Over the years, different Regional Economic Communities in Africa have taken precedence and familiarity, with the aim of addressing social, economic and political concerns, paramount to the development of the region. The REC differ by region integration, vision and mission and operational structures. However, the objectives remain more or less the same, in comparison with each other as coordinated by the overall African Union. The East African Community (EAC) is one of these bodies, currently composed of seven east African countries: Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan and the recent admission of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Admirably, it has taken years and years of reconstruction, revamps, a great deal of disappointments and economic and political fallouts for the East African Community to be recognised as it is currently. What started as a Customs union between Kenya and Uganda in 1917 fostered the EAC’s birth, gradually integrating Tanzania in 1927 and the other countries through the years, ranking it the most integrated bloc in 2020 by the Africa Regional Integration Index (ARII).
From a historic perspective, establishing the East African Community has been considered instrumental in promoting economic prosperity, unity and harmony among member states. The region, which boasts of a population of approximately 312 million people and richness in natural endowments such as arable land suitable for agriculture to valuable minerals, continues to search for an appropriate model and framework that would cater to the needs of all member states. This is supported by critically analysing how the bloc has evolved over the years and relations between and among member states. Initially, the bloc was referred to as the East African High Commission (1948 – 1961) and subsequently it metamorphosed into the East African Common Service Organization (1961 – 1967) and the East African Community (1967 – To Date).
During these periods, although member states recorded significant growth due to advantages of economies of scale, growth attributed to trade among member states was unsatisfactory and this was mainly due tariff and non-tariff barriers. For instance, Rwanda unexpectedly closed its border with Uganda from February 2019 till March 2022 and this considerably disrupted business activities between these two states. In addition, Kenya and Uganda have been involved in several trade tussles that have contributed to long clearance procedures at the border and confiscation of goods. This altercation made Kenya lose its top export destination market although talks are underway to find a long-standing solution. Globally economic and regional blocs such as the European Union provide a solid road map on how to integrate systems and policies for the greater good of member states. For instance, the European Central Bank which is mandated to provide monetary policy guidance to member states can be a good reference point to the EAC which seeks to establish a common monetary union. Interestingly, this is not the first time the East African Community is pursuing a common monetary agenda. In 1919, the East African Currency Board was established to supply and oversee the currency of British colonies in East Africa. However, by 1966 the board was disbanded and each East African country established an independent Central Bank.
The underwhelming performance of the East African Community integration scorecard can be attributed to a number of factors. Largely, the lack of commitment and a push to pursue individual interests among member states have contributed immensely to the slow, vengeful and retaliatory relationship among member states. These factors have manifested themselves in a number of ways since the establishment of the bloc. For instance, failure by some member states to pay their subscription arrears has significantly crippled the secretariat’s ability to perform its work efficiently. In addition, some member states have indiscriminately failed to upheld verdict decision against them by quickly pulling out the sovereignty of individual member states’ card thereby diminishing the confidence and jurisdiction of the various arms of the secretariat. The domino effect of such selective treatment has degenerated the East African Legislative Assembly and the East African Court of Justice. Once a pillar of hope and stability for the region, the East African Legislative Assembly and the East African Court of Justice have been reduced to a shell of their former selves and have been transformed into spaces for rewarding political cronies by current regimes thereby denying them the ability to attract top talent in diverse fields which would maintain and sustain the organizations’ professionalism and overall outlook. The just concluded East African Court of Justice strategic plan 2010-2015 portrays an institution that has been severely constrained by a number of external variables. According to the institution’s past performance report, it was unable to fully achieve all four outlined objectives which included: design of the Court under the treaty, Appreciation of the Court, Visibility of the Court and Capacity of the Court. This was mainly as a result of budget constraints and political interference. The revival and strength of the East African Community is dependent on goodwill from the political class across the region. Interestingly, as each member state gears up for heavy political campaigns during electioneering periods, the East African Community integration agenda takes a back seat and remains largely silent as political parties release their manifestos. In Kenya, top presidential contenders have been meeting investors from Europe and the Americas while giving a wide berth to investors from the East African Community. This disparity is widely practiced among member states as they inch closer to the polls and creates a negative drag in pursuit of integration.
From a macroeconomic perspective, the fiscal and monetary stabilization policies have been key strategies of the East African Community Secretariat. Taking that into account, it can be argued that instruments that tend to bind a nation are the same instruments that can bind a region. Financial access and inclusion, for instance, rely on the ability of the financial sector to offer credit at affordable terms and conditions. According to World Bank reports, East Africa member states have different approaches to financial access and inclusivity and this drives the divide wider. In order for the region to close the gap uniformly, member states can agree to unify financial systems and policies thereby facilitating free flow of credit within the region.
Alternatively, the initial operational framework of the EAC can be revised to either; revive older operational systems, deepen the existing functioning instruments or develop new instruments. For starters, the East African Community is looking forward to developing a common currency just as it had previously. Ideally, this would mean establishing a common Central Bank which would oversee the supply of the new currency within the region. Establishing such a facility would mean each member state has to dissolve their Central Bank and expertly coordinate migration of its financial system to the new facility. Although this looks complicated, it’s not impossible. In addition, the harmonization of the Nairobi, Uganda, Rwanda and Dar-es-salaam stock/securities exchange into a single capital market can free up alternative business financing within the region making East Africa an attractive global investment destination. The history of the East African Community is supported by its diverse yet closely related cultural ties. Although member states have physical borders, communities living within the region span across member states spreading and maintaining culture and tradition. In addition, in order for future generations to identify themselves as regional citizens of the East African Community, intermarriages between and among communities living within the region need to encouraged and promoted.
Infrastructure expansion and inclusion would mean that railway lines, aviation and highway projects will further interconnectivity and flow of goods and services. Telecommunication channels such as the One Network Area would also nourish this motive through affordable communication and mobile transfer services.
In my opinion, I believe the East African Community agenda needs to be prioritized and effected as early as yesterday because there is so much to gain, not only from regional unity but also from the vast opportunities that await once we are all on-board.