An empowered citizenry is a crucial pathway to real EAC integration

By Roy Rugumayo

Just the other day, I was privileged to have been part of a panel with some brilliant young people sharing about the role of youth in fostering the integration of the East African Community.

This very important conversation was organised by the Ligi Ya Vijaana, an entity of youths from across the expanse of the EAC working to make their meaningful contribution to the widening and deepening cooperation. 

Given the limited time allocations associated with panels at conferences, I thought I should put some of my thoughts in writing for some members of the audience who expressed a liking for my line of thought, those who might not have understood me, but also a few people I know that did not attend the seminar but may care to know what I think.

The East African Community (EAC) is a regional intergovernmental organisation of seven (7) Partner States. These are; the Republic of Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of Kenya, the Republic of Rwanda, the Republic of South Sudan, the Republic of Uganda, and the United Republic of Tanzania. 

The headquarters of EAC are stationed in Arusha, Tanzania.

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The EAC Summit of Heads of State admitted the Federal Republic of Somalia into the East African Community on 24th November 2023. The Federal Republic of Somalia signed the Treaty of Accession to the EAC Treaty on 15th December.

Somalia will become a full member once the instruments of ratification of the EAC Treaty are deposited with the Secretary-General.

The four pillars of the community are customs union, common market, monetary union and political federation. The history of attempts at integration of East Africa is well known,  especially the recent 1977 unceremonious breakup. 

The current revitalised establishment is a product of the New Bold arrangement of 1999 and continues to gain momentum. 

The crust of my thinking is that only empowered people  (especially financial) can enjoy the benefits of integration or even meaningfully participate in undertaking it. Those with a considerable amount of money can fully enjoy the benefits Customs Union, a Common Market, a Monetary Union and a Political Federation.

Even with an open border (with little or no Visa requirements), it will take UGX 120, 000/- in bus fares from Kampala to Nairobi. This is not an amount any ordinary person will throw. 

Our subsistent farmers producing less than 100 kilograms of maize have no place exporting it to a market in South Sudan and therefore enjoy the benefits of the 11 million people market. 

Only the liberated Aponye (may he rest in peace) and Mandela Millers producing thousands of metric tonnes will continue to hugely benefit as farmers and middlemen. 

A great event meant to foster people-to-people integration on the beautiful beaches of Zanzibar will benefit only those with the capacity to spend some USD 1000. Not an amount you find around many people. 

The integration has huge benefits,  to be enjoyed by those who are empowered enough to tap into them. Therefore, I opine that it will take the deliberate efforts of governments of the various member states to empower their young entrepreneurs and innovators to have the capacity to compete and benefit from the integration. Those that do will benefit more at the expense of the less proactive ones.

With a land area of 4.8 million square kilometres and a combined Gross Domestic Product of US$ 305.3 billion, the community bears great strategic and geopolitical significance and prospects for the 301.8 million people.

The trade between countries continues to grow regardless of a few periodic hiccups here and there. Kenya Imports from Uganda of Corn (maize) alone,  was US$223.6 million during 2022, according to the United Nations COMTRADE database on international trade.

Uganda’s leading exports to South Sudan include cereals, maize and wheat flour, sugar, vegetable oils, beer, soft drinks, iron, steel, cement and motor vehicle re-exports. Cumulatively, according to the Bank of Uganda report, Uganda’s exports to South Sudan increased to $503.3m (as of 8th April 2022). 

These benefits are immense, only for those proactive in producing these goods and services, a result of empowerment to do so.

So many opportunities within the mining and extractives market are available across the hugely untapped natural resources across the region. 

The DRC is one to closely look at. The Democratic Republic of Congo is considered the world’s richest country in terms of wealth in natural resources. Most of the raw mineral deposits remain untapped and are worth an estimated $24 trillion. These deposits include the world’s largest coltan reserves and considerable amounts of cobalt.

Other sources have stated that Untapped mineral deposits in DR Congo are estimated to be worth over $35 trillion, including cobalt, gold, diamonds, petroleum, timber, potash, lead, zinc, uranium, copper, phosphates, manganese, natural gas, coltan, niobium, tantalum, iron ore, lithium, beryllium, rare earth, zirconium, titanium, and germanium.

Congo boasts one of the largest and highest-quality copper reserves globally, with some mines estimated to contain grades significantly higher than the global average.

Even with the free movement of labour across the region,  only those who have given the correct kind of education and skills to their people in this industry will benefit. 

Somalia, sitting on the Gulf of Aden – one of the world’s most important shipping routes – tens of thousands of vessels pass through Somali waters every year.

Logistics and large-scale handling of goods here is a multibillion-dollar venture. Who else could possibly tap into this, even with open access to members of the EAC can gain from it?

The new agenda of the EAC is a people-driven integration where people are free to move, trade, to settle wherever they wish as easily as possible, and with limited or no restrictions.

The economy of Jumuiya (as EAC is profoundly referred to) valued at USD 163.4 billion is way smaller than the global market for pork (USD 256.34 billion) or tobacco (USD 873.20 Billion).

Cheap talk about which of the countries is bigger in the economy is indeed a contestation of dwarfs about who’s taller, especially when we have an opportunity to grow together by huge leaps and bounds to be the biggest economic transformation ever known to human civilization.  

The people of the region are hugely interlinked. We have people who share language,  cultures and beliefs living on sides separated by imaginary colonial lines. Our shared interests in social economic transformation, as opposed to identity, should be the primary driver of our progressive people.  

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Interests in producing goods and services and finding a market for them across the board of the growing  308 million shared population. Only then will the integration make sense.

Governments that intentionally improve the standards of their people, empowering them financially to be able to easily access capital and create wealth, have knowledge and skills will most definitely easily dwarf their vulnerable counterparts in countries that don’t prioritize that. 

The writer is an enthusiastic integrationist and student leader.

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