A very important political activity is taking place across the East African community; the (s)election of members of the East African Legislative Assembly – EALA. The work of these multinational MPs is supposed to affect the destiny of nearly 300 million citizens of the EAC, but the intended beneficiaries do not seem to care. Fundamentally, the apparent public disinterest mainly stems from the fact that the EAC remains a federation on paper but not in the minds and hearts of our leaders.
What is the stake of the ordinary East African in the composition and work of EALA? Where is EALA’s agenda generated and how is the regional legislature’s performance evaluated? The answers to these three and other related questions definitely exist in protocol documents and charters, but little effort has been made to make them known to the East African citizens.
Moreover, elections to EALA are done by the national MPs whose main concern is to dominate the Arusha-based assembly with their partisan party members. If there are any other considerations, they aren’t discernible to the ordinary citizen. So, the ordinary citizen most times doesn’t even know that the EALA elections are taking place.
It is by design that the EALA members are picked by electoral colleges that are the national parliaments, but it is not clear if the aspirations of the East African citizens are well represented in Arusha. For why should member states still be frustrated at the highest level over the non-adherence by the partners to the agreed protocols on trade in the third decade of the EAC, for instance? If the citizens cannot sell and buy freely across the colonial borders as long as they are operating within the law, if citizens cannot move freely in search of work or even pleasure, then where should their grievances be articulated effectively if not in Arusha?
It is a universal philosophy that in unity there is strength. There is possibly no language on the planet that doesn’t have a saying to the effect that we get stronger when we unite and combine forces. But in the EAC it appears that when it matters, our attempts to unite multiply weakness instead of strength. Here are some examples.
Peace and Security
Individually, the EAC member states have strong armies that tenaciously guard their individual territorial integrity, their regional interests and beyond. Tanzania prepared many African nations militarily to secure their freedom and independence and later helped Uganda get rid of its military dictatorship. Uganda’s young army in the late eighties prepared ANC’s fighters who later integrated the South African army. Kenya’s military has been doing peace keeping missions globally for half a century. Rwanda performed a military miracle in Mozambique recently. Burundi went into Somalia at the hardest time to help restore statehood.
But when it comes to mounting a necessary joint military campaign, these mighty armies cannot even get started. Just a month ago, all the EAC armies were conducting impressive joint military maneuvers for two or so weeks in the forested central Ugandan districts of Buikwe and Jinja, with the newest member DR Congo represented by ten military observers. Just as the exercise was coming to an end, a need for deploying the East African Standby Force arose in the DRC. A decision to deploy was taken. Since an exercise that confirmed the interoperability of the EAC armies had just ended, one would have expected deployment to be possible in the shortest time to implement the executive/leadership decision. But the suffering masses who are losing lives because the joint East African force can’t move have no forum to urge action. In this regard, the EALA is failing them. So two weeks later, there are no EAC boots on DRC ground yet. There might never be, in confirmation of EAC’s reverse philosophy that unity promotes weakness.
Water is the cheapest mode of transport known to man and where there is no water, some developed societies dig canals to put water and move goods and persons most cheaply. Lake Victoria which joins the three oldest EAC states should be the busiest transport arena on the continent. Several major towns built on its shores include Kisumu in Kenya, Mwanza, Bukoba, Musoma in Tanzania and Kampala, Masaka, Entebbe, Jinja in Uganda. From forgotten plans drawn six decades ago, Musoma in Tanzania should be the nerve centre connected to Tanga port by rail, tranfering containers on barges to and from eastern Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Soudan, Uganda and even western Kenya. These plans were updated more recently in 2009-2010 in an interstate joint venture between Tanzania and Uganda ministries of transport. The venture went ahead and even invested a million dollars in a feasibility study to develop a route whose pivot would be Musoma where containers would be switched between rail and ferry between Tanga and Bukasa, a potential port north of Kampala. Moreover, at Musoma, barges would connect directly to different ports around Lake Victoria. After the feasibility study, all went quiet – though the dust covered plans must still be available in the two ministries’ offices. For now, Lake Victoria is an empty space in terms of commercial transport. It is mostly used by rudimentary fishing vessels. If there are activities by the EAC to optimize the use of Lake Victoria, they must be a top secret from the citizens whom they are intended to benefit and the EALA has been silent on these delays that negatively impact our development and the well-being of EAC citizens.
The air distance from Nairobi to Mombasa is 440 kilometres, almost the same as Nairobi to Entebbe at 500 kilometres. So the physical cost of flying a plane of the same specifications should be more or less the same. But in reality, a flight ticket from Nairobi to Mombasa is ten times cheaper than Nairobi to Entebbe. Three decades after resolving to ease travel amongst them, even the decision by EAC member countries to form a common market has not yielded the expected benefits for the ordinary citizen. So, East African citizens are punished for trying to travel in the member countries. A flight from East Africa to Dubai costs about the same as an interstate flight within East Africa which is supposedly a common market. Despite uniting into a common market, the East African countries have made air travel a punitive, unaffordable privilege reserved almost only for public officials. The majority of the taxpayers who pay for the officials’ expensive tickets are excluded. And unlike land borders where the citizens can sneak and trade, the individual national air defence radars are super alert to ensure that East Africans can’t fly unless they use the approved companies that collect colossal fares – not for the purpose of providing better services but for the benefit of individual states agencies. Yet again, the EALA – whose members can certainly afford travel costs thanks to our taxes – is nowhere to be seen.
EAC states have failed to even agree on buying their own clothes to develop their industries, and some would rather buy used old clothes that have been worn by other people from overseas than agree to develop local industry. So the enormous resources of the region are for Europe, America and Asia to pick cheaply for their industries while EAC remains undeveloped in its ‘unity’. If EALA which should be strong from the unity of several states cannot save East Africans from wearing used underwear, where can they direct their cry for basic decency to?
The tourism attractions all over East Africa are as extensive as they are fascinating. They present mega opportunities if sold in complementary rather than rival spirit. The fight over marketing Kilimanjaro between Kenya and Tanzania is enormously ridiculous and wasteful, as tourists have to be offloaded from one van to another as they cross between the two countries that are supposedly in the same market. Given the obsessive manner in which our leaders cling to our inherited colonial borders, the so-called “greatest migration on earth” of wildebeests between the two states only continues because Nairobi and Dodoma/Dar haven’t devised ways of issuing the million animals with passports. But the Masaai humans who reside on both sides of the border have to remain separated much as they are very much the same. These funny but costly differences exist between other EAC states as well even though less pronounced. Addressing them is slow because the entrenched philosophy of promoting weakness in unity seems to apply.
For how long can EAC leaders pretend to deepen integration when their actions point to the contrary? And when will the EALA truly represent the aspirations of ordinary citizens?