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OBBO: East Africa is in a mess because of its own success



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East African leaders are not shy travellers. When it comes to assembling in faraway China, they are there. When it’s time to turn up in frigid Russia, they are there.

However, when it comes to hopping over to Arusha, in Tanzania, to meet over our East African Community affairs, as was supposed to happen on November 30, it is a trip too far. The summit has now been postponed to January, and even possibly February 2020, who knows?

Reports said that Burundi requested the postponement, as it has often done in the past. Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza, ever since he nearly lost his crown in a botched coup in 2015, has become like a creature that doesn’t leave the safety of its forest. He hasn’t set foot outside Burundi since.

President John Magufuli once or so in a year might make a foray outside Tanzania, but otherwise he’s hidebound. However, he makes up for his frugality in flying, by quite extravagant convoys on the ground, if some of the videos that circulate on social media are to be believed.

Taken together with the bitter feuds between some of the EAC members, and recent data showing that intra-Africa trade has flatlined, although its trade with other regions in Africa has increased, it gives the impression that the East African integration project has run into a brick wall.

Not so fast. East African economies, minus the South Sudan and Burundi basket cases, are enjoying the fastest growth in Africa. Overall, travel in the region couldn’t be easier. You can go almost anywhere in East Africa with your national ID. We continue to intermarry at healthy rates.


Where we can’t trade freely because of crazy state rules or politics, we are smuggling across borders happily. There is a lot of movement for sports men and women to travel across borders and play in neighbouring countries’ clubs.

We make the same jokes about our leaders, and on social media the brothers and sisters in the region often help in attacking a neighbouring government or ruler that is tormenting its people, or has shuttered the Internet.

You travel in Uganda, and there is no place that’s too obscure for Kenyan trucks not to be loading up with food. You travel in the Rift Valley and western Kenya, and you will run into more Tororo Cement lorries from Uganda than you can count on your fingers. In parts of eastern Tanzania, their economy is the Ugandan economy.

Apart from the political pissing contests between leaders, East Africa is in trouble for a good, though peculiar, reason—because it has succeeded. The first and second tier issues in East Africa have been sorted.

It’s the next level ones like a monetary union, a political federation, that remain. The thing is, it’s not clear whether East Africa needs to move to the next stage.

The deeper problem seems to be the EAC and its institutions as they are today, were set up for an East Africa that no longer exists, and they are irrelevant. For example, how do we get to a common broadband architecture?

Right now, expecting East African states to deliver on a thing like that is like asking a vulture to deliver a peacock. In the future, surely, we shall get peacocks that will do that.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site [email protected]

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