In May 1969, Julius Nyerere addressed his TANU party conference on African integration.
He spoke with sincerity and affection: “The brotherhood of the peoples of the different countries in this area is not just a matter of attending each other’s party meetings or having periodic heads of state conferences. Our brotherhood is a deep ocean of shared knowledge, mutual responsibilities, and interlocking affections.”
Although careful to recognise that different political agendas, economic strategies and leaders’ personal differences created divisions between neighbours, Nyerere also argued that ‘our brotherhood is that of peoples conscious of a common history of oppression, exploitation and humiliation and a common determination to build a new future.”
It was not, however, simply a common history that East Africa’s states shared in 1969. Even by today’s standards, the infrastructural ties between Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania were impressive.
The neighbours shared an airline, a postal and telecommunications operator, a railway and harbours authority and a currency union. They were meant to share much more; independence was intended to be swiftly followed by federation.
We know now that this first attempt at East African integration was doomed long before Nyerere’s speech.
The project came to naught for several reasons— including suspicions of Britain’s motives in suggesting the plan for the East African Federation, the Cold War, divergent economies, competing political ideologies and individual ambitions.
Nevertheless, hopes for closer ties continued under the auspices of the East African Common Services Organisation and stumbled on until the demise of the East African Community in 1977.
LESSONS OF THE 1960s
As the leaders of today’s self-styled “Coalition of the Willing” announce at every summit new plans for faster, bigger and stronger integration, the lessons of the 1960s are salutary. (READ: EAC deals illegal, says Tanzania)
More thought could be given to why, in such favourable conditions, the first experiment with integration came to such a dismal end. Some thought too must be given to the price of continued isolation of Tanzania.
The leaders of Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda cannot be faulted for their ambition.
In the space of a few hours last weekend, they discussed South Sudan’s membership of the EAC, tender for the oil pipeline, the customs union and possible political federation. These are all perfectly good policies. In particular, it makes sense to plan and finance pipelines, refineries, transport networks and electricity grids at the regional level.
But are these policies alone strong enough to withstand possible political and economic challenges ahead?
The champions of integration will hope so, but the lessons of the 1960s suggest otherwise. Economic growth is not a permanent condition. Markets and cycles change and will, at some point, combine to divert investment elsewhere and limit the capacity of governments to fund infrastructure at current levels. Nor is the current political stability in the region a given.
If integration is to survive economic downturns and political instability, then it will have to be rooted in the political imaginations of citizens across East Africa.
In essence, to return to Nyerere, it means discovering the “deep ocean of shared knowledge, mutual responsibilities, and interlocking affections” that encompasses this region.
East Africa needs to be more than just pipelines and customs unions if the EAC is to survive future challenges. A “common history” and “a common determination to build a new future” are necessary, and both in large part need Tanzania.
Professor Branch teaches politics at Warwick University, UK