Opinion: East Africa getting it together

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.

Only the new East African Community II, with its gradual knitting together of common arrangements since 2000, stands ready to launch Africa toward the goal aspired to by Nkrumah.

The East African Community promises to do for Africa what the European Coal and Steel Community, now the European Union, slowly has accomplished for Europe.

East Africa’s signal advance in this century was the addition to the core three countries of Burundi and Rwanda. That brought a new political vitality and drive to the existing troika.

Now that Preisdent Paul Kagame has been resoundingly re-elected in Rwanda, there will be added momentum to continue the forward movement that Kagame, among other presidents, has been demanding. Likewise, Kenya's successful referendum and its new constitution will ease cooperation among the five member states of the community.

That momentum may well result in extended rail and air developments to embrace the logistical and industrial needs of the former Belgian territories. In the distant future there is the possibility of bringing a reconfigured and workable Somalia into the new political entity. Discussions along the same lines with Malawi and Zambia are also in the offing. Together, there is no more potent instrument for positive change in the region and in Africa.

Despite the extraordinary progress in re-knitting and then expanding the community, anxieties and competitive jealousies remain.

Tanzania worries that avaricious Kenyans and Ugandans will use their new freedom to settle and open businesses behind common tariff walls to take economic opportunities from Tanzanians and grab their land as well, according to analysts in the region.

The original three members of the Community worry that the two new countries — both densely populated small countries — with their greater poverty, will absorb proportionally more community resources than is justified. Rwanda’s political role in the community is already disproportionally large, thanks to the assertive leadership of President Paul Kagame.

The East African Community, as it officially has been called since a treaty was ratified in 2000, consists of a summit in which the respective heads of state meeting periodically together; a Council of Ministers which is the main decision-making body; a Coordinating Committee of lesser officials; various sectoral committees charged with policy formulation; an East African Legislative Assembly with representatives from all five countries; and an East African Court of Justice to interpret and bring into conformity the laws of the community. The court may also assume an appeal s role for human rights cases. A secretariat runs the day to day affairs of the community.

The new East African Community may well prove to be the most successful regional body in Africa and a forerunner of a future United States of Africa.

Robert Rotberg was director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict, Harvard Kennedy School and president of the World Peace Foundation until mid-2010.