Thursday, November 3, 2011



By Jerry Okungu
Nairobi, Kenya
November 1, 2011

Kenya’s ongoing war against the Al Shabaabs inside Somalia has elicited renewed comradeship among East African states and even states as far south as South Africa. Here in East Africa, Tanzania and Rwanda have been categorical in their support for Kenya’s decision to conclusively deal with the Al Shabaab terrorist group inside their base hideouts. There obviously is no need for Uganda and Burundi to publicly declare their support because their troops are already in Mogadishu for a similar mission.

Like I said in this column last week; fighting terrorism is never easy. It can be a long and protracted conflict because the enemy is amorphous and hardly engages in open conflict. The more reason the AU force comprising Ugandan and Burundian soldiers has been fighting the same Al Shabaabs for years without much success. One only needs to see how long it has taken Americans to fight Al Qaida terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq to appreciate what it means to deal with any terrorist group.

Support for the Kenyan war aside, I think the big story that could be the game changer for the regional integration was the news that East Africans may have a common currency next year. If that happens, it will be the closest to being one country again the way we were in the early 1960s and 1970s. The moment East Africans from Kigali to Kisumu, Soroti to Siaya, Bujumbura to Butiama and Gulu to Garissa  travel freely with the same currency in their pockets, they will begin to appreciate that East Africa is truly one country.

East Africans may well be reminded that when the founding member states started drifting apart soon after independence, the first casualty was the East African Currency. Suddenly each state printed its own currency and set up its own Central Bank. Suddenly every head of state needed his head to appear on the national currency. Once that was done, the rest of the services that had held us together started falling apart. Ten years after the demise of the East African shilling, the EAC as we knew it was no more.

The second EAC has come a long way from the days of the corporation and partnership. It is now 12 years since its charter was ratified by the three member states and seven years since the heads of state attempted to fast track the political integration. However due to the dithering and lack of vision  at the EAC Secretariat for the last five years, very little in terms of regional integration was achieved; never mind that at the start of 2005 a specific office was created just to deal with political integration.

Just the other week, Rwanda’s EAC Minister expressed concern that regional integration may be delayed if not derailed permanently. He was citing the two protocols that were implemented between 2005 and 2010 yet very little impact has been felt at the grassroots among member states. Despite the fact that the Customs Union and the Common Market protocols were implemented in 2005 and 2010 respectively, we still have traffic piling at our common borders.

We still have customs and immigration officials of each state demanding the same documents, asking the same questions they had asked before these two protocols were signed. As I write this article, only Kenya and Rwanda have scrapped work permits for nationals of the five member states.

In moments like these when economic hard times are hitting us left and right regional integration in terms of planning, shared common services, one currency and a regional defense force would have made more sense. Having a population of close to 150 million people would make sense for external investors because there would exist a unified consumer base worth talking about without the encumbrances of trade and investment laws of five different countries. Sectors like tourism, Foreign Service and National Security would enjoy economies of scale.

One obvious area where a unified East Africa would have an impact is in the area of bilateral, multilateral and international negotiating tables. Right now bigger and stronger nations like China, USA and the European Union are taking advantage of us because of our sizes and negligible economies. We are permanently disadvantaged when it comes to trade agreements. Our voices are hardly heard at the United Nations. We are always siding with super powers who also happen to be our perennial financiers.

Militarily, if we had a 200,000 standby Defense Force to protect our borders; that in itself would be a deterrent move such that militias and terrorist groups would think twice before they infiltrate our region.
The reason I feel strongly that a common currency will be a game changer in this region is because after talking about regional integration for over a decade, fatigue tends to set in. Interest in the subject tends to wane with time. Those who were 12 years old when we signed the EAC protocol are now adults with their families. They have heard the talk over and over again without any concrete results. Presidents have come and gone leaving the project unfinished. This state of affairs cannot be allowed to go on forever. This chapter must be closed one way or the other. The common currency will reignite our interest in the EAC.