The heads of the East African Community have began campaigns for the full integration of the region in the next five years following the signing of the Common Market Protocol in Arusha.
The biggest concern now seems to be getting rid of the perceptions that have plagued the union since the East African Community was revived in 1999, 20 years after the first community collapsed.
In Arusha, celebrations of the 10th anniversary was marked by the summit of the five heads of state and a rally at Sheikh Abeid Karume Stadium that was delayed by rain and ended as night fell.
Tanzanians have apparently been the hardest to convince that the integration of the East African Community is an opportunity to profit from the increase in market size and opportunities offered by a borderless region.
Speaking at the rally, Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete, also the new chairman of the East African Community, sought to dispell the perception that Tanzania would become a market for Kenyan goods.
He described Tanzanian negotiators as the ‘toughest’ during the 18-month talks to come up with the protocol signed on Friday at the Arusha International Conference Centre.
“At one point, I had to personally attend the discussions because the negotiators believed only (former president Benjamin) Mkapa and I understood what the EAC is. The fear by most Tanzanians is that we will become a market for Kenyan goods,” said President Kikwete.
He said the sale of Tanzanian goods in Kenya had increased seven-fold since the year 2000, one year after the revival of the community, and by last year stood at $353 million, up from $48.6 million then.
“Sometimes these fears are useless and indeed baseless because the statistics are there to see. To front an agreement that would be bad for Tanzania would be wrong for me, and that’s something I am not prepared to do,” he said.
Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame described the signing of the protocol as a big step forward for the region.
“We are welcoming a new East Africa of common interests and aspirations. The experiences of the last 10 years have shown us that the borders separating us are superficial. It is now upon East Africans to accelerate the pace as the vision of the full integration is now within reach,” he said.
Yoweri Museveni of Uganda immediately said East Africans should prepare to exploit the petrodollars from the oil recently discovered in the north of his country, which would be useful in tbuilding infrastructure.
East African Community officials who spoke to the Sunday Nation bubbled with enthusiasm for the prospect of forming a monetary union by the year 2012 and a political federation by 2015.
Formation of a monetary union would mean the establishment of a common currency for the region, supported by the required institutions such a common central bank.
Deputy secretary-general in charge of infrastructure and planning Alloys Mutabingwa said the current pace of negotiations for the monetary union is impressive, given the history of similar groups lik the European Union.
“The monetary union of the EU took more than 20 years to negotiate. We have set three years as our target, and that tells you how determined we are for the success of this community,” said the official, who joined the EAC secretariat this year.
Friday’s events also marked the beginning of a new regime in July next year when the protocol comes into force with the ratification of the common market protocol by the EAC member states.
This will be done when the protocol is vetted by the necessary bodies, mainly the cabinets and parliaments of member states. It is expected to be a formality since the heads of state have vetted the documents with the assistance of their attorneys-general.
The five AGs gathered after the ceremony to sign their way through piles of documents in two box files for each country.
Mr Mutabingwa said pitfalls and suspicions are part of the natural processes such arrangements confront, especially since “the countries involved are in effect giving up a small part of their sovereignty.”
“Pitfalls and misgivings will always be there, but it is important to have the determination we have, and that’s why you see no state can back away from the EAC,” he said.
Rwanda’s EAC minister Monique Mukaruliza said the ratification process would take a shorter time than in other states as the country was eager to reap the benefits of integration.
In the meantime, said EAC secretary- general Juma Mwapachu, the road ahead is expectedly bumpy, but this should not discourage the expectation that EA citizens could one day describe themselves as East Africans, and not by their nationalities.