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Without free movement, East Africa will keep marking time
Publish Date: Aug 13, 2009
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Jerry Okungu

IN recent weeks, Nairobi has hosted two crucial meetings that touched on pertinent issues that deal with wealth creation. The East African Investment Forum was as important at the AGOA gathering that followed it in quick succession.

Whereas AGOA included 38 African countries that export to the United States market under that Act’s special arrangement, the Investment Forum was concerned with dwindling foreign investments in our region.

However, before we seduce foreigners to come and invest in our region by promising them lucrative terms with possible tax holiday for years, it may be prudent to consider the kind of incentives we can give our local and regional operators.

Do not tell me that there is no money for investment in East Africa. There is. If you doubt me; just look at the Ken Gen, Mumias Sugar, Equity Bank and Safaricom IPOs when these companies went public. They were all over-subscribed in the margins of close to 1000%. What they also revealed was that more individuals were keeping more money under their mattresses than they are in our banks.

This reminds me of two occasions I witnessed in Nigeria and Somaliland nine years apart. In 2000 while in Abuja, it was difficult to find enough dollars in banks yet the same dollars were plentiful under trees being held by Hausa traders hawking them freely! Ironically, Nigerian banks at times visited the same Hausa hawkers under those trees to buy foreign cash from them!

This year, as I strolled on the streets of Hargeisa in Somaliland, hawkers on the streets were hoarding sacks of local and foreign currency alike, ready to sell to the willing buyer with no questions asked. They were least concerned with an individual’s source of dollars and no paperwork was necessary.

What I am saying is that if you free any group of people to do business without burdening them with unnecessary oppressive laws, they tend to be more transparent in their dealings and less inclined to steal, cheat or evade tax. The more rules there are; the more restrictions, the more chances there will be more people bent on breaking those rules. It is human nature to go against the grain just to annoy the governor.

Right now, East Africans I have met either in Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi or Tanzania are waiting with bated breath for our borders to finally open. They are waiting with anxiety for that day when our rulers will announce that the borders in Namanga, Isebania, Tanga, Busia, and Malaba are now open 24 hours a day seven day a week. They are waiting for that day when cyclists, motorists and bus drivers will sail through our borders without being made to look like criminals. They are waiting for that day when Tanzanian, Ugandan, Rwandan and Burundian number plates will be a source of pride rather than fear on Kenyan roads; when the police on our highways in the five states will stop erecting “toll stations” to extort bribes from ‘foreigners with foreign number plates’.

We in East Africa badly need the Common Market because we are tired of being prisoners of our rulers. I feel sad and embarrassed to walk with a Ugandan or a Tanzania on our streets then suddenly the police pounce on us asking for our Kenyan identity cards. I feel insulted when I am asked to go while my friends are detained for “further questioning”!

Without freedom of movement, no amount of infrastructure development will move us forward. No amount of fibre-optic cabling, new railway lines and super highways will bring progress. People must be allowed to move, trade, exchange ideas and services in a free atmosphere in order to build trust among us East Africans.

I need to know that today I can fly to Dar-es-Salaam, Kampala, Bujumbura or Kigali in the morning and all I need to do is to show my passport or my identity card to prove that I am an East African national.

I need to know that if I have to set up business in any of my East African states, I will be given an equal opportunity and same treatment as my local counterparts. That is why I am personally yearning for these borders to be flung wide open on January 1, 2010.

On this score, I am pleasantly surprised that in the last two weeks, Paul Kagame, Mwai Kibaki and Jakaya Kikwete have been reading from the same script. Their statements have been bold and focused.

Unlike in the past, they have not wavered on the subject of regional integration. Therefore as the East African Media Summit prepares to meet in Kampala in the next few days, it too should not waver on the issue of regional integration. Let the media avoid mediocre, parochial partisan and nationalistic issues.

East Africa is bigger than us all and can accommodate all of us if we only tried a little tolerance.
Jerryokungu@gmail.com

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