The Democratic Republic of the Congo has finally become a member of the East African Community. For historians, writers and dreamers, there is something quintessentially African about the Congo.
Maybe it’s the name — Congo — which conjures up images of Africa before colonialism. In the name, the imagination sees and hears villagers beating drums, inviting all to dance under the moonlight.
Maybe we feel the connection because the Congo’s brutal colonial period and its equally brutal post-independence history encapsulate Africa’s experience over the last 150 years.
Or maybe the mighty Congo River, snaking through the rainforest, reminds us of the endless flow of time, a concept both comforting and frightening.
Perhaps in the chaos and poverty of the Congo, we see our future, as our leaders, too, haemorrhage our resources to buy villas in Europe, while selling to us false nationalist rhetoric.
Maybe the Congo reminds us of Patrice Lumumba, the one true leader of Africa who genuinely believed we deserved and could do better.
Then, of course, there is the immortal Rumble-in-the-Jungle heavyweight fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, and the shouts of “Ali-bomaye” that continue to echo through history from the stadium in Kinshasa, where the fight took place in 1974.
So, we welcome Congo because of these connections. But will there be any practical benefits?
Individual business people, especially those who are also politicians, will gain access to the Congo’s mineral riches and become even wealthier, and run for president.
Small traders in the Congo will bring their goods to East Africa and vice versa. Small-scale farmers might find a niche in respective markets. But it will be manufacturing, banking and service companies that will gain the most from this development.
In short, individuals, politicians and companies will grow rich, but there will be little change in the material conditions of the vast majority of the people.
For meaningful transformation, we must address governance, large-scale larceny and infrastructural problems in all member countries.
What’s the use if a small Kenyan farmer finds a market for her goods in the Congo, but cannot get the produce to the market because means of transportation in Kenya and the Congo are either prohibitive or non-existent? Who will risk their lives transporting goods through the killing fields of eastern Congo?
What will be the use of new markets when thievery in Kenya and the Congo will make it impossible for traders to make profits?
Has South Sudan’s joining the EAC brought any change to the South Sudanese?
Forming and joining regional economic blocs provide good optics. They offer a sense of making progress. But it’s a false sense. We can join as many trading blocs as we want, but we will remain stagnant until all member countries address governance, grand thievery and institutional incompetence.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator