For a long time, there has been a desire to build a strong, integrated community in eastern Africa. Yet to fully integrate, political goodwill is essential, but has been lacking. Fear and mistrust of each other’s intentions have informed foreign policy in the region, thus hindering efforts that could lead to a strong regional bloc with the capacity to compete with other economic blocs like the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) and the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas).
Fear revolves around the risk of local populations in east African countries losing their jobs to foreigners, either because they would provide cheaper labour or they would be better qualified. In South Africa, for instance, a paucity of jobs, and the few available being taken up by expatriate workers, has led to xenophobic attacks.
The idea of an regional community is not a new concept, having been embraced by the founding fathers of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in 1967. They believed more could be achieved by pulling together as a united people, but although the community took off to a good start, it broke up in 1977 because of mistrust.
Kenya has demonstrated willingness to get the East African Community revived. On his inauguration day on November 28, 2017, President Uhuru Kenyatta lay our borders open to citizens of the east African region. Sadly, diplomatic relations with Tanzania have not been at their best in the last few months. At some point, Tanzania banned Kenyan imports, impounded cattle that had strayed across the border and destroyed chickens from Kenya.
Despite that, Tanzania overtook Uganda as Kenya’s largest eastern Africa trading partner in 2013. Tanzania’s top export destinations are India at $1.12 billion worth of business and Kenya at $793 million. In 2015, Tanzanian imports from Kenya stood at Sh3.2 billion. Kenyan imports from Uganda currently stand at Sh7.59 billion.
We are witnessing greater personal efforts by presidents Kenyatta, John Magufuli of Tanzania and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda to bring East Africa closer. A week ago, Mr Magufuli and Kenyatta urged their Foreign Affairs ministers to iron out any lingering differences between the two countries. Last Saturday, Museveni and Kenyatta opened a One Stop Border Post in Busia County to facilitate easy movement between the two countries. This is the way to go. Situations that threaten this vision should be dealt with in a climate of mutual trust and respect for each other.