Parlez vous Français? Huzungumza Kiswahili? I hope you speak one of the languages — French or Kiswahili — because the East African Community (EAC) is likely to admit the Democratic Republic of Congo, the vast French—and Kiswahili-speaking neighbour.
DR Congo has officially requested the current EAC chairman, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, to join the regional bloc. That means there will be new French influence into the community, and potentially quite a lot. It is just Burundi, and to some degree Rwanda, which traditionally were francophone colonies within the EAC.
Rwanda and Burundi combined are some 22 million people; the DRC alone is a whopping 81 million and the third-most populous country in Africa.
This means there might be 103 million members in the EAC coming from francophone colonies and a massive influx of business opportunities.
Don’t worry, however, if you don’t speak French: Kiswahili is a recognised national language in the Congo and is widely spoken in its eastern provinces. This is also where business opportunities will lie.
But will the Congo really be admitted? Aren’t there procedures for these things? Yes, there is. Just ask Somalia, which also requested to enter the community but has been sidelined since 2012. However, the Congo is very different, and leaders will take notice.
The stipulations for membership are spelt out in Article 3 of the EAC Treaty, of which the Congo performs quite well on all of them.
To mention just a few, the following will be taken into account: Good governance; geographical proximity; and contribution to integration.
In terms of governance, the Congo recently passed one of its most crucial tests. It had its first peaceful transition of power since independence in 1960, not to mention that it was to an opposition party. Despite doubts on whether the election was fair, this is, nonetheless, a huge feat.
Borders five EAC members
On geographical proximity, the Congo in fact borders five EAC members (every other member state except Kenya). Its admission would, therefore, be huge for geographical integrity but also cross-border trade.
Regarding contribution to integration, the Congo already has many similarities to the EAC members. Both have large Bantu populations and rely significantly on Kiswahili for socioeconomic transactions. Furthermore, the Congo has, for a long time, been a part of East Africa’s trade network, through Kenyan and Tanzanian ports.
These are good reasons. The President of Tanzania, Dr John Pombe Magufuli, has already publicly supported DRC’s bid.
Should the Congo join the EAC, Kiswahili will take on new importance. Kiswahili is the region’s common language, widely used between tribal groups in eastern Congo as it has been in Kenya and Tanzania. Now, it could also be the common language between colonial languages—specifically, English and French.
The increasingly influential EAC would now be cut down the middle between formerly francophone and anglophone colonies. In the west is Congo, Rwanda and Burundi with French and in the east Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and South Sudan with English.
Already, it has been observed anecdotally that East African leaders have, from time to time, relied on Kiswahili for communication when not every leader speaks English or French. Similarly, business leaders and their associates can use Kiswahili when there is an Anglo-Franco clash—and, perhaps, even when there isn’t, for their pride in the language.
It would seem there was wisdom in the decision of Founding presidents Jomo Kenyatta and Julius Nyerere in making Kiswahili the national language in Kenya and Tanzania, respectively. The language has united across tribal boundaries and is now uniting across colonial ones. As the EAC continues to promote integration, so will Kiswahili be in the limelight.