By Doris Acheng Odit
Eons of years ago, when I still had the luxury of being in high school, oblivious of the fact that the East African Community (EAC) had any significant impact-other than the gullible and perhaps farfetched notion that the pre 1970s collapsed EAC would somewhat come back to life on a bigger and grander scale- I remember having a somewhat unique exploratory opportunity.
If my memory serves me right, it was an opportunity for all Ugandans within school going age to participate in an essay writing competition with the Theme: ‘The East African Community, Benefits and Constraints’. As a young, albeit well informed person, eager to participate in the competition, I remember sitting with my pen and paper, starring hard at the blank piece of paper, conceivably trying extra hard to come up with realistic benefits of this so called EAC to me as a young Ugandan and I remember myself finding it impossible to relate to the direct impact the notion of the EAC would have on my life.
At the time, the idea of the EAC seemed like a farfetched notion, somewhat abstract, because, to a common person like me, it was just some institution with its headquarters in the Northern town of Tanzania, -Arusha- that had by far done nothing but talk and draw up complex protocols that were being implemented at snail speed. At that time, in retrospect, I like most Ugandans believed that perhaps we would not live to see the day when the single monetary protocol would be implemented let alone the protocol on free labour movement across the East African borders.
However, 2013 saw the end of the perceivably idealistic nature of the EAC and disproved the common adage that the countless workshops and summits held all in the name of advancing East African Integration were just mere talk to be followed up by insignificant action.
The emergence of the coalition of the willing, or what we now call the CoW, by the northern corridor EAC countries of Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania has transformed the EAC from an idea into an actual reality- Perhaps the driving force in this transformation was the realisation that the technocrats had done more than a fair share of their work, the expert reports and documentations were in place, it was time for the design and framework of the East African Community to graduate from its conceptual form to actual implementation,- and in less than 12 months after the media caught wind of the CoW alliance, the will and the speed of implementing key aspects of integration concept are beyond commendable and far supersede our expectations.
Perhaps what has set the CoW apart from the traditional EAC that has constantly fell short of our expectations in implementation of key integration protocols within the allotted time is the fact that their meetings not only translate into reports, but into implementable action plans, action plans that they seem more than committed to implement- the CoW unlike the conservative EAC has adopted a walk the talk approach in workings and dealings vis-à-vis a middle-of-the-road approach.
Within a span of less than 12 months, under the auspices of the CoW, Work has already began on the standard gauge railway that is expected to run through the three northern corridor East African countries, and perhaps have a detour link to Southern Sudan. The implications of the commissioning of this railway on the three implementing countries has vast economic significance as it is bound to lower the cost of transporting cargo imported through the Mombasa port by a substantial margin.
Furthermore, The fast tracking of an integrated immigration system that has lowered the cost of non-East African citizens travelling through the East African countries through a single entry Visa system that requires a single one time Visa payment valid for 90 days, as effected on January 1, 2014, will considerably lower the cost of touring the region, encourage more tourist traffic, not only for one country, but for the three countries as a sort of sub-regional bloc. This is bound to translate into increased earnings from the tourism sector.
Perhaps the most significant of CoW's achievement is free labour movement through the scrapping of work permit fees for Kenyans, Ugandans and Rwandese within the three collaborating member states. This will enable the three countries to complement each other in terms of the supply-demand imbalance for skilled human capital within the region. For Instance, the supply of skilled human capital in Uganda far exceeds the demand levels; this is contrast with Rwanda where the opposite is true, with the internal labour market falling short of meeting the skilled human capital needs of Rwanda’s economy. However, the removal of barriers to movement of labour will see the emergence of a symbiotic and economically beneficial situation in which imbalance in the supply and demand of human capital is evened out.
So with these sweeping achievements of the CoW within such a short time, we the sceptics are left with no choice but to admit that perhaps this integration ‘thing’ is not just a bunch of papers drawn up by technocrats in elaborate language lying somewhere in an office in Arusha, It is something that we can see and touch, something that can and will impact our lives in the not so near future.
What the CoW has proved to us East Africans is where there is a will, there is indeed a way, and right now, we are witnessing the birth of a borderless East Africa, perhaps not entirely in our lifetime, but we can say that the EAC has gone through labour pains, and the child that is the implementation of the integration process has been born, and we have borne witness. Whether or not our Tanzanian and Burundian brothers will join the bandwagon- for an integrated and aligned development strategy that will serve to benefit all East Africans- remains to be seen.
Further, with the recent developments in the region involving alleged proxy wars in the DRC; the Southern Sudan political decent and the imminent presidential elections in the not so near future, the East African integration process still remains volatile. It is a work in progress, but in my opinion, East Africa is more of unit under the CoW auspices than it has been for the last decade through the bureaucratic and conservative auspices of the EAC. And any day, if I were asked to make a choice between the CoW and the greater EAC, if that choice ever has to be made, I know what choice make!
The writer is an associate consultant
Trans African Management Consultants (TRAMADEC)