Presidents Yoweri Museveni and Paul Kagame need to sit down in a room and not depart until they solve their differences. There can be no vibrant East African Community (EAC) as long as the cold war between Rwanda and Uganda lingers. The presidents of Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi and South Sudan should join them in that room since East Africa will either rise together or sink together.
EAC’s future and integration lies in border points like Gatuna on the Uganda – Rwanda boundery; Namanga on the Kenya – Tanzania’s; Akanyaru on the Rwanda – Burundi border; Elegu on the Uganda – South Sudan border and Busia on the Kenya – Uganda border. When social and political differences cause governments to either shut down these border points or slow down operations there, millions of people suffer directly and indirectly.
In 2016, a conflict between Rwanda and Burundi shut the doors at Akanyaru, the border town of the two nations. As a result, the mass of people flooding through the border thinned to a trickle.
Local restaurants and other businesses shut down. This pain was also felt hundreds of kilometers away in Kigali’s Kimironko market. Many traders there were adversely affected when Burundi banned food exports to Rwanda. However, this move did not hurt Rwanda alone since it deprived Burundi of much needed foreign revenue.
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I love Burundi. It has one of the friendliest people that I know and I’m proud to call some of them my brothers and sisters. On numerous occasions, I have been privileged to enjoy hearty conversation, therefore, heartbroken when Burundi’s former President Pierre Nkurunziza died suddenly on June 8, aged 55. The loss of human life, however controversial a person might have been, is always a heartbreaking event.
As Burundi and the rest of East Africa mourns the passing on of Nkurunzinza and installs President Ndayishimiye, time is ripe for all the six presidents and East Africa’s 200 million people to cast a long, honest look at the EAC. We need to ask hard questions and seek brutally honest answers.
Is the EAC making the lives of citizens any better? The answer to this question is the North Star that should guide this regional body. I posed this question to several of my friends in the region and none of them answered in the affirmative. I suspect that my informal poll is indicative of the reality across the region, which should serve as a wake-up call to East Africa’s presidents together with citizens. EAC has a long-checkered history. The old EAC died unceremoniously in 1977, largely due to chronic political and operational differences amongst Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, the only three countries that were members of EAC at the time. If we are not careful, history will repeat itself.
Lingering differences threaten to slow down the EAC train. Tanzania remains a hesitant regional player; Rwanda and Uganda continue to butt heads; Burundi, the only wholly Francophone country in EAC, remains an outlier despite the current Secretary General coming from that country.
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South Sudan continues to struggle with its own internal issues. Evidently, the EAC house is arguably on fire. The response should be urgent and decisive, or this fire will eventually burn down the house.
The seeds of the EAC were planted in 1917 when the pre-independent nations of Kenya and Uganda formed the East Africa Customs Union. Ten years later in 1927, Tanzania joined the union. But it was not until 1967 that the three East African countries formed post-independent EAC. Interestingly, there was a lot more collaboration and cooperation in that original EAC than today.
Back then, movement of people and goods across borders was easier. Unfortunately, all this came tumbling down in 1977.
On July 7, 2000, EAC was reborn. Next month, EAC will be turning 20. We should ensure that the ego-fueled rebellion and immature frictions of EAC’s teenage years will be a thing of the past. East Africa’s 200 million people are stronger together than apart.
The day that all of us across East Africa will easily buy Burundi’s Mukéké fish, Kenya’s nyama choma, Uganda’s matoke, Tanzania’s kikoi fabric, South Sudan’s shea butter and Rwanda’s isombe (mashed cassava leaves with a host of other ingredients), is the time we shall realise the unstoppable power of a united 200 million people. Think green, act green!
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- The writer is founder and chairperson, Green Africa Foundation. www.isaackalua.co.ke