Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Of Trading Partners, Integration and the East African Community

With various interconnectivity projects between Uganda and Tanzania; Ethiopia and Kenya and Kenya and Rwanda, the region has taken action to improve trade competitiveness through the improvement of regional hard and soft infrastructure, transparency and predictability of trade and the general quality of the business environment- Report by UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA)

“A prosperous, competitive, secure, stable and politically united East Africa” is the running call for the East Africa Community. Sure enough, cooperation and integration in the East African region has deepened and widened but if you ask me, more can be achieved. Effort and good will from the partner countries (Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda) are required to achieve Mzee Julius Nyerere’s dream of gradual, regional integration leading up to a United States of Africa. The community is the only bloc to have taken concrete steps to integrate the three pillars of development; economic development, social inclusion and environmental protection. Realists however, will argue that this is a pipe dream as national interests are the driving force in all relations among states. Liberalists on the other hand, state that man is inherently good and common good is the guiding principle. By extension therefore, integration and cooperation is an achievable reality. The ultimate goal of the East African Community is to develop an East African Federation.
Article 5 (2) of the Treaty on the Establishment of the East African Community envisaged integration among the countries of the East Africa to progress from a Customs Union, a Common Market, Monetary Union and ultimately a Political Federation. The Common Market is my area of discussion in this essay. The pillars of the Common Market include free movement of labour, goods, services, capital and the right of establishment. EAC integration is people-centred, thus in the long run should nurture a bond of eastafricaness with a distinct East African identity.
The first advantage of the common market is that East African citizens are able to move freely from one partner country to another with minimal identification documentation. These harmonized services are a major step in deepening integration as well as facilitating cooperation on matters of defence, information sharing and immigration policies. This will make the region attractive for service providers, businesses, students and other East Africans who wish to tap into this potential. David Mitrany, a scholar on integration, states that this free movement of people enhances elite complimentary. In a way therefore, this EAC debate will achieve this objective as students from the partner states will congregate to debate about their region on behalf of their respective states.
This year, I visited the Namanga border and I must say I was impressed with the fastidiousness in processing documents. I also noticed the computerized systems in place, which further quickened the process of document verification and the automatic two-week allowance to stay in any of the partner states. Airports also have East African immigration tills and friendly officers who assist travellers in the region. The Common Market Protocol provides for East African citizens to work and own land and property in any partner states. This therefore provided an environment for both formal and informal businesses in the partner states.
Considering that harmonization of trade policies is a prerequisite of the Common Market, national interests have been the major impediment to these efforts. Kenya can be said to be more capitalist than the other partners. Therefore, national interests camouflaged as profits and benefits for the Kenyan citizen have sidelined the spirit of equality of member states. Kenya can to some extent be said to be using thy neighbour for selfish ends: benefiting at the expense of the other EA partners. Due to taxes and other product charges that are not harmonized, there is a huge difference in the cost of similar commodities in the region. This splits the market as people are most likely to buy the cheaper products. Nonetheless, some traders have found a way around this predicament by use of alternative illegal routes in order to carry out business at cheaper costs. This means that the region loses vital revenue which can be used in infrastructure development. For instance, truck drivers noted the poor state of some roads linking the partner states in the region.
The expansive EA Market is not proportional to the human resources manning it. Understaffing in the customs office is a nightmare and few personnel are in charge of processing the large population who transverse the region, particularly in Uganda. Furthermore, the lack of banking/ currency bureau facilities is yet another hindrance. This is coupled by the fact that different currencies mean that tax paid by Tanzanians when importing goods to Kenya is not the same in value as that paid when importing goods to Tanzania. Hopefully, the introduction of a single currency will avert this issue. Other disadvantages include implementation constraints, lack of critical technical capabilities as well as logistical and technical resources.
In conclusion, the EAC – being people centred – ought to have mechanisms in place to create a sense of eastafricaness as well as dialogue from the EAC Secretariat to the common mwananchi  and more involvement with young people. Additionally, more needs to be achieved to empower women’s involvement in the integration process. One promising effort is the East African Women in Business Platform (EAWiBP) and Strategic Plan which is committed to equity and mainstreaming gender in social and economic development. As I hinted in the beginning, more can be achieved for regional integration in the East African Region, as the Common Market is one of the corner-stones for the steady growth of the EA region and ultimately a Political Federation. It may be shaky now, but the foundation can be firmer and stronger; it is just a matter of time, political will and support from partner states.

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