By Luke Anami
A cloud of fear looms hardly a week after the commencement of the East African Community (EAC) Common Market Protocol.
Part of the problem is that a majority of the 126.5 million people in the EAC bloc are yet to grasp the meaning of the new protocol, which facilitates free movement of goods and services, labour and capital across member States.
The integration particularly faces a tall order from citizens of the regional countries, especially Tanzanians who continue to question whether the process will be of any commercial benefit.
Despite the skepticism, there is still optimism that with time, regional citizens will start to appreciate the importance of the move to integrate regional markets and economies.
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"The coming into effect of the common market only means that the process of granting the free movement of goods and services, labour, capital has just begun," Amason Kingi, EAC Minister, told Financial Journal.
In allowing the free movement of workers, the acquisition of a common travel and identification document (ID) is key to the facilitation of this freedom.
To fully operationalise this key aspect, the five EAC partner States are expected provide their citizens with machine readable identification cards that will be used both as an ID and a travel document.
Currently, a passport or an East African pass is required for such purpose. However, the process of acquiring even a passport is tedious and often takes long periods of time.
"Only Rwanda is ready with such an ID. Kenya is expected to have it ready by September this year," Kingi said.
Tanzania, Uganda and Burundi do not issue IDs to their citizens, which further raises concern as to whether they are committed to this requirement.
On the eve of the commencement of the Common Market Protocol, President Kibaki announced the lifting of the requirement for work permit fees for all EAC citizens willing to work in the country. Last week, Immigration Minister Otieno Kajwang signed a legal notice exempting EAC citizens from payment of work permit fees, a move that signals the country’s readiness to implement the protocol.
However, while Kenya and Rwanda are pushing for the integration process, other partner states seem to be falling behind schedule largely due to the legal and administrative limitations in the statutes.
Tanzania has limited the issuance of travel documents to a few offices in major cities. This makes it difficult for ordinary Tanzanian citizens to access the documents at the border points.
In Kenya, one can obtain a travel permit at the border post upon production of an identity card and payment of Sh300.
The discrepancy between different countries in the manner in which they issue travel documents has prompted the business community to question the commitment of some of the partner states towards integration.
"We are watching with keen interest to see whether other countries will oblige with the requirements of the protocol," Betty Maina, chief executive of Kenya Association of Manufactures, says.
While Kenya’s border posts operate on a 24-hour basis, the rest of the EAC member States do not, thus slowing down the clearance of goods and people on the border.
"Operations at the border post should be uniform to speed up the clearance of trucks to the other EAC partner states," Maina says.
Citing the Malaba border post as one of the most notorious points, Maina says it takes more than 16 days for a lorry truck to travel from Mombasa to Uganda.
"This implies that you can only transport goods once in a month."