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EDITORIAL: Integration — Let private sector walk the talk



By The EastAfrican
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Once again, recent events have cast an air of gloom over regional integration.

The 20th Heads of State Summit that was due in Arusha on November 30 aborted for lack of quorum.

The spanner in the wheels was Burundi, which had earlier objected to “inadequate notice” and was, alongside South Sudan, a no-show.

Days later, on December 4, Bujumbura dispatched a caustic missive to Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, the summit chair, in which it laid out a litany of grievances, mainly revolving around its relationship with Rwanda.

Given the missed milestones on key issues and sluggish movement on others, there is no denying that the Community is experiencing a slow puncture.

Just as in the run-up to the collapse of the first EAC 41 years ago, personality clashes, national interests, trade disputes and ideological differences are sucking the air out of the latest effort.

Despite all the despair however, there are fundamental differences between then and now that make a break-up unlikely.

The economic decay across the region that prompted the new conversation about regional integration created a redistribution of economic power that has made East Africa more interdependent than ever before.

Also, with six member states, procrastination or even total withdrawal by a few, would not be catastrophic as there is still bound to be a “coalition of the willing” to soldier on.

Significantly also, the citizens have assumed an unprecedented role in driving synergies in the region.

Where parastatal organisations governed much of the interstate business, our indomitable cross-border traders have transformed regional commerce, creating a semblance of balanced trade between member states.

And therein lies the hope for an enduring EAC. To achieve the grand vision, member states may do well to pare down the ambitions of the integration project and break it into manageable chunks.

The story of the European Union too, could be a source of inspiration.

Championed by men of diverse backgrounds, the formation of the EU was premised on a desire for a peaceful, united and prosperous Europe.

This simple and clear motivation was enough to unite around a common vision nations that had been bitter enemies in two bloody wars less than a decade earlier.

Not to be ignored also was the role of the European Coal and Steel Community, set up in the early 1950s as the foundation on which much of the political and economic structures of the current EU were built.

From an initial six members, the EU today is a union of 28 countries.

Britain has voted to leave, yet the conversation among members is more about how not to let this disrupt the benefits to the bloc’s people. East Africa could take a leaf out of this book.

In contrast to World Wars One and Two, the only major conflict between member states was between Uganda and Tanzania 40 years ago and the two appear to have put that part of their history behind them.

So most of the current hiccups could be circumvented or made inconsequential by giving private business a greater role.

The political leadership should allow formations such as the East African Business Council to set the agenda for integration while they focus on creating the tools for actualising those ambitions.

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