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Sunday 14 July 2024

Opinion

Can the East African Community become a true union?

4 July, 2024
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Some head of state in EAC countries
Photo via EAC X account
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Can the people of the East African Community (EAC) overcome cross-border suspicions and create a cohesive union of its 302.2 million citizens?  

East Africans, both citizens and governments, seem half-hearted about integration. 

Many citizens are even unaware of the existence of a bloc that allows them to move and trade easily in a region that spans from the Indian to the Atlantic Oceans. Government leaders oscillate between protectionism and the desire to assert influence in the region. Expressions of pan-regionalism and its mutual benefits rarely go beyond mere pronouncements. This is neither new nor unique to the EAC, as national governments often clash on matters of trade, movement of goods, services, and labour, when seeking cooperation on the multilateral level.  

These matters are often subject to constant discussion and adjustment, with several theories emerging to make sense of what drives supranational institution building and how states relate to each other in these settings. However, the EAC is often charged with facing more fundamental challenges. There are perennial complaints that the leaders and national governments of each country have not really gone beyond ratifying the founding documents of the bloc. The “Africrats” at the EAC have failed to communicate the utility of the bloc to their people, who do not yet see themselves as mutual beneficiaries of free movement and trade, let alone a distinct budding political and economic community. 

However, the relationship between the people of the eight member states is characterised by negative stereotypes, acrimony, suspicion, and conflicting worldviews. In the age of increased internet access and smartphones, any citizen of one country can make social media commentary that may be informative but potentially also negatively stereotypical, inciting hate, violence, territorialism, or any other outrage against citizens of the other countries. Not a week goes by without Twitter, Facebook, or WhatsApp groups carrying some insufferable content about the behaviour of people from one of the member states living in another and supposedly becoming a menace to the locals. How can the EAC create better cultural, historical, and political understanding among the citizens of the region? Can the obstacles to mutual understanding be identified and addressed through special institutions that propagate commonalities, contextualise the differences, and celebrate the rich diversity of people and cultures? As things stand, this diversity seems like a liability to the union, as arguments become heated and passions run high.  

South Sudanese youth complain from time to time about Ugandan, Kenyan or Somali labourers who supposedly take their jobs away in Juba or dominate their markets and exclude the locals. Many Kenyans always express unhappiness with Somalis who are accused of business success and evasion of taxes, money laundering, racism and other such crimes, not to say anything about suspicion of terrorism. Both Ugandans and Kenyans murmur every now and then about South Sudanese who have stolen unimaginable wealth from their country and with it have corrupted the housing market or have sent their youth for studies and are misbehaving on Kampala or Nairobi or Nakuru streets and in night clubs. Congolese see Rwandans as neo-colonizers on account of a long history of Rwanda’s involvement in Congo’s wars and mineral extraction. The DRC’s former foreign minister during the Kabila era, Raymond Tshibanda, said the country’s decision to join the bloc was “thoughtless, even irresponsible”. Paul Kagame has reiterated his readiness to go to war in the DRC again. The list goes on.  

Citizens also decry the behaviour of their leaders. South Sudanese and Somali leaders who frequently travel to Nairobi, own property, conduct business, and flaunt their wealth have particularly attracted a lot of disdainful commentary from Kenyans on social media. For example, when Ugandans or Kenyans see a tall and jet-black South Sudanese individual, there is often an uncanny assumption that they are wealthy and arrogant. 

The problem for South Sudanese people is that this stereotype is rooted in the plunder of their country, of which they are also victims. South Sudan is a 'hunting ground,' as Professor PLO Lumumba has described it, where the elite of that country, from cabinet ministers to army generals, make their money and then transfer it to East African capitals to pay for property, rents, school fees, medical services, and luxury shopping. Many Kenyan commentators say that these people have distorted everything from property prices to breaching or corrupting local laws through bribery and intimidation, and that their behaviour should be controlled by the state. The problem is that such wealthy individuals are very few compared to millions of poor South Sudanese who are simply seeking refuge from war and violence in their country, some of whom live in refugee camps and only infrequently visit major towns—a far cry from the lavish lifestyle of the few beneficiaries of corruption. 

The targeting of South Sudanese and Somalis in Kenya is linked to the frequent trips to Kenya by their leaders, President Salva Kiir and President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, respectively. This is said to encourage their citizens to take up life in Kenya with their lavish spending that distorts prices. One person said: “not hating on them, but they have messed up a lot of things we used to enjoy as Kenyans.” Another said: “we need to have a very strict policy for admitting South Sudanese nationals to Kenya. How do you come to Kenya and operate arrogantly, with impunity and total ‘madharau’ for the indigenous Kenyans, yet your country is a failed state populated with a bunch of arrogant primitive looters?” Of course, these comments are countered by other Kenyans who have closely interacted with South Sudanese or other immigrants and see no problems with them. In fact, many blame the government of Kenya for supposedly giving them privileges that enable them to act snobbishly, forgetting that they legally entered because of their status as East Africans. 

I have asked some South Sudanese and Somalis in Nairobi and Nakuru what they thought about these social media comments on their communities by citizens of their host country. The majority say this is nothing more than encounters with isolated cases where an individual might be uncouth. Some say it is due to mere stereotypes that have no basis. Some of it is jealousy because of their lifestyle, which is beyond reach for Kenyan youth and made worse by Ruto’s fiscal policy. 

One respondent said: “we South Sudanese in Kenya can never find work, and we are not even allowed to work here, so we are not taking away any jobs from the Kenyans… how are we negatively impacting this country that we love?” Another said: “Kenyans go to South Sudan to work… South Sudanese come to Kenya to spend; we are good for Kenya.”  

Yet another said: “regarding being lavish and distorting the markets, why can’t our brothers and sisters in this country see this as a contribution to their economy, especially since we bring our money or receive remittances from our diaspora relatives in the west and spend it here, benefiting Kenya?” There is also fear that immigrants are involved in crime, but these are lazy stereotypes which ignore the fact that crime has risen in Kenya in recent months as the economy has continued to deteriorate.  

Are these just low-key grumbles born of misinformation and stereotypes, or could they escalate to diplomatic rancour within the EAC? On the occasions when they escalate to the level where governments must intervene, these issues can strain relationships. When South Sudan’s interior ministry banned Ugandan boda boda drivers on account of their alleged involvement in crime, it caused anger in Kampala and there were demands for retaliation. However, it seems that most governments do not take these citizens’ impressions seriously, and the attitudes of citizens about the community have not been sufficiently studied to see how they affect cooperation. What is their potential to keep the EAC from achieving the desired integration and realising its small part in the broader African aims of solidarity and cooperation?