Friday, 18 January 2013

East Africa needs common culture for real integration

What East Africa needs is to develop a common cultural perspective. It should not be taboo to comment on politics in Rwanda and Uganda or do so only at one’s personal risk.

The East African Community came to the end of 2012 with the Common Market Protocol (CMP) halfway in its third fiscal year, which, despite the hurdles and challenges in the way of its implementation, is quite a commendable achievement for deeper regional integration.

That the region was able to pick up the pieces more than 20 years after the former East African Community was unilaterally broken by greedy individuals in 1977 is in itself an enduring lesson that the member nations need to work closely together for the broader benefits of their communities and people.

There is no question of one country being “the stronger economy” and the others weaker. In fact, that was the mistake of 1977 when a few individuals in Kenya brought the former community to a halt and toasted champagne in celebration only to realize some 20 years later that they made a big mistake.

What East Africa needs is to develop a common cultural perspective. It should not be taboo to comment on politics in Rwanda and Uganda or do so only at one’s personal risk. Neither should the rest of the region sit idly and watch the stage being set for a repeat to the 2007/08 post-election violence in Kenya as the country readies for General Election on March 4.

Membership to the EAC should come with a price. Members should be suspended if seen to be bent on tribal politics and other forms of discrimination that cause suffering to the people.

It is not a decision to be taken lightly but, certainly, if nationals of one country cannot find common ground for mutual respect how can they respect the rest of East Africans as the CMP implies and states?

Height of hypocrisy

Institutional mechanisms for integration are important but of paramount importance is the need to evolve a race called East Africans, distinguished not by their common genetic features but through a commonality of socio and moral values that in turn inform the way they do business and relate with the rest of the world.
It would be the height of hypocrisy to say as an East African I am not disturbed by the tribal politics of Kenya or that people are busy sealing tribal pacts and alliances to ensure they emerge the dominant political force in the country come the polls.

Let me be not misunderstood. Cries of social and economic marginalization are not peculiar to Kenya. They are everywhere in the region, including in my native Tanzania.
But Kenya becomes different in that, instead of fighting the tendency, it actually exploits it as the major political and socio-economic capital that drives the nation.

That can hardly set the example of the kind of East Africa that the people of this region want. The primary motive for coming together was the recognition that East Africans share common fate as people of a shared geographic entity.

If there is no change of the mindset to accommodate that bigger picture, then whatever “milestones” of integration achieved would actually amount to useless effort.

I know there are those who would say there is no such a thing as a perfect society. But all societies, in order to enjoy peace and tranquility adhere to a delicate balance of the dominant paradigm.
If the dominant reality is tribalism, self respecting people cannot simply shrug off their shoulders and say: “Well, such is the truth.” It is not. Tribalism is simply evil.

In fact, there is growing religious intolerance in Tanzania too, which should also be kept on a strict watch list or risk suspension. The government has done a commendable job stemming a possible explosion of violence but the important thing is the attitude. 

If there is no change in the general attitude, then it is better that people be sidelined a bit in order for them to find new bearing. For me, that is what it means by “people-centered” integration as the EAC treaty underscores.