Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile, the deceased governor of Uganda’s central bank who died on January 23, was the unsung champion of East African economic integration.
Like many of his contemporaries, he came from that generation that reached adulthood during the heydays of the East African Community when the region’s citizens enjoyed seamless freedom of movement, labour mobility and establishment. Even when the member states launched separate central banks, the shilling from any of the territories enjoyed parity and could be used to trade anywhere among the member states.
Yet while the revival of the East African Community was in the initial days mostly driven by sentiment and nostalgia for many of the actors, Mutebile and a few hard-nosed individuals dissected challenges and opportunities and came to the conclusion that business and economic relations would form a more durable foundation for any new cooperation.
Thus, when Uganda recently announced its BUBU (Buy-Uganda, Build-Uganda), he was perhaps the only person who rose above the euphoria, to interrogate the wider implications of the policy, which essentially rigged government procurement in favour of Ugandan products. What will happen to East African economic integration, if Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania did the same? He asked at one point.
Despite its obvious benefits, East Africa in general has been a reluctant reformer and integrator. The member states are not completely reconciled to the fact that there will be a transient to integrating the region. It is not surprising therefore, that more than two decades after they signed to cooperation, trade tiffs do happen every now and then.
He believed that while progress had been made towards reducing trade barriers within the region, ultimately, separate currencies, divergent fiscal and monetary policies also had inbuilt barriers that impeded the flow of trade.
Mutebile died two years before the establishment of a common currency, one of the envisaged benefits of the East African Monetary Union that the region’s leaders signed to in November 2013. Had everything moved according to plan, East Africa should have been preparing for the launch of a common currency in 2024.
It is an ambitious target but doable and the framework to make it work is already in place. Mutebile was derided by Ugandan economists, over his apparent fixation with keeping capping inflation at 5 percent. But he was only trying to lead by example because that was one of the key criteria agreed by the EAC summit for East African Monetary Convergence.
Although it was not that obvious to the casual observer, East African monetary policy is actually deeply converged today. Without imposing himself, Mutebile worked with his regional counterparts to harmonise payment systems and to keep regional monetary policy in rhyme.
The result is a more resilient financial system and macro-economic stability across East Africa because the central banks are reading from the same script.
In his departure, the region has lost a chunk of institutional memory. Mutebile knew that he was mortal and used his time here to add as many bricks to regional monetary convergence as he could. The deserving gift to his memory would be to stay the course and push on the journey to a single East African currency