The weekly business magazine insert “Smart Company” in the Daily Nation of Tuesday, quoted the World Bank as saying in its latest economic update on Kenya that non-tariff barriers (NTBs) remain the biggest obstacles to free trade in The East African Community.
Non-tariff barriers are things that don’t involve the paying of officially sanctioned taxes and fees (like lengthy paperwork at borders, and police roadblocks).
The biggest critic of NTBs in the EAC in recent times has been Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame. Not surprisingly, because Rwanda exports and imports suffered the most.
A year ago, Kagame said that from Kigali, through Uganda to Mombasa, on a “good day”, a truck from Rwanda would have to go through 36 roadblocks.
Some Rwandese economists have calculated that the trip between Kigali and Mombasa and vice versa accounted for 46 per cent of the costs of several goods in Rwanda!
Of course, there is nothing like NTBs, really. Delayed paperwork can be speeded up through the payment of a bribe. And roadblocks are, well, all about kitu kidogo.
But there are two other reasons. One of them points to the downside of the structure of the EAC.
Following the collapse of the first EAC in 1977, the framers of the current treaty tried to avoid that by having a bloc that is governed by consensus, whose “big” and “small” members have equal say.
That took away the ability of an EAC Big Brother walking around and beating all the stubborn leaders in line like German Chancellor Angela Merkel is doing over the Euro.
However, Merkel can do that for reasons not related to the EU treaty.
Germany has got far deeper pockets than the rest of the Euro-zone nations, and without it, the Euro would be only better than the Zimbabwe dollar four years ago. Being in Germany’s good books makes a difference.
In East Africa, apart from its all-are-equal-in-everyway treaty, the large difference between the economies of the Old EAC Three — Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda — that we saw 20 years, has really narrowed.
In fact, though Kenya is still the largest economy, it is in some respects more dependent on Uganda and Tanzania, than they on it.
If Tanzania and Uganda banned all food (especially maize exports to Kenya), there would be riots in Kenyan towns within months.
If Uganda banned all imports of Kenyan goods, there would be mayhem because the country remains the largest buyer of Kenyan products. Because no country has the power to knock sense into the heads of stubborn partners, the only threat left is court.
President Kagame recently said he would sue the EAC countries that are not acting on NTBs. We all know how that would end up.
Even if the EAC Court sided with Kigali, the other EAC governments would just do what they do with many court rulings — ignore them. Then Kigali would be left to do little more than cry in its handkerchief.
However, I have this suspicion that while on the face of it, NTBs look like they are sabotaging regional co-operation, they are also the reason there is support for the EAC project.
When a truck leaves Kigali and pays bribes in Uganda and Kenya, what it is doing is subsidising the cost of greasing policemen’s elbows.
The Kenyan truck bound for the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and pays off policemen at Ugandan roadblocks subsidises Ugandan bribe-givers.
If no Ugandan or Rwandan trucks passed through Kenya, the cost of sorting out rogue cops at the roadblocks would be borne exclusively by Kenyans, and they would have to pay more.
The vast movement of trucks and buses spreads the pain over a wider area. I think roadblock bribe-payers in East Africa know this deep down, and a few must be secretly glad for it.
I also think that if one took a vote among East Africa’s police and immigration and customs officials, they would find very high support for regional integration.
If it had been left to the police and border officials in northern Uganda and Kenya to decide, they would already have admitted South Sudan, Sudan, and Somalia.
The roads from Mombasa through Uganda, to Rwanda, DR Congo, and South Sudan are dining tables for the region’s police and border officials. It’s why they are also among the safest to travel on in the region.