalia earlier in 2007 as the foundational contingent for the African peacekeeping force.

In Tanzania, Jakaya Kikwete had become president in 2005. Though he was not exactly spring chicken, he brought a new youthfulness to the country’s leadership. The man loved football and became the first Tanzanian president to be caught in public wearing a tracksuit and sneakers.

Rwanda was coming to the table with plaudits from its role in Darfur, Sudan, where it had deployed its first-ever peace mission in 2004. It was a turning point in the narrative about the country as a post-genocide society. There was still headroom for reform and new things. The EAC Customs Union had only just come to fruition.

There was movement everywhere. However, since around 2017, when the innovation of one-stop border points started between Kenya and Uganda, there has been nothing fresh. The push for an East African Federation has withered on the vine. The common East African currency is no longer even drunk talk in bars.

Read: EAC political confederation taking shape

With nothing eye-popping happening, the expansion of the EAC became the only game in town. Expansion became the big bluff, the means by which we faked deeper integration. We are unlikely to fake it until we make it on this one.

East Africa needs something exciting. We are stuck selling the same old basic things to each other: Bananas, maize, beans, curry powder, cooking oil, rice, mabati, metal pipes, cow hides, soap, sweets, sugar, flour, lubricants, and so forth.

On the higher end, it is aviation and finance. It is the same old state carriers flying around. In finance, it is mostly Kenyan banks galloping around setting up regional shops. East Africa’s rich still send their children to study across the region, as they have done for the past 35 years.

If an East African company was making one of the world’s best and cheapest insulins, that would be a game changer. The borders and remaining visa rules would collapse as everyone rushes to get their hands on some.

If there was a university in the EAC with the prestige of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to which our presidents and other big people strived to send their official children and the many more some of them have out there with mistresses, our state houses and parliaments would think very differently about integration.

Read: OBBO: EAC political federation will be through a military union

It doesn’t have to be so high-minded. Even offerings on the dark side would shake up things. There are deep-pocketed East Africans, believe it, who holiday in Las Vegas, Florida, and Hawaii, for the clubbing and partying. There is no delightful and tasteful sinning on offer in East Africa. Despite the beauty and sun, beach experience in East Africa is mostly second grade.

Equatorial Guinea has been ruled by the iron-fisted and unsmiling President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo for nearly 45 years. There isn’t too much happiness in the country, or a long line of tourists queuing to see mountain gorillas or to watch a wildebeest migration.

But there is one thing, the annual Bodypainting Festival held in the Malabo National Park. Some of the world’s best painters and artists gather every year in Malabo and paint their wildest and most inspired works on women’s and men’s bodies — some of them sans underwear. Their work is stunning. The aim of the festival is “to inspire others to explore their talents to make a better world.”

It might be too hopeful to think one can do that with paint, yes, but on some years the festival brings Equatorial Guinea its largest international crowd, and for four days allows the Equatoguineans to smile and forget about Mbasogo.

How about that at Jumuiya level? It’s not impossible to set off excitement about East Africa again.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the "Wall of Great Africans". X@cobbo3.