East African political parties met in Nairobi a few days ago and, predictably, squabbled and argued over regional integration.
There were the same old cries about how “Kenyans would take over”, “steal our land” and so forth.
It is common to hear the argument that “politicians will again kill the East African Community as did the first one in 1977”.
I say no, they won’t. One reason is that this time, apart from the headquarters in the Tanzanian city of Arusha, there are no “common assets” to grab.
So there is little incentive to break up the EAC.
Secondly, the EAC is no longer a small-minded English-speaking club of former British colonies, thanks to the entrance of Burundi and Rwanda.
Thirdly, among other things, this means that a break-up will mostly be through one country pulling out.
There are now enough countries in the EAC for at least three to remain in it and create a new type of common market and regional cooperation project (which is why, strategically, future membership for South Sudan and Republic of Sudan, unsuitable as the two might seem as partners right now, is strategically important in the long-term).
Fourthly, and most importantly, is that the role of governments in the EAC today really is not the big force shaping regional integration.
Earlier this year, in an article about the Nigerian film industry, Nollywood (the world’s largest in terms volume put out, though the quality might be crap) in The Economist magazine gave us a clue about how regional integration forces are playing out in Africa.
It said that the amazing thing about Nollywood is that it has grown in Nigeria, West Africa, Africa and lately the world, with little to no marketing money spent on it.
In fact, there are many things, you could argue, that make it tough for Nollywood to spread.
The lousy technical quality, the juju-dripping dullings plot, and some of its nasty producers and directors who use deadly methods that include metal bars, baseball bats, guns, and all forms of torture against illegal distributors.
However, the ingenuity of the West African pirates and smugglers has overcome dangerous producers, border police and customs, the lack of roads and electricity, and put a bootleg copy of a Nollywood CD in every African home which is interested in the stuff.
Now, Nollywood producers, who didn’t invest a penny in marketing, are cashing in on the market created by pirates and becoming fabulously wealthy.
Take a few examples in East Africa, beginning with Uganda “First Gossip”, soft-porn, and scandal paper, Red Pepper.
The Red Pepper is slowly becoming East Africa’s unofficial gossip newspaper published in English, without its owners spending a shilling advertising it in Rwanda, Kenya or Tanzania.
It is spread by the thousands of students from those countries who read it in Uganda when they go home on holidays and take the occasional copy, or spread its exploits by word of mouth.
Add to that, the hundreds of small traders who ply the Nairobi-Kampala-Kigali route by bus.
Now let us go back to that resentment and fear of Kenyans as land- and job-grabbers in the EAC.
Due to this distrust, some EAC countries have chosen to observe the East African spirit and do only “safe” business with them.
One of these areas is allowing Kenya TV stations, like KBC, Citizen and NTV, to broadcast signals into their countries.
Now there is nothing that the Kenyan state will ever do that will equal the effect of what The Citizen, KBC and NTV are doing to advance its interests in the EAC.
These stations are spreading a taste for Kenyan goods, jokes, and other cultural products that the Kenyan Government would not afford.
So there is your irony. Kenyan “cultural imperialism”, if you will, is far more harmful than its cooking oil, unga and labour combined.
I went to a remote village in eastern Uganda a while back, and the chaps there didn’t know about Tusker beer.
But when it came to Papa Shirandula, I couldn’t stop them talking. He, and not Tusker brewers EABL, is the regional integrator that rivals should fear.
A version of this article was first published in Daily Nation’s sister newspaper, Daily Monitor, in Uganda.