Connect to share and comment

Opinion: East Africa getting it together

5 nations of East African Community are building a new economic and political union.

Rwandan voters at dawn
A new era of regional cooperation dawns in East Africa. Here Rwandan voters walk to the polls at sunrise during Rwanda's presidential election, in Kigali, Aug. 9, 2010. (Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters)

BOSTON — East Africa is coming together, with a single customs system in place since July and a common currency based on the East African shilling set to be established in 2012.

And there are  plans to unite the five member nations of the East African Community with a single government  in 2015. When fully realized, the region’s 133 million people (speaking both English and French) will create Africa’s first effective supra-national political arrangement.

The combined GDP of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda is about $150 billion, and growing. The mutual synergies of all five nations should prove to be powerful in attracting outside investment and in mobilizing resources internal to East Africa.

Already there is the beginning, sometimes too tentative, of a broad-based free movement of capital and labor across the region. Common tariffs are starting to be applied. Laws are being altered within the five countries to harmonize their economic and political responsibilities, and civil and criminal codes are being updated.

A single Community passport is now available and a single visa, helpful for tourism, is now being organized.

Although their respective defense forces are not about to merge, the five nations have started to create a common strategic approach to military threats, and especially to terrorism.

Ghana’s founding President Kwame Nkrumah sought a United States of Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, but his ambitions were judged premature by nearly all of the then new presidents and nations of independent Africa.

After that the colonial cooperation in East Africa between Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya was continued after their respective independence celebrations in the much vaunted first East African Community of 1967 to 1977.

But capitalist Kenya and socialist Tanzania never really felt able to work together, and Kenya — the richest and most industrialized of the three countries — largely disdained what was happening in Tanzania.

After the first East African Community collapsed, many years went by where it seemed that supra-national regional groups in Africa would not succeed. In West Africa there were some supposed mergers and economic cooperation arrangements but they never amounted to much. The Economic Community of the West African States (ECOWAS) has existed for decades, but its common market pretensions remain unrealized.

The one success has been South Africa's customs and common currency union — bringing Swaziland and Lesotho together with South Africa to share the rand currency and to participate in joint customs arrangements. Botswana belongs to the customs union but has long had its own currency, the pula. The South Africa Customs Union was problematical during the apartheid years, but has proved sturdy and mutually beneficial for member states since the mid-1990s. 

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has the same dreams but with 15 disparate members it is unwieldy and because of Zimbabwe's troublesome behavior is not ready to move forward into a fully fledged economic community.