Integration – A question of hard choices

The curious case of Sylvia Mulinge, the Kenyan who four months ago was appointed to head Vodacom Tanzania is fast becoming an allegory of the increasingly uncomfortable cohabitation that the East African Community is.

Ms Mulinge is yet to take up her position because the government is yet to endorse a work permit for her.

The messages around the delay have been far from clear, with authorities at one point suggesting that there were Tanzanians who could do the job while more recently, Labour Minister Gaudensia Kabaka said the applicant had not satisfied all requirements for a work permit.

Ms Mulinge’s experience mirrors the frustrations of hundreds of professionals across East Africa, who are caught in that grey space between regional protocols that promise free movement of labour on one hand, and national interests that would rather see all positions “localised.”

The practice is so pervasive that some countries, such as Rwanda, have opted to hedge against such frustrations by negotiating bilateral agreements on labour such as the one that exists with Kenya.

With hindsight, however, it is not surprising that reality should be contradicting the spirit and promise of East African integration.

The region’s economies have performed sub-optimally and therefore failed to generate the growth that would have supported a vibrant cross-border demand for goods and factors of production.

Matters have not been helped by rapid population growth that has created a bulge of hungry and angry unemployed youth. This is illustrated best by the case of South Sudan, which despite its dire need for human capital, has still gone ahead to place walls in the way of workers from the rest of East Africa.

The economic contradiction is further demonstrated by the on-and-off spats over trade in basic commodities such as sugar.

At present, Uganda and Tanzania are locked in a war over sugar and rice. While Uganda does not believe that Tanzania enjoys a lower unit cost in the production of rice and actually has a surplus, Dar is also convinced that Uganda’s declared 80,000 tonne sugar surplus is a mirage.

On the surface, these may appear like instances of selective amnesia or convenient cherry-picking. But looked at in their wider context, they represent the bad faith at the heart of the East African integration project.

Leaders are yet to take the leap of faith that would allow them to accept the inevitable disruption and pains associated with achieving a fully functional East African Community.

For instance, it is only to be expected that some production units will suffer closure in some partner states. Or that unscrupulous business people will indeed exploit loopholes to smuggle in contraband.

But with free movement of labour, a fully operational Customs Union and common targets for economic growth, population control, inflation and the exchange rate, most of the challenges attracting rash measures; are actually self-limiting.

The EAC has been here before. Its disintegration in 1977 was the result of the failure by partner states to find a rational response to nationalistic pressures. The choices back then were as stark as they are today.

ORIGINAL POST  – By The EastAfrican

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