Revive EAC spirit to reduce reliance on China, the West

The contest between China and the West over Africa has made us forget our home, East Africa. There was a time when East Africa trended more than the rest of the world.

It was the golden age when going to study in Uganda from Kenya or the other way was cool.

We had the University of East Africa that ended in 1970, with each country getting its own university.

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That is not different from what’s happening in Kenya today, with each county yearning for its own university.

History has no manners. It has a bad habit of repeating itself. 

We all know what happened to academia when the University of East Africa was devolved. Will the same happen as each hamlet gets its own university?

I will say it for the umpteenth time that each East African country should have started other universities and left the University of East Africa intact. The few years this tri-country university existed was the golden age of academia in the region.

Those who schooled there still call the shots in their countries and beyond. They straddle every profession from medicine to academia and politics.

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Leaving your country endured single purposefulness and risk-taking. Today, we no longer want to leave our village from kindergarten to university. We love the comfort of familiarity but not the dent in our entrepreneurial spirit.

Paradoxically, East Africans are more likely to study abroad than in the neighbouring countries. Have you noted how foreign universities have become aggressive in Kenya?  Unless in occasional conferences, we rarely interact with our neighbours in higher education institutions.

This has slowly killed the spirit of East Africa that was better planted in young minds, in school. Let us not be too pessimistic or nostalgic; Kenyans have been trooping to Ugandan high schools and universities, but the other way is a trickle-down despite the feeling that Kenya is a more advanced country. The beauty about planting this spirit early is that it has time to germinate. Lots of East African intermarried and settled in adopted countries. Without Idi Amin, many Kenyans would still be living in Uganda. How did Kenya thank thousands of Ugandans teachers who filled our schools in the 1970s and 1980s? 

I was taught English, maths, chemistry, and physics by Ugandans. It’s a Ugandan, Mr Wambete, who planted in me the seeds of writing.

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Hope he finally shaved his beard. Mrs Kihiu watered the seeds. Where are they? 

With each country preoccupied with our own contradictions, the spirit of East Africa is fading. Uganda is preoccupied with succession and so is  Kenya.

Tanzania is preoccupied with new politics. The other small East African countries Burundi and Rwanda are newcomers to the community.

The fading of East African spirit has left a vacuum that is sucking in China and the West.

In Kenya, it is sucking in county leadership and its myriad of demands.

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Power to tax

One wonders how things would be if counties had the power to tax or maintain security. Kenya and possibly other East African countries are suffering from the missing middle.

At the top, Kenya is an active member of the community of nations, flirting with the UN and other bodies and big-league nations such as the US, China and the UK. At the bottom, we are busy with counties and national issues; no time for East Africa.

Yet, the East African Community (EAC) would make us a formidable player at the global level. Beyond stereotypes, when did you witness a serious discussion about East Africans?

Few Kenyans have visited Arusha from Nairobi, yet the headquarters of EAC is nearer than Kisumu, Garissa or Mombasa.

Do you boast about visiting our neighbours just like visiting Europe or China?

Does anyone talk about the direct flights to Dar es Salaam or Entebbe? Yet, our neighbours will be our neighbours. The vacuum is not just academic, it also socio-cultural. Beyond school games, we do not interact enough among ourselves. Why can’t we present one team in the World Cup or Olympics? The idea of one visa for tourists is great. Why not one airway?

Economies of scale

Why not common ports, railways and other common services to benefit from economies of scale? And why not one phone prefix like the US and Canada?

East Africans do not trade enough with each other as gravity theory of trade suggests.

How many East Africans marry from their villages instead of crossing the borders?

The beauty about reviving the spirit of EAC is that it will act as a countervailing force to our idiosyncrasies like extreme tribalism. It will give the next generation a chance to leave the comfort of their homes.

Together as East Africans, united by Swahili and common history, we can become better players in the global scheme of things. 

How many of us introduce ourselves abroad as East Africans? If I don’t feel the spirit of East Africa in the city and university. What about the rest in Shamakhokho, Kimbimbi, Wote or Oteri ya Abuga near Keroka?

When will the EAC Protocol, which was signed in November 2009, be realised and transform EAC “into a single market that allows for free movement of goods, persons, services, labour, and capital while guaranteeing rights to residence and establishment?”

 -The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi

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